I look at the time with the Utah Jazz, not only from a basketball standpoint, but from a growing standpoint, and I’m so grateful to the city of Salt Lake City and all the fans. They set such great examples of decorum for myself. It set the standard of how to treat my family, how to be around people, how to be in a community. —Former Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko
SALT LAKE CITY — Jazz fans next week will get the chance to honor one of the best, a guy who knew a million ways to demoralize opponents and fill up a box score.
Kobe Bryant, right?
OK, him too.
But the other guy is the Jazz’s own box score phenomenon, Andrei Kirilenko. He too will be on display when the Lakers play the Jazz at Vivint Arena on Monday.
The event presents a slight dilemma for the Jazz. On one hand, the game will feature Bryant’s last game in Salt Lake City. He was in Utah for the Jan. 16 matchup but played just 15 minutes, scoring five points. As of midday Friday, indications were that he will be in uniform Monday.
Coincidentally, Kirilenko too will be in town. So as part of the team’s alumni appreciation program, the Jazz seized the opportunity. He will be available for autographs outside the concourse Fanzz store. The team will acknowledge him during an on-court presentation in the second quarter.
It’s likely Kirilenko will receive a warm reception. He had his detractors, and his hefty contract might have delayed the team’s rebuilding. But he was always a pleasant presence in a pro basketball environment that can breed negativity. A case could even be made for retiring his number. He played 10 years in Utah and was a one-time All-Star, same as Mark Eaton and Jeff Hornacek, both of whose numbers have been retired. Darrell Griffith, also on that list, was never an All-Star.
So in a Friday telephone conversation, Kirilenko was asked about his relationship with Jerry Sloan. He said he was lucky to play for him and assistant coach Phil Johnson and “without them I probably never get the chance to play at such a high level.”
That led him into a tourism-worthy tribute to Salt Lake.
“I look at the time with the Utah Jazz, not only from a basketball standpoint, but from a growing standpoint, and I’m so grateful to the city of Salt Lake City and all the fans. They set such great examples of decorum for myself,” he said. “It set the standard of how to treat my family, how to be around people, how to be in a community.”
The Kirilenko era in Utah was surprisingly entertaining, considering he arrived after the Jazz’s best years. Utah made the playoffs with A.K., but only once advanced past the second round.
Briefly he was the team’s biggest star. He made the All-Star team in his first season without Stockton and Malone (2003-04), averaging 16.5 points, 1.9 steals, 2.8 blocks and 8.1 rebounds. He and Hakeem Olajuwon remain the only players ever to record more than one game in which a player gets at least five points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.
But after Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams arrived, his stats leveled and then dropped. He became a handyman, doing a little bit of everything, playing almost every position. But plays no longer went through him and injuries took a toll.
Not that he stopped making news. He cried after a practice due to a lack of playing time and conflict with Jerry Sloan. He says the situation was like being in a family and “sometimes something doesn’t go the way you planned and things happen.”
He says his issues with Sloan were resolved long ago.
Pictures of him posing with wild pigs on a beach during the offseason appeared on social media. His wife publicly offered him one annual extramarital dalliance, guilt free, which he said he declined. He once offered to pay back his salary to the Jazz if they felt he hadn’t earned it.
Meanwhile, he established “Kirilenko’s Kids” charity, worked with the Huntsman Cancer Institute and reportedly donated most of a year’s salary to an orphanage.
In other words, he was generally a happy, talented, low-maintenance kid from a faraway country, enjoying the ride.
Nothing captured his spirit better than what he said just before going to his only All-Star appearance.
“I’ve got some beeeeg excitement,” he said.
There were other big excitements, too. Like the time he missed a practice to clear up vacation travel paperwork during the playoffs. He had been given permission by Sloan to fly to San Francisco after practice, but when the workout was switched to a later time, Kirilenko had already left town.
A year earlier he was widely believed to be the culprit in Deron Williams’ complaint that some players were thinking more about vacations than the playoffs.
Whether he met expectations as a player depends on the observer.
“I definitely met my own expectations — you know, skinny kid coming here from Russia, no language, first time outside the country,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve been a superstar in the league, but I would say I definitely been an elite player and a good player in this league.”
“I feel like I probably could have been a little more effective, but if there was only one change I’d make in my career, it would be if I could cut my injuries in half.”
Either way, from his perspective there are no hard feelings.
“I really feel this city deserves the trophy of Larry O’Brien,” he said.
As usual, the syntax was a bit off, but his heart was in the right place.
Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged