heinnews’s David Hein had the chance for a long interview with CSKA Moscow star and former Utah Jazz All-Star Andrei Kirilenko. The two talked about a large array of subjects. We split the interview into two parts. In the first half Hein and Kirilenko look at growing up with soccer and moving to basketball; his role models in basketball; his move as a youngster to Moscow; his initial frustration about Michael Jordan retiring; the kangaroos at the 2000 Olympics; cherishing his time with Stockton and Malone; blocking every NBA star you can name; the Russian team that won the 2007 EuroBasket.
heinnews: You grew up in St. Petersburg. What was it like growing up there? Heard it’s like a Russian Venice.
Kirilenko: It is my native city and I love it not only because of it. You’re right, it is known as Russian Venice because of multiple rivers, channels and buildings constructed by famous Italian architectures in XVIII century. I enjoy visiting the city in my vacations also because my parents still live there.
heinnews: Russia – or the Soviet Union at the time – is known just as much for ice hockey as it is for basketball. Did you watch/play ice hockey and if so who were some of the players you saw as role models and why?
Kirilenko: I am not sure if I had any ice hockey role models when I was a kid. I played soccer a lot, my father is a soccer coach. But I do have friends in ice hockey right now, for example, Alex Ovetchkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. I enjoy watching them play and support them.
heinnews: Have read that you started playing basketball at 10 years. Is that true? And if so, what sports did you play beforehand and what drew you to basketball?
Kirilenko: I started playing basketball even earlier – I think when I was 7. As I told you I played soccer more before that. It was my first coach Alexey Vasiliev who found me in my school and invited to basketball practices.
heinnews: Who were some of the people you modeled your game after during your early days?
Kirilenko: Surely, we watched a lot of NBA games at the time. So, no surprise, it was Michael Jordan and several other players from great generation which shined in 80s-90s who were the models for me.
heinnews: You were 17 years old when you made the move from St. Petersburg to Moscow. How difficult was the transition? Also in regards with family? And what were your expectations with the move?
Kirilenko: Well, it is definitely not that easy to make such huge steps in young age. But I followed my dream to become the best player I could be, I moved step by step. I was involved in the system of sports schools which required spending a lot of time outside of my family, I started to play for pro team in the age of 15, so it was not that difficult to use to the move.
heinnews: Looking back, what were the biggest positives and negatives from the move from Spartak St. Petersburg to CSKA?
Kirilenko: I don’t think I should draw any comparisons. Definitely it was the next step of my career. With all the respect towards Spartak, one of the most famous teams in USSR and Russia, CSKA provided much more opportunities to show myself, to win big, to become the National Team player and to move to the NBA.
heinnews: During your five years in Russia and Europe who were some of the guys you really enjoyed playing with – on and/or off the court? And what do you remember most about playing with them?
Kirilenko: I love my teammates from all the teams I played for. I was lucky to be the part of several great teams. Of course, I have a number of close friends who are very special for me as the persons and the players. I am happy to join Victor Khryapa on a club team – we played for Team Russia only before that. I am close to another National Team player Sergey Monia. I still have several good friends from my school days like Evgeny Ivanov.
heinnews: And who were some of the most fascinating opponents before heading to the NBA and why?
Kirilenko: If you mean the NBA opponents, at the time I was frustrated that Michael Jordan retired and I would not be able to face him on the floor. But I was lucky that he decided to comeback again, so I got the chance to compete against him. And even block him in the NBA game.
heinnews: In 2000 you had the honor of playing at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Every athlete says that’s their biggest dream. Where did that moment rank in your career and what’s your biggest memory of Australia?
Kirilenko: Kangaroos! Seriously, it was always special to defend my country’s flag in the international competition. And the first chance to play the Olympics stood out for me, definitely. I was the youngest member on the team and still felt the pressure as one of its leaders. I think we were able to fight for the medals there but we met Team USA in quarterfinals and that ruined our chances.
heinnews: Just a year later you finally made the jump to the NBA. What was it like moving from big city Moscow to Salt Lake City and how did you deal with the transition?
Kirilenko: CSKA and Russian basketball were in transition period at the time. You did not experience the atmosphere close to the NBA team’s one in CSKA as you do now. So it was like getting into the new fantastic world back then. I was greeted warmly, and I got in love with Salt Lake City which is very convenient to live in with very friendly people around.
heinnews: You were joining the Utah Jazz and the legendary duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone. You were 20 years old when you arrived in Salt Lake City, what was it like playing alongside the two future Hall of Famers? How did they treat you and how did that relationship change during your time with them?
Kirilenko: I cherished every moment I spent with the guys. They are great persons, and they treated me very well. I can’t say we were close friends but they were always ready to discuss anything, to help with advice. I am proud that they trusted me on the floor and we had great years together. I should also mention another great former Jazzman Jeff Hornacek who worked with me personally and made me much better shooter.
heinnews: You became the leader of the team after Stockton retired and Malone left for the Lakers. How much pressure did you feel and what did they tell you before they left?
Kirilenko: I was never afraid of pressure. I think I was ready and they felt it too.
heinnews: What would you consider some of the biggest highlights and lowest points during your NBA career?
Kirilenko: Well, I have a lot of good things to remember. We played some great seasons, remarkable playoffs series. I was the first Russian ever to play in the All-Star Game, I led the league in blocked shots. I think I blocked every NBA star you can name. As for the negatives – it is injuries, first of all.
heinnews: How difficult was it becoming less of a leader in the late 2000s?
Kirilenko: We were in transition period, first of all. Secondly, it is difficult to stay healthy all the time and to keep the same relationship with your coach all the times. Sports are modeling the human life, so it’s natural. We had our ups and downs and we were able to resolve all the difficult situations. I am happy I was able to play for the Jazz and I would be happy to return to Salt Lake City one day.
heinnews: Probably one of your biggest professional highlights came in the summer of 2007 when JR Holden hit that jumper and then Pau Gasol missed his shot to give Russia the EuroBasket title and you the MVP of that tournament. What made that team so special?
Kirilenko: We had a great group of guys and great coach with clear ideas how to build the real team out of the roster. We weren’t considered the favorites and that fact also made the life easier for us. We knew our strengths, used them well and followed the course of the tournament step by step.
heinnews: You have been coached by among others Stanislav Eremin, Valery Tikhonenko and Jerry Sloan. Where does David Blatt rang among them?
Kirilenko: I’d prefer not to make the stairs of my coaches. I am happy we have David as our coach. I think we were able to do a lot together and hopefully we have a lot of good things to come.