For Kirilenko, it's back to Utah where it all came together

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 2, 2013 - 3:53 PM

The Wolves forward admits it will be "a little bit special" returning to Utah, where he spent a decade developing into a stalwart player.

The mental imagery seems almost surreal to Andrei Kirilenko as he contemplates his first game in Utah as an opposing player.

Walking past the home team locker room, into the unfamiliar guest surroundings. Taking the court against former teammates and friends. Seeing dozens of recognizable faces in the crowd at Energy- Solutions Arena.

"It's going to be different,'' Kirilenko said before leaving for Wednesday's game. "I have a lot of friends, 10 years there. I probably know everyone in the first 20 rows around the building, all the fans. It's life .... It is what it is.''

What it is, Kirilenko freely admits, is anything but just another game. Kirilenko spent his first 10 NBA seasons with the Jazz before returning to his native Russia to play during last year's lockout. After a year away from the NBA, he signed with the Timberwolves in July.

"It's a little bit special game, not just another game,'' he said. "It's really going to be overwhelming.''

Not that anyone expects the emotions to show in Kirilenko's game. His steadiness, all-around offensive skills and attention to defense have been the glue that so far has held a young Timberwolves roster together.

He is, very much, a product of Jerry Sloan's Utah system. Sloan was Kirilenko's NBA coach for the first 9 1/2 seasons, before a coaching change midway through 2010-11 that saw Tyrone Corbin take over.

Wolves coach Rick Adelman says he sees Sloan's influence in Kirilenko's game very clearly.

"They always played hard for Jerry. His teams always played very hard,'' Adelman said. "And A.K. has developed into a very good all-around player, and most of his years were under Jerry.''

It is fitting that Kirilenko could pass two notable career milestones at Utah. The 6-9 forward needs two steals to reach 1,000 for his career, and four rebounds to reach 4,000.

His career, Kirilenko says, is a mostly a product of what he learned in his early years in Utah. He came into the league playing alongside future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton. And of course, for Sloan, the legendary coach.

"Jerry is the guy who basically created me, gave my NBA career life,'' Kirilenko said.

From Malone and Stockton he learned about leadership, and how it can come in totally different forms.

"I have always said I have seen two different examples [of leadership] in front of my eyes, in John Stockton and Karl Malone,'' Kirilenko said. "Karl always has been a forceful leader ... really intimidating ...very hard on teammates trying to motivate them.

''It was the opposite with John Stockton. He was quiet, always leading by example, fighting and diving for the ball. But quiet in the locker room.

"Two different approaches to the game. So you see how both approaches work.''

Kirilenko eventually took on a leadership role, first with the Jazz and now with the Timberwolves. At age 31, he knows exactly who he is.

"I think I'm more John Stockton,'' he said. "I don't like to talk. I don't know why -- probably because I'm not really good in English.''

The Jazz, with Malone and Stockton leading the way, reached the Western Conference finals in Kirilenko's first two seasons. With both retired in 2003-04, the Jazz surprised almost everyone by going 42-40, but they missed the playoffs by one game. That 2003-04 team, Kirilenko says, reminds him of these Timberwolves in its tenacity and spirit.

"We fight so hard, and we didn't make the playoffs by one game,'' he said. "You play 82 games, and you don't make the playoffs by one game? Are you kidding me? ... Right now, we're kind of in that situation. You know, a couple games could cost you the playoffs.''

That is the reason, Kirilenko said, the emotions accompanying tonight's game will not get in the way of what's important: a victory that he knows all too well could make the difference between playoffs and no playoffs.

"I think I'm going to be fine,'' Kirilenko said, smiling. "I've played a lot of basketball games, and I don't think it's going to be any different [once the game starts].''

Then, like every game he plays, he'll tap into all those lessons he learned as a member of the Jazz.

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