SALT LAKE CITY — Andrei Kirilenko never got into a great rhythm after that one All-Star season with the Jazz. But a lack of rhythm wasn't his problem. Actually, it was his strength.
He was all about disrupting the ebb and flow, short circuiting the system.
But he was also a nice guy in a hard business, which may have kept him from being great.
Reports on Tuesday said Kirilenko was nearing terms with the New Jersey Nets. If true, it is as surprising as a snow day in Omsk. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has openly coveted his countryman's skills. It has been a foregone conclusion since last spring that his days in Utah were over. Becoming a free agent cleared the Jazz of a $17.8 million salary.
So off he goes into the sunset. No more Cold War headlines and references to assault rifles. The main thing Kirilenko assaulted was the Jazz's pocketbook.
During that one joyful year of 2003-04, he was the team's most popular and valuable player. It was the first season of the post-Stockton and Malone era. Some experts predicted the Jazz would be the worst team in the NBA. Instead, he averaged career highs in points, rebounds, steals and blocks, as the Jazz posted a shockingly respectable 42 wins.
He liked his role and, just as important, he liked his place. He said he appreciated raising his family in Utah. For most players in his salary range, playing for the Jazz is like playing in, well, Siberia.
Eventually he became a symbol of an era of overspending. Average players got obscenely high salaries, good ones got astronomical paychecks. But he was only a product of the system. He never huffed about the need to maintain a big lifestyle, never talked down to his public. He claims to have once offered to void his contract with the Jazz if the team thought he wasn't giving them a fair return.
In an era in which Greg Ostertag could make $8 million in a single season, Kirilenko could far better justify his salary.
Nevertheless, A.K. had trouble with injuries, missing 10 games or more in every season except his first three. In 2004-05, the year after he was named an All-Star, he lost 26 games with a sprained knee, 14 more with a broken wrist. But his biggest problem was inside his head. He never completely adjusted to Jerry Sloan's rants. And he wasn't mean on the court. Early in his career he would help fallen opponents up, something Sloan didn't condone.
In his 10 years in Utah, Kirilenko never did learn to speak perfect English. Even his wife agreed, when she hypothesized that his problems with Sloan stemmed from a communication drawback. On the court, he would regularly whirl into the middle but have trouble getting the ball up in heavy traffic. Yet his quick flashes to the rim for a pass-and-score from Deron Williams were also among his assets.
With the arrival of Carlos Boozer and Williams to do the scoring, as well as other small forwards such as Matt Harpring, C.J. Miles and recently Josh Howard, his role diminished. Yet he talked about being a good teammate and vowed to do whatever it took to win, reserve or starter. And he still turned in box scores that looked like an international phone number, with double digits in points, rebounds, blocks, assists or steals — often in several categories at once.
Always, he was there to throw the other team off balance. His game was never about grooving to the beat. On his good days it was like watching kids on Christmas morning, enjoying the chaos.
While Kirilenko never justified his ending salary, he was a nice guy and a unique player, who did many good things — just not maximum salary things. He was polite to fans and media. Even when he found himself falling deeper into Jerry Sloan's doghouse during the 2007 playoffs, he came off as maybe too tender, getting teary as he discussed his lack of playing time.
Sloan complained he wasn't equipped to deal with that sort of emotion.
"What I can do?" Kirilenko would say in his broken English, rather than "What can I do?" about the situation.
What he could do was fill up a box score.
What he couldn't do was be a superstar in a world much harsher than his.
Click here to read Travis Hansen's interview with Andrei Kirilenko about the NBA, Jimmer, Mormons and adoption.
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