Perfect Fit

4/15/2009 - Utah Jazz

You can't see him, but you know he's coming. You beat your man, convinced you're free to drive the lane & then something flickers in your peripheral vision. You pull up for a jumper, but it's too late. Andrei Kirilenko flies across the key, arms longer than nature intended, and hammers the ball through your grip. Then he's gone, fading back into the facelessness of fundamentals until the next time he leaps out of the system to do what a 6'9", 225-pound human being was not meant to do.

Another shift done, Utah's blue-collar hero drives home in a modest Audi sedan, to the homemaker wife who could have been Russia's Gwen Stefani. Masha Lopatova, like her man, knows something about sacrificing for the team. Four years ago, she was a budding pop diva. Now, she may be Salt Lake's sexiest mom, anonymously raising son Fedor in the suburbs. When Andrei is around, it feels like home. If she has her wayunorthodox though it may behe'll be around for a long time.

In year one of a six-year, $86 million contract, Kirilenko is a perfect fit for the Utah Jazz. No gangsta vibe, no trade demands, just a hard-working family man, filling out the box score like no one else in the history of the game. Then you see him put a move on Chris Bosh, and you wonder if he might not be more comfortable elsewhere. He fakes to the middle of the key, spins right to win just enough space and throws down an overhead slam. That is not in Jerry Sloan's playbook. The coach's old-school offense favors the system, not the individual. But what do you do with a guy who sees shots that aren't there? Maybe Sloan should have a talk with Masha. Because off the court, Andrei has the green light to freelance once in a while.

KIRILENKO'S FIFTH-GRADE class photo looks way too old to belong to a 25-year-old guy. Poor-looking white kids, staring blankly. This is Andrei's first year in the basketball program in a local sports academy. In the Soviet Union in 1991, you didn't pick up the ball to be like Mike or to find a way out of the hood. You were handed the ball by a coach because you were tall. You lived in barracks and went to class as a team. From the moment he was picked out, Kirilenko was taught the skills many say go unlearned in the age of highlight hoops. "It was great to understand what the team is about," Kirilenko says. "We got used to playing in a system. We got used to executing plays. We got used to getting open shots."

Kirilenko quickly outpaced the system. He reached the pros in 1997 when the coach of Spartak Saint Petersburg picked him to play a game with the seniors in the Russian Superleague. Kirilenko was a month shy of 16. "I thought, yeah, good, I'm ready," he says facetiously. "I didn't expect to play." Obviously, the team thought more of him than he did of himself. The score was tied with three minutes to go when the coach sent him in to shadow the opponent's leading scorer after his best defender had fouled out. "I was breathing heavy, heavy," he says. Then he blocked the star's first shot, drew a foul and made the free throw. He was the youngest player ever to get into a Superleague game.

That moment didn't make Kirilenko a bust-out phenom. The next three years did. He transferred to CSKA Moscow in 1998 and helped the team to two straight Superleague titles with two All-Star seasons. He even won the slam-dunk contest during the league's All-Star Weekend. When the Jazz made him the 24th pick in the 1999 draft, the 18-year-old son of a soccer coach and a school teacher was Russia's next big thing.

In Salt Lake City, though, Kirilenko's name produced a collective shrug. Even the Jazz were happy to be able to leave him and his guaranteed contract overseas for two more years. John Stockton's team had just tied the Spurs for the best record in a lockout-shortened season. Karl Malone had a second MVP award in the bag. Who needed Kirilenko?

Seven years later, the closest Stockton gets to the Delta Center is his bronze likeness on the front porch of the arena. Inside, the team rides the edge of .500, trying to make the playoffs for the first time since he and Malone left in 2003. Kirilenko is making the plays now. In a midseason game against the Bulls, the Jazz are down one in the final seconds of overtime when Kirilenko gets his hands on a loose ball that leads to a Utah possession. (The Jazz track deflections. Through the All-Star break, Kirilenko had 314, nearly twice as many as his closest teammate.) The Delta Center erupts like the old days when Mehmet Okur nails a trey with 0.7 left.

Kirilenko doesn't see it go in. He's busy boxing out. "He doesn't have to have the ball, but he seems to come up with it," says Sloan. "He's a high-energy player. That's who he is."

The man they now call AK-47 is one of two players in NBA history with more than one 5x5 game, which requires at least five each of points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks (he has three; Hakeem Olajuwon recorded nine). "He's so long and quick," says backup center Greg Ostertag. Kirilenko's reach is just shy of the 7'2" center's. "He blocks shots that have no business being blocked."

Off the court, Kirilenko is everywhere, too. His piercing blue eyes peek out at Jazz fans from JumboTrons, cookbook covers and TV public service announcements. In Salt Lake City, values matter as much as ad revenue or playoff wins. The folks in Mormon country respond like no one else to a clean-cut star who brings it every night and loves them back. That's Kirilenko, although his transition had the requisite rough patches. He spent his first several weeks in Salt Lake trapped in a hotel room. "There was nowhere to go, nothing to do," he says, referring to the famously sedate nightlife. It was a scene decidedly different from the one Kirilenko was used to back home. "I was like, gosh, I signed a four-year deal here! What am I supposed to do?"

Apparently, SLC can grow on you. It's quiet, friendly and safe, a perfect place to raise Fedor, who just turned 4. "Now I want more and more kids, like a typical Salt Lake City guy," says Kirilenko.

In their unassuming house between the mall and the beltway, the Kirilenkos live the Utah lifestyle. They don't go out much. Andrei goes to work. Fedor goes to school. Masha mothers them both. But the doting homemaker is anything but typical.

HOT. THAT'S the best word to describe Masha's music video, bouncy club pop interlaced with melancholy.

So who's the bigger celebrity in Russia? "It could have been me if I didn't stop my career," Masha says cheerfully. When the song "Saharniy" (translation: sugary) was released in 2002, Masha was already in Utah with Andrei for his sophomore season, raising their newborn. It shot to No.1 on MTV Russia, even without her around to promote it. There are no plans for a follow-up: "In any relationship, someone has to give up. I'm the one."

Masha grew up in Moscow, where her father played almost 20 years for the CSKA Moscow basketball team. "A very successful, very handsome man," she says. "And rich." He sent his daughter to an exclusive arts school in London and helped launch her first career. "I think the term is 'it girl,' " Masha says. "I was in all the magazines, like Bazaar and Vogue."

It shows when she gets in front of the camera. After a session with her personal stylist, the 32-year-old gives the photographer a pop-star look. It's who she is, at least in the off-season. "How do you call the life actors live? Let's say, glamour life," Andrei says. In Moscow, the Kirilenkos smile through a blur of red carpets and caviar, champagne for her and milk for him. "Lots of friends: actors, musicians, athletes. Let's say celebrities."

For seven months each year, they leave that life behind, like the working-class Soviets who once volunteered for long stints on Siberian farms to increase their income. "I have seven months when I can be patient," Kirilenko says, "and five months when I can go to nightclubs and nobody will say anything to me."

During those seven months, Masha waits patiently at home. And, yes, she knows what happens on the road. She met Andrei at an event organized by the marketing firm she founded. She knows what can start with a smile in the Miami airport, a knock on a hotel door in Cleveland. The wrong woman, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, with the wrong man. Her man. "Male athletes in this country are extremely attractive," she says. "They get chased by women. It's hard to resist. It's the way men are by nature."

She calls it Andrei's "allowance." Once a year he can have sex with another woman. One night. No affairs, no divided loyalty. She can live with that. It was her idea, offered as a gift.

"Of course, it was a surprise," Andrei says. "I'm not planning to do anything. But she said if you want to do it, you can do it."

Masha doesn't flinch. Her makeup is gone now, revealing earnest eyes and a pouting upper lip. But a ripple of doubt dances at the corner of her twitchy, introspective smile. "When this article comes out, girls will be lining up outside his hotel door," she says. Maybe married women will line up outside her front door brandishing picket signs after they read about her plan to keep her husband from making a mistake. "When I'm aware and I let him do it, it's not cheating."

Andrei says something in Russian, they laugh. "I don't think anyone can substitute him for me," Masha says.

KIRILENKO HAS seen Rocky IV. "Yes, Ivan Drago, I know," he says, resigned. "'If he dies he dies. I must break you.' That's me." It gave the Soviet Union a bad rap. The Russian should be the one working out in the barn. And that bit about the KGB? "You can't say it's better or worse. It's just different." He lights up. "Just like Coach Sloan."

Ah, Coach Sloan. Jerry Sloan runs an O straight out of Bob Cousy's highlight reel. It's team schemes, cuts and screens, layups and open jumpers, and it works only as long as his players buy in. "Not a lot of guys like this kind of system," Kirilenko says. "Sometimes I disagree with it, but that's the way it works."

Because Utah has no true post threat, most of the team's set plays are designed to free a guard for a midrange jumper. But there's an unwritten rule that keeps Kirilenko involved: Cut to the basket, and you get the ball.

"Andrei's got a lot more he'd like to show," says Suns guard Raja Bell, who played with Kirilenko for two seasons. Bell has seen Kirilenko strip guards-"He shouldn't be able to get down that low, but he does"-and block shots from weird angles. "There were times when he'd break the system, but he'd come up with something good. Jerry can live with that."

In fact, whenever Kirilenko gets the ball and ducks his head, the coach cringes. Still, Sloan concedes, "Andrei has to have a certain amount of freedom." That sounds like a revolution in Salt Lake, but it's hard to argue with the premise after seeing AK-47 take another pass on the wing, dribble right in a flatfooted instant, bounce it behind his back then cut past Ron Artest for a layin.

Call it a release valve. "If something isn't allowed you, you want to get it," Kirilenko says. "But if it is allowed to you, you will not need it."

This time, he could be talking about basketball.

THERE'S A secret car in the Kirilenko garage, not the Audi he drives in public, nor the silver Porsche he bought as a rookie and pushed to 200 mph. It is elegant, suiting a man of Kirilenko's station, a reminder of the life that awaits him in Moscow. But he keeps it under wraps. "The public doesn't have to know everything," he says.

He climbs in and drives away, sticking between the lines.