EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — For brief moments, youthful exuberance bursts from Andrei Kirilenko. He talks about playing basketball in his youth and he is 17 again. He smiles a wide, bright smile, wildly gesticulating with his arms that stretch out roughly 7’4″ from end to end.
Kirilenko is a nomad at heart, traveling through on-court space and off-court cities. He’s lived in four places in the last four years, leaving Utah for Russia in 2011 before the NBA lockout, then returning to Minnesota to play with the Timberwolves for one year before landing with Brooklyn, living in Manhattan with his wife and two sons. He and his family have lived in big cities their whole lives, so there wasn’t a sharp adjustment. The traffic, maybe, and picking the right schools for his two sons.
But it was easy compared to the struggles the team faced, going just 10-21 in 2013 with Kirilenko stuck on the sidelines for all but five games. The 6’9″ Russian sat out nearly two months with back spasms that whisked him in and out of practices, the worst back pain he’d ever dealt with. He says his back now is “perfect,” but at 32 years old, he knows he can’t move like he used to.
“Five years ago, I was moving way more,” he exclaims. His eyes lit up at the thought of a more agile past, before returning to the fatiguing reality. “Getting older.”
I posit that maybe it’s just his back pain. He refuses with another smile, a more begrudging, cynical one. He knows his time in the NBA is running out.
“Nah, I’m getting older. Getting older. … Let me finish these two years, see how it goes.”
A left calf injury kept him out of the team’s last three games, including both sides of a back-to-back against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers, when they could’ve used his defense against Kevin Durant and Paul George.
“It’s kind of depressing a little bit,” Kirilenko says of the early season and his physical restrictions. “But other than basketball, it was great.”
He and his family will move back to Moscow at the end of the season, at least for the summer. I mention to him that he’s moved around a lot. He laughs. “I’ve never been traded, though,” he points out.
At first, it was a wisecrack about his own luck in the ruthless business that is the NBA. But it’s more significant than that. Each year, he took the risk, trying to figure out his next move.
“All my decision,” he says with pride. “I got to Minnesota with (Russian guard) Alexey (Shved), but after a year, everything changed. We’d gotten a new general manager, a new system, and it didn’t work out to stay for a long time.”
He lost money on that last risk — a lot of money. He opted out of a deal worth $10 million with the Timberwolves to join the Nets for the taxpayer mid-level exception, just a little over $3 million with a player option for next year.
But in that loss, he says, he gained his own peace of mind. “After (Minnesota) I said, ‘Okay. I will go in a different direction, I will do whatever I want.’ I’m not going for the contract, I’m not going for staying long in one city, I’m going to go where I want to be. At that time (the Nets) have the great trade with KG, Paul Pierce came in. It’s like all the puzzle (pieces) get together.”