SALT LAKE CITY — If Andrei Kirilenko has played his last game for the Jazz, it will have ended much as it began, with him smiling, laughing and slaughtering the English language — yet somehow making it all work.
His sincerity always made up anything lost in translation.
A publicist is asking him Thursday during locker cleanout where he wants to do interviews.
"Wherever you like, I don't care," Kirilenko says agreeably.
Someone asks about the just-completed season.
"It's like a — how do you call that animal with the stripes? — zebra," Kirilenko says. "I think it's that kind of season we have this year."
Kirilenko has been with the Jazz 10 years. That could end July 1 when he becomes a free agent. He might end up with the Nets, who are owned by fellow Russian Mikhail Prokhorov. He could play in Russia in case of an NBA lockout. His preference is to stay where he began as an angular, spiky-haired kid whose box scores resembled a bingo card.
Now he has children in school, a wife with a business, friends. As he puts it, "You know, so many good memories here. You know, 10 years, you don't want to throw it out so quick."
While it's tempting to label all NBA players greedy and self-absorbed, Kirilenko contradicts that. Though he might command more money than the Jazz will offer, he isn't planning on matching the maximum contract $17.8 million he made this season.
"I'm definitely not looking for the money," he says. "I think I've got enough."
You don't hear that every day from athletes.
It would be hard to find a more guileless personality in anyone's league. His disposition has nearly always been sunny, his game a joyful amalgam. If he had been born 35 years earlier, the Cold War would have ended in the '60s. His one turbulent period was in 2007, when he struggled to find his role.
He was the Jazz's best player in 2004, making the All-Star team thanks to his unique ability to collect points, rebounds, steals, assists and blocks with equanimity. But four years later, he had his famous breakdown in Houston. He had sat near the end of the court after a playoff practice. Kirilenko hadn't been playing well and his minutes were sporadic. With the addition of Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams, he was no longer the team's star.
As reporters began to gather, someone asked about his role. Suddenly he began to tear up.
"I don't know what I can do about it?" he said of his predicament.
Later that summer, he told a Russian newspaper he wanted to return to Europe to play, admitting he and Jerry Sloan were "split over basketball issues." However, he returned for training camp in the fall, saying the incident had been exaggerated.
Yet even in his most emotional moments, Kirilenko never walked out or stopped diving for loose balls. Eventually he played himself back into his role as a slashing, cutting utility man.
It's true he didn't always play up to his huge salary, which was a drain on the Jazz resources. But he says that during his darkest days, he offered to void his contract and walk away. As for whether he earned his money, he says in fractured English, "I'm not the guy supposed to compliment, but all I try to do is play hard on the floor and be nice and be a good person in the community."
He did all that. Aside from his charity work, this is the man whose wife publicly said she would allow him one extramarital affair a year. His response: "I'm not planning to do anything."
The questions are winding down now as Kirilenko readies to step out into a light rain and into his future.
"I grew up here," he says, sounding a little wistful.
"I am so grateful to the fans for all those years that have been so supportive and been so good to me and my family," he continues. "It's never going to be forgotten."
Momentarily it seems there might be tears once again.
"And this is worth a lot, I'm telling you. It's a blessing to have such loyal fans," he said.
It's likely the Jazz and A.K. will move on, that they will each do fine on their own. For the price, the Jazz might prefer to put their money in a younger player. They certainly don't need him as desperately as they did when they signed him to his mega-deal in 2004.
All things considered, it would be a loss just the same.
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