I crossed the Jazz's practice court to where Andrei Kirlenko was sitting alone on the floor stretching last week.
"Want to have a seat?" he said, smiling.
There were no chairs, just the floor. Still, I thought it was a nice gesture.
How many $16-million-a-year NBA players ask you to have a seat? How many of those even make eye contact?
Kirilenko is entering his ninth season in Utah, and though he's had his highs and lows, he hasn't changed all that much. He's still a pretty happy guy. The bad news is he hasn't entirely figured out his place in Jerry Sloan's system, all these years later. There are nights when he's everywhere, nights when he's nowhere.
Kirilenko has a preppy moussed hairstyle, replacing the punky-spiked look. And he's added 20 pounds at the behest of his coaches. He looks stronger and says he feels it, too. His biceps are defined, something you couldn't say in his Jack Skellington days.
That's one thing you have to like about Kirilenko — he's still willing to try what the coaches ask. Two years ago, they told him to improve his shooting, so he stayed late after practice and began working with Jeff Hornacek. In his exit interview last spring, they told him he needed to add muscle and weight to withstand the rigors of the season. He added both.
Now he's just slim, not emaciated.
"I feel myself stronger. A little bit slower, but again, it's pretty much the same flexibility, so I need to improve my speed a little bit and not lose weight again," he said agreeably.
Looking back, you have to wonder why Kirilenko is still inviting writers to have a seat. By now he should have copped an attitude. It has been an up-and-down ride for A.K. When he made the All-Star team in 2004, he was heralded as the face of the new Jazz. But gradually the Jazz changed, and they didn't need him to take the shots any more.
The Jazz sometimes played him as a starter, other times they brought him off the bench. They told him he was a defensive star, a guy to pick up the flotsam and jetsam.
Through it all, he remained the basic Kirilenko. That's not to say he didn't have issues. He cried during the 2007 playoffs when discussing frustration over his role. He even briefly mentioned being traded. But he was never an egocentric NBA star. Rather, he sounded like a guy who wanted to touch the ball.
Name a single basketball player who deep down doesn't.
I asked whether his wife likes his ripped new body.
"Ask her, I don't know," he chuckled. "Maybe she like me to be skinny."
I also inquired what he thought about the new principal owner of the New Jersey Nets, Russia's wealthiest citizen. Kirilenko played for Mikhail Prokhorov's CSKA Moscow team before coming to the NBA.
"I think he's very successful manager and very big fan of basketball," he said.
"Plus," I said, "you could speak the language to him during warm-ups."
He laughed again.
"I'm the only one," he said.
The conversation eventually wandered back to his buff new frame. He said he didn't have to change his diet, just "be like on a schedule, eat four times a day, regularly. Good meals, not huge, but consistent."
Other media were busy interviewing Carlos Boozer and Jerry Sloan. Nobody came around us, crouching on the floor, so I kept the conversation going. I asked if, while gaining weight, the Jazz allowed him to eat anything he wanted. He said yes, but they warned him to avoid cholesterol.
"I mean, some of the food that have some cholesterol, I'm not recommended," he said, "because I have high level of cholesterol."
"Like chicken wings, stuff like that?" I said.
"There's nothing else to eat," he said in a resigned tone.
We were losing a bit in translation, but as always, Kirilenko's appeal came through.
"It's hard to eat right," I agreed, "when you're traveling a lot."
"I can't take (along) a lot of organic food," he said.
It was nearly time to start practice, so I thanked him. I felt as though I had just caught up with a casual friend, rather than a $16 million man. He doesn't know me well enough for us to be friends, but he makes people feel that way.14 comments on this story
I wondered if I should be tougher on him as the season nears. After all, he's the 11th-highest paid player in the league, same as Pau Gasol and higher than Kevin Garnett, Yao Ming, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
Even so, I left the gym hoping he actually does have a $16 million kind of season.
Not so much for the Jazz, as for him.