KAUNAS, Lithuania — As the final buzzer sounded at the packed arena in Kaunas, Lithuania, Andrei Kirilenko looked up to the heavens around mid-court and threw the ball with all his might straight up in the air.
Thanks to Kirilenko, the Russia National Team beat F.Y.R. of Macedonia, 72-68, and won the bronze medal at the 2011 European Championship — or EuroBasket as it is more commonly known — in front of 11,000 fans last Sunday afternoon.
Next stop for Russia: the 2012 London Olympics.
"I've been in two Olympic (2000, 2008) games and I'm looking forward to a third. I think it's the highest achievement for any athlete," said Kirilenko, who watched as Spain beat France for the gold medal on Sunday as well.
"We won 10 of our 11 games and I'm very happy that we ended up with a medal. We are among the top three teams in the tournament and have grown as a team. Our young guys have accepted responsibility and have shown great performances in this tournament."
Kirilenko finished with 18 points and seven rebounds in Russia's win and was recognized for his overall play, joining EuroBasket MVP Juan Carlos Navarro (Spain), Pau Gasol (Spain), Bo McCalebb (Macedonia) and Tony Parker on the All-Tournament team.
It marks a return to glory for Kirilenko, who had not played for the Russia National Team the past two summers and faced his share of criticism.
Over the two-week tournament, Kirilenko averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and ranked first among players with 2.6 steals per game.
That's Andrei being Andrei.
"You don't have to coach him. We asked him to play within the system, but it seems like his best moments are when he's doing what his heart and instincts tell him to do," said Russia's head coach, David Blatt.
"He does things that coaches can't teach and other teams can't prepare for — thank God he is on my side."
Now questions shift back to Kirilenko's future in Utah, free agency and his desire to play back in Russia if the current NBA lockout persists.
Marc Fleisher, Kirilenko's agent, continues to explore overseas options for Kirilenko, who maintains he's only interested in playing in Russia for either powerhouse CSKA Moscow or Spartak St. Petersburg, where Kirilenko began his basketball career in the Russian League at 15 years old.
Back then, he was the youngest player to compete in the league.
Kirilenko, 30, has spent the last 10 years with the Utah Jazz and has been negotiating full-time with both CSKA Moscow and Spartak — a team that does not compete in the renowned Euroleague.
"For sure, I'd love to play in front of Russian audience. I'm in good shape, and I think I could play for three or four years more. Of course, my priorities are CSKA and Spartak Saint Petersburg, where I've played before. I respect all (Russian League) clubs and am in good relationships with almost all the club's bosses."
The kicker: Kirilenko still desires an NBA-out contract with his deal. For this reason, negotiations are at a standstill with both teams.
"They (CSKA Moscow) didn't want to include an NBA-out in their offer, so we couldn't agree on terms," Kirilenko said after Russian's win over Macedonia.
There was talk around EuroBasket that Kirilenko wanted $3 million a month (without taxes) from CSKA Moscow. Last season with the Jazz, Kirilenko earned $17 million for the season and looks poised to garnish more on the free-agent market.
No NBA-out clause could be a deal breaker.
As a spokesman for CSKA Moscow said regarding negotiations: "We haven't quite figured out how to make this a positive for both sides. Our arena capacity (CSKA Universal Sports Hall) is only 5,000 so we can't really rely on just ticket sales to fund a deal. We need other resources."
That's an area where Spartak may have the upper hand.
Gazprom — a national Russian natural resources company — finances Spartak and has deep pockets to perhaps offer Kirilinko a lucrative deal, despite Kirilenko saying his decision to play in Russia is less about money and more about being close to his family.
"Numbers in my contract do not matter for me. Furthermore I've made a decision — whatever I earn during the lockout I'll spend on charity purposes," Kirilenko confessed.
Kirilenko has said he wants to give the Jazz priority in free-agent negotiations, but his next career move depends if and when NBA owners and the players union can walk away from the negotiation table pleased with a new collective bargaining agreement.
Training camp is scheduled to start on Oct. 1, but time is wasting.
Until then, the 2011-12 NBA season remains in jeopardy as players like Kirilenko continue to ponder overseas moves. He just happens to be torn between remaining loyal to Utah, exploring his options on the open market, and heading back home to play in Russia.
Kirilenko has no choice but to wait and see where his basketball will land.
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