It’s like a family. It’s a basketball franchise that keeps a certain character. Players that used to play for the Jazz still come back and support each other. It’s very important. – Andrei Kirilenko
With Ivan Drago-like hair and a late-career dragon tattoo covering his back, Andrei Kirilenko was one of the more intimidating forwards in basketball. His nickname, "AK-47," and tendency to swat shots into the stands didn’t soften his image.
But these days, Kirilenko is a disciplined family man who moved on to the next phase in his life after finishing his playing days two years ago. While some of his contemporaries have decided to spend their post-basketball lives somewhere warm, Kirilenko, content with how his career panned out, is still working. And when he gets the time, he thinks of Utah, too.
Once the proverbial face of Russian basketball on the hardwood, Kirilenko has become the literal face of the Russian Basketball Federation as the organization’s commissioner.
Unlike in the United States, where the NBA has been resourceful with the national basketball program in providing assistance, the Russian Basketball Federation operates as an independent entity.
Kirilenko’s day-to-day operations as commissioner aren’t outlined like they are for Adam Silver. From managing the people who referee the games to making sure the program’s relationship with the government is consistent, Kirilenko does it all.
“It’s a lot of work, and there’s a lot of challenges,” Kirilenko said in a recent interview with the Deseret News. “Being responsible for a basketball program for the whole Russian nation is challenging. There are a lot of directions, and it starts with mini basketball, with children. Then it goes all the way up to the national team.”
Beginning Aug. 31, Kirilenko will be in charge of running two Russian national teams for the 2017 FIBA EuroBasket tournament with hopes of earning a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The responsibilities are demanding, but Kirilenko finds it fulfilling.
“I knew I couldn’t be a coach. I can coach for a day or two but not for an entire season,” he said while chuckling. “I never thought I’d be in this kind of position, but I knew I’d always be around basketball.”
Instead of taking a year or two off from the game, Kirilenko knew he had to thrust himself into a high-pressured situation immediately after retiring as a player. As his friend who retired from the NHL at 40 told him, “when you retire, go work right away.”
“When you take a year off anything, you don’t want to come back,” Kirilenko said. “When you’re still playing, you have that work ethic. You’re used to waking up early, going to work and being on a schedule. That was really good advice. It’s helping me right now because I’m still in work and practice mode.”
Now that he’s not focused on X’s and O’s, defending Kobe Bryant in the 2009 NBA playoffs or finding a way to integrate himself in the Utah Jazz offense while knowing Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer would remain go-to guys, Kirilenko has taken a philosophical approach to life.
As an NBA All-Star, All-Defensive First Team member, Euroleague MVP, Olympic medalist and his country’s flag bearer, Kirilenko doesn’t look back on his career with regret or think about “what ifs.” He simply recognizes the sheer luck it even took for him to get noticed in the first place.
Russian national basketball team forward Andrei Kirilenko drives to the basket against Croatia during the EuroBasket Championship in Madrid, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2007. | Bernat Armangue, Associated Press
“For a kid that grew up in the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia, to come all the way to the NBA and become an All-Star, to go to the Olympics and get a medal, I did a pretty good job,” he said.
“But it really depends on your perspective. If you look at it from Michael Jordan’s perspective, I didn’t do anything. But if you look at it as a kid who started playing basketball, it was an exceptional career. I was lucky enough to be the flag bearer in the Olympics for my country. I had basketball represent the whole country. That’s a big deal.”
Kirilenko, who plays pickup basketball and practices from time to time, isn’t frustrated by the way his career ended — riddled by injuries, an unforeseen league-wide lockout and a last-minute trade to the historically awful Philadelphia 76ers.
“It’s just a career coming to an end,” he said. “Anything you do, whether it’s in business, sports or entertainment, comes to an end. At that point, I just had to finish it. I had a great career, an exceptional career. But it was time to stop and start something else.”
Kirilenko, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Moscow, still owns a home in Salt Lake City and reflected on the times he had with the Jazz but more so on the experiences he had away from the games.
Former Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko tries to maintain control of the ball as Cleveland's Andre Miller (24) reaches in, March 28, 2002. | Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
“My time with the Jazz is a chain of memories, starting with off the court,” he said. “I always mention, my kids were born there. I spent 10 years of my life there and made so many friends. I came to the United States at the age of 20 and didn’t know anything. I got married right before I moved, so I lived a family life in Salt Lake City. It’s a lot of factors. I played in a gym that was legendary. It’s a lot of little memories that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Salt Lake became my second home.”
Last year, the Jazz honored Kirilenko at center court alongside his wife Masha and their kids, presenting them with a jersey in front of thousands of standing fans and Bryant, who greeted Kirilenko and his youngest child after the small ceremony.
“The Jazz have always been so wonderful to me, and they’re doing a great job right now,” he said. “I want to wish them luck. They did a great job this season. It’s like a family. It’s a basketball franchise that keeps a certain character. Players that used to play for the Jazz still come back and support each other. It’s very important.”
Focused on Russian basketball, Kirilenko doesn’t spend much time thinking in hypotheticals, such as how he would’ve done against Kevin Durant in his prime or what he could have done differently in his decade-long run with the Jazz.
“If I changed anything, I wouldn’t have went the path I went,” Kirilenko said. “Those challenges created a chance for me to get better. Those challenges changed my priorities and shifted my mindset. If I could go back, I would put my money in Apple stock,” Kirilenko said with a laugh.
“You can’t think about things you should’ve done. If I changed anything, I might’ve not come to this point. It’s important to live through the tough times and go through frustrations.”