Jerry Zgoda's Sunday Insider: Kirilenko faces his old pal

  • Updated: November 25, 2012 - 1:48 AM

Ten years ago, he played with Mark Jackson in Utah. Saturday, he played against the team Jackson now coaches.

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Andrei Kirilenko with the Jazz in 2003

Photo: Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

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Mark Jackson was born in Brooklyn; Andrei Kirilenko grew up a world away in the same far-flung Soviet Russian town where the inventor of his nickname -- the AK-47 assault rifle -- has lived since 1949.

But they spoke the same language -- figuratively and, occasionally, even literally -- when they played together for one Utah winter a decade ago.

Back then, Jackson was nearing the end of a 17-season NBA career that brought him the Rookie of the Year award in 1988 straight out of St. John's and New York City's famed playgrounds.

Kirilenko was a second-year international revelation who already had impressed with his ability to accumulate numbers -- points, blocks, rebounds, assists, steals -- all across the stat sheet.

They shared little in common, except they spoke the universal language of basketball and one shared, strange word:

Spasibo.

That's Russian for "thank you."

Jackson was the savvy, playmaking veteran point guard, Kirilenko the freakish leaper from somewhere near Siberia and when their relationship was really working, Jackson lobbed the basketball toward the rim and Kirilenko went and got it.

"He actually made me look better than I was," Jackson said.

More often than not, the collaboration resulted in a slam dunk and a single word spoken between them.

"Spasibo," Kirilenko said with a smile. "Every time we had a good play -- he'd pass it, I'd catch -- I'd be saying that, like 'thank you,' 'good one.' It was our own thing."

Ten seasons later, they faced each other Saturday night in Oakland.

This time, Jackson coached Golden State, nine years after he retired and two years after he put down the television commentating headset for a place back on the bench.

This time, Kirilenko, 31, was reminded of how far he has come in the NBA, and how old he now is.

"Well, actually, yes," he said. "I feel like some of the guys have been chasing me since the beginning of my career because when I played with my Russian team my last year, my teammate who I played with became a coach. I was like, 'I can't listen to you because I've been joking with you for a couple years.'

"But I guess time is flying. The people you play with become coaches."

Ten years later, Kirilenko keeps on keeping on. He now is a versatile big man with the kind of vision and inclination to pass the ball he just might have picked up from playing with point guards such as Jackson and John Stockton in Salt Lake City.

"I don't feel like I pick it, but I'm sure you pick up something because when you play with guys like Stockton and Mark Jackson and Karl Malone, you're definitely picking up something," Kirilenko said. "You're definitely lucky you have those kind of guys around you."

Jackson considered himself lucky to play with Kirilenko, too, all those years ago.

Now?

Well, not so much now that he must compete against him after the Wolves brought Kirilenko back to the NBA after a season spent in Russia by signing him last summer to a two-year, $20 million contract.

"He's a heck of a basketball player," Jackson said. "I really enjoyed my time with him. We had a great relationship. Great hands. Great slasher. Big-time defender. He's a winning basketball player. To me, it was a steal for them."

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