SALT LAKE CITY -- On New Year's Eve I sent a "Hello and Happy New Year" text out to former Jazzman Andrei Kirilenko. Full disclosure - I was hoping he'd agree to sit down for an interview with me when he arrived back in Salt Lake City Tuesday evening.
He's about to play for the first time in another team's uniform at EnergySolutions Arena after ten memorable, often glorious, sometimes troubling seasons here with the Jazz.
AK texted me right back (as he often did in the past) and agreed to spend a few minutes with me at the Grand America.
Typical AK, he cruised in to the hotel lobby alone, exchanging friendly smiles and greetings with hotel staff then gave me a old buddy half-hug and we shook hands. Relaxed and at peace, he immediately told me this "feels like home."
Wife Masha is heading into town Wednesday, never wanting to miss a party. AK's return will be felt throughout Jazz Nation and the team's hierarchy.
"To be honest I'm cheering for the Jazz, not tonight, but every time when I see the guys playing I'm like ‘come on Paul, come on Al' and still those guys are like a family," he said.
What followed was a comfortable half hour reconnecting with one of my favorite Jazz players.
"You're very much still a Utahn, aren't you?" I offered.
"There are so many memories," Kirilenko said with wide eyes. "You can't just take it and throw it away. It's my life, we still have our house here and my billing address is Utah. I'm still here."
So much so that once he checked into the team's hotel, the Grand America downtown, Kirilenko went up to spend Tuesday night at the house he still owns in Federal Heights.
"We had a great time here," he said. "My kids were born here. They're Americans. My son when he listens to the American Anthem and he's standing, like, happy."
I'm interested in finding closure where it apparently doesn't exist. Like why his complex relationship with Jerry Sloan couldn't be fixed.
"It's a great run. No doubt he was the one, the coach who really helped me, put me on that kind of a tough, high level in the NBA," Kirilenko said. "With every coach you always have ups and downs. It's a process. With your father, with your mother, it's a family and sometimes you get pissed, sometimes you're so happy with it but it's a life with basketball and I'm very grateful to Jerry for the chance to work with him. You've got that type of coach who knows what he wants and how to get it even sometimes it's an unpleasant way."
Andrei was chuckling as that thought rolled out. I followed up by asking him if he thought Sloan understood him.
AK was measured but pointed in his response. "At some point we really didn't know how to help ourselves," he said. "We kind of got stuck… and we didn't know how to resolve it."
Kirilenko says he has no idea if Sloan will ever coach again.
" I think he deserves a chance," he said. "He had a great chance with the Jazz, went to the finals twice -- it didn't happen. Michael Jordan. I think he just wants a legit chance."
AK offered some insight on the halftime confrontation with Deron Williams that led to Jerry walking away from the franchise.
"I was really surprised that Jerry left because it really wasn't something outrageous," he said. "I guess he was just tired of this on a daily basis. He just said ‘that's enough, I'm tired.' At some point everybody comes to the conclusion that I want to stop, and I will probably come to that conclusion too in four or five years."
When Kirilenko left Utah two years ago there were rumblings his career could be cascading down, fast. That's something AK denies.
In the first year of a 2-year, $20 million deal with Minnesota, the soon-to-be 32-year-old is averaging more minutes per game (35.1) than any of the younger Jazz.
"I feel great, playing a lot of minutes," he said. "It's actually helping. Our coach Rick Adelman is a players' coach, gives us lots of rest, lots of recovery time. For the veterans, it's very friendly."
His T'Wolves are ahead of the Jazz in that tight Western Conference playoff chase. AK's unique skillset and sensitive persona made him a fan favorite until the weight of his max-money contract and ill-timed injuries turned many Jazz fans against him.
Still AK's A-OK with how things played out.
"To be honest, I miss playing with the Jazz," he said. "Sometimes I catch myself when opening NBA.com and searching for results of my team. I'm looking Jazz, then I figure it out, ‘wait a second I'm not a Jazz.' I have to look at somethings totally differently. In Russia we have a phrase that you have to change your ways, the place, where you're working every seven years. I stick with the Jazz ten years. So I had a good time, really a good time, but I guess it was time to change something and refresh it and I feel it helps just to change the environment, go to Russia and get an extra spark."
I was curious what Minnesota's scouting report said about his former team. Andrei gushed about the fans and the home-court advantage that's endured through decades.
"Right now we're talking about how the Jazz are playing well at home, that they're always protecting their court and I tell them, 'hell yeah we did,'" he said.
If you're part of the late-arriving crowd Wednesday you will likely miss the most intriguing pregame introduction of the season.
When Kirilenko is announced as a T'Wolves starter, I'm thinking Jazz fans understand the significance and respond with an outpouring of love and appreciation for all Andrei did for this team. On the court, around the world and maybe most importantly, around the blocks that make up our universal community.
"I've always been amazed how the whole community stood behind the Jazz," he said. "I've never seen any team... when the whole city really cares about how the team's playing with the new faces. As soon as I came to the city, my first time, I was 20 years old, stepping into some restaurant... and one man came up to me and said ‘Andrei, we're so happy to have you here' and I'm like, ‘how do you know who I am? I'm coming from Russia, you've never seen me play.' That's a great example how everybody is so involved with the Jazz life."
It's the circle of the roundball life in these parts. How would Andrei feel about closing his NBA circle in a Jazz uniform?
"I don't think it's impossible. I still have lots of great relationships with everybody here," he said.