As the curtain seemingly falls on Andrei Kirilenko’s career, BallinEurope’s Emmet Ryan reflects on a player whose success almost played second fiddle to his character.
Everything about the name should have fit. He’s Russian, he’s got the right initials, he was born in Izhevsk (where the rifle was first produced), and he even chose the number to match. AK-47 however was no gunslinger. The man could score but it it was his ability to stop threats rather than be one that made him a factor for so long in this sport. On Monday evening, in Khimki just northwest of Moscow, it was his last chance to absolutely, positively, kill every motherfucker in the room.
The quirks of Kirilenko’s life, bizarre team photos with CSKA or his interesting arrangement regarding fidelity, were all that were really known Stateside about AK-47’s non-NBA life. In Russia, he has been unquestionably the nation’s most important baller since the days of the USSR. On Monday night he started for CSKA Moscow in yet another finals game. The Red Army marched to Khimki with a 2-0 finals lead in the best of five series to decide the champions of the VTB United League. Unbeaten through the playoffs, they were roaring favourites to claim a fourth straight championship.
Salt Lake City is an odd place for an Irishman to find himself on St Patrick’s Day. Doing so twice in succession was even stranger. My first taste of NBA action in the flesh came as a result of a software company being based in Provo. Prior to the global recession Novell was a business that acted like a giant. The annual BrainShare conference saw hacks ferried from all over the world to hear a bunch of people talk about Open Source stuff. Having arrived around 10pm local, I just about fitted in a couple of beers with local Real Salt Lake fans before getting up the next morning for the unwise idea of an Irishman going snowmobiling.
The conference centre was just a five minute walk from the home of the Jazz and with cash flowing to keep guests happy, an excursion to watch the Jazz play was a guaranteed part of the entertainment. The Stockton-Malone era was a decade in the rear-view mirror but the Jazz were still a huge deal with Deron Williams (back when he was good), Carlos Boozer (also back when he was good), and a young Russian stud called Andri Kirilenko.
Aged 26, Kirilenko looked to have no quite yet hit his prime and that night against the Golden State Warriors was all about Boozer and D-Will vs Baron Davis (it was the season of that series with the Mavs) and Al Harrington. Williams drooped 17 dimes and scored 10 points, Boozer scored 25 along with 21 boards and 5 assists. Davis had 20 points and 7 assists, Harrington scored 27, and the supporting cast of Jason Richardson, Stephen Jackson and Andris Biedrins all made their presence felt. Yes, there was a time when Biedrins was relevant and not a nervous wreck on court, he had a double-double that night as the Dubs pushed the Jazz all the way before eventually falling 104-100.
The Russian was an efficient if unspectacular piece back then. On the night he had to cede the limelight to the freak show put on by the Jazz’s stars but he still scored 12 on 4/5 shooting and had 3 blocks. It would also prove to be AK’s most successful season with Utah, going all the way to the Western Conference Finals. The Jazz and Warriors would meet on that road, right after the Dubs had shocked the Mavs, with Utah pulling through before falling to the Spurs.
Game 3 in Khimki began with a familiar sight. Kirilenko standing under the basket unsure of what he should have done as Paul Davis opened the scoring for the home side. In Madrid a month ago, in the Euroleague semi-final, Ioannis Papapetrou had used Kirilenko’s mileage against him in an energetic performance that kept Olympiacos in the game before Vassilis Spanoulis erupted late.
Here in Khimki, Kirilenko was quick to react and racked up 5 points quickly but the veteran picked up a pair of fouls almost as fast. After just 3 minutes and 52 seconds of the first quarter, Kirilenko was done for the half.
At least I didn’t land in Utah on Paddy’s day the next year. The good folks once again thought it was wise to let an Irishman loose on a snowmobile and for the second year running I managed to flip onto its side while going around 30mph. The Novell money was still flowing in Provo and Salt Lake had ample hotel space because of the Winter Olympics back in 2002. The crash was months away but right now I was just enjoying the unquestioned glamourous life on the freelance scene. Great food, fancy trips, and lots of employers to keep me on track. I was a few months shy of my 27th birthday, a couple of months younger than AK, and the disaster that was about to hit my sector wasn’t in site.
Certainly not for Novell either who once again laid it on large. The Goo Goo Dolls (admittedly they were past relevancy at that point) played the conference’s closing night, at that stage all the international hacks had gone home but there was still plenty to keep the gathered hacks happy. This time the game was on St Paddy’s day itself and the Jazz decided to do their best to imitate my culture. Green t-shirts, naturally, and a version of Irish dancing that was somehow more kitsch than anything every produced on the Emerald Isle. For Paul Hudson, the lone British journalist in tow, the appeal of a jersey with Boozer on the back was too much to ignore.
A Bosh-less Toronto Raptors team was served up to the Jazz in a far less thrilling affair. Boozer was big but far less of a factor on offence, Williams dominated again, and Kyle Korver starred off the bench in a facile 96-79 win. It was another quiet enough evening for Kirilenko, 8 points and 4 boards, in what would prove to be his most efficient season from the field as a starter. What we didn’t know in 2008 was that the high point for Kirilenko in the NBA had already passed a year prior to that run to the Western finals in 2007. Over a three year period from when he became a full-time starter with Utah in 2003, punctuated but unfazed but a season ending injury in 2005, Kirilenko averaged 15.6 points, 8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3 blocks, and 1.7 steals per game. He was a bona fide star and the type of player you wanted as a third or maybe even second piece in a contender.
While AK sat, CSKA did what they had done in the opening two games of this series. They ran into a huge lead and forced Khimki to chase them. Even at home, the underdogs didn’t look like they could live with the Moscow club’s offensive onslaught. The tone had been set in the first quarter of Game 1 of this series. CSKA had come out like a house of fire to lead 32-15 after 10 minutes of that opening encounter and Khimki had been flailing in pursuit ever since. Midway through the second of this game the lead had grown to 46-29, CSKA having opened 11/15 from the floor.
Kirilenko’s first sojourn with CSKA came after being the youngest player ever in Russian Superleague history with Spartak St Petersburg in 1997/98. In three years at the Moscow club, he picked up a pair of Russian league championships and the 2000 league MVP award before moving to Utah. Back then he had was on his road to greatness, in his second stint he was the star, but right now he wasn’t all that necessary.
Russian hip hop played as CSKA called a timeout late in the third. Why a team in total control needed to call a stoppage is anyone’s guess other than to congratulate one another on a job well done. At the half it was 54-37 and the title was as good as theirs.
As his star in the NBA started to fade, Kirilenko’s importance to the Russian national team only grew larger. Going into EuroBasket 2007, Russia had talent but they were going up against some golden generations. Reigning champions Greece had knocked off the USA en route to the final of the FIBA World Championship a year earlier. The hosts, Spain, had lifted the world title in Japan and featured one of the most star-studded national team line-ups ever to take the court in jerseys that didn’t have USA written on them. In the opening round the Russians made their intent clear, going 3-0 with Kirilenko picking up 17 boards in a 61-53 win over Greece.
Come the second phase the Russians would meet the home side for the first time and Kirilenko came up big in Madrid with 21 points but, as expected, Russia fell to a 79-70 defeat. The knockout stages began with a stutter, Russia just about eking past France 75-71 on the back of a big game from Viktor Khryapa (16 points, 7 boards, 6 assists) while Kirilenko had a rough outing before eventually fouling out. AK bounced back in style in the semi-final, his 29 points and 8 rebounds guiding Russia past Lithuania 86-74 and into the final for the first time since losing the 1993 final to Germany in Munich. Once again Russia were a true road team against the hosts as they sought to lift the title for the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
It started ugly for AK and company, with Spain taking a 22-11 lead at the end of the first. By the half, Russia had cut it to a one-possession game and held with the hosts through the third. The fourth quarter would be the making of this Russian team, coached by David Blatt, as a late mid-range shot by JR Holden carried them to a 60-59 victory. While Holden made the big bucket, Kirilenko had put in the hard yards with 17 points and 5 boards. The, still, Jazz man was named tournament MVP. Kirilenko would join up with Blatt again for two more medal winning performances with the national team, bronze at EuroBasket in 2011 and then again at the London 2012 Olympics but nothing would make the significance of that victory in Spain.
Kirilenko returned for the start of the third. He wasn’t the only man out there likely making his final appearance for CSKA. Kyle Hines is rumoured to be on his way while Sasha Kaun would end up announcing his retirement at the end of this game. Khryapa, who along with Kaun, was a long-time companion of AK on the Russian national team may also think hard about continuing come the summer.
Kirilenko stuck to defence upon the resumption of play as CKSA moved further ahead. Khimki’s fans were trying to keep it interesting but with 10 minutes left before the curtain fell, CSKA led 78-53.
That ride to the Olympics in 2012 followed the season where Kirilenko was finally supposed to win the big one in Europe. In his second stint with CSKA, Kirilenko was still more than good enough to be the man in Euroleague and racked up the competition’s MVP and defensive player awards en route to the Final Four in Istanbul. The semi-final saw CSKA escape with a narrow win over Panathinaikos. The final began as a rout with the Moscow club en route to the coronation all expected. Milos Teodosic lit up Olympiacos early, to the point that his name was trending worldwide on Twitter. CSKA had gone 18-2 en route to Istanbul and led by 14 at the half of the final. Olympiacos had managed to trim this by all of a single point with 10 minutes to play. Then, not for the first time with CSKA, Vassilis Spanoulis happened and a wild final frame saw Giorgios Printezis nail the game winning shot with 0.7 of a second to go.
In year of unparalleled personal success for Kirilenko (he would also be named VTB League MVP, VTB League Final Four MVP, Russian League MVP*, FIBA Europe player of the year, and Euroscar winner) he had come up short in the final that mattered most to CSKA.
*The VTB and Russian leagues were run separately before the Russian clubs agreed to treat the former as their top tier league in 2013/14
CSKA had to go through the rigmarole of the third place game with Fenerbahce after that loss to Olympiacos. It’s a game that nobody wants and really only exists as fan service for those who travelled to the host city. Euroleague reckons that if they are going to make all fans pay big, all fans deserve to see their team twice. The players hate it, TV stations couldn’t be bothered, and given the number of CSKA and Fenerbahce fans selling tickets on the street to supporters of Olympiacos and fellow finalists Real Madrid it’s hard to say many of those who traveled cared either. CSKA won, their second win from three straight appearances in this game, and Kirilenko was naturally asked what he planned to do come the summer.
During the summer I have plans for vacation,” was Kirilenko’s response. The big announcement wasn’t going to be leaked after a nothing game.
All through the post-season of the VTB League Kirilenko kept about his business. Instead he waited until the eve of this series. The fourth quarter saw no action from Kirilenko. He sat. There would be no late game introduction for AK-47, no final salute. After 18 years as a pro, he didn’t need it and he wasn’t going to take the glory from those who had put in the big minutes for CSKA as they completed the sweep. With just over a minute to go, Khyrapa came out. Kirilenko stood and embraced his fellow warrior as CSKA cruised to a 99-71 win.
Andrei Kirilenko’s final game log as a pro: 9.53 minutes, 5 points, 0/0 2P, 1/1 3P, 2/2 FT, 0 OReb, 3 DReb, 3 TReb, 1 Ast, 1 Stl, 2 Blk, and a championship…or so we think at least. Just to keep things that little bit weird, Kirilenko has moved from ‘definitely retired’ to ’80 per cent retired’ which sounds an awful lot like an itch. Maybe we haven’t quite seen the end of him.