SECAUCUS, N.J., Sept. 19
-- Head coach David Blatt called Russia’s gold medal EuroBasket tournament victory last Sunday over the heavily favored Spain in Madrid the “ultimate moment in the history of the Russian nation.” And it was one of his players, Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko
, who had the ultimate tournament, averaging 17 points while leading the Russians to the unlikliest of upsets and berth in the 2008 Olympics. John Hareas caught up with Kirilenko, who has since returned to his native land, still beaming from his team’s landmark victory.
This is the country’s first European title in 22 years, dating back to when the country was known as the Soviet Union. What does this gold medal performance mean for Russia and the game of basketball in Russia?
Andrei Kirilenko: It is the best achievement in my professional career. We played as a team. We really deserved that win. There are thousands of Russian fans all around Russia cheering for us. They deserved that win. For 10 years we couldn’t step over the quarterfinals and we really struggled with it. It was like a curse for us. Finally this year we broke that barrier, went to the final and won the game against a great team – Spain – in Spain, in front of 15,000 Spanish fans. It’s an unbelievable feeling.
If you told me before the championship we were going to win, I would probably laugh at that because no one really counted on us. Nobody thought we could win it. But I think all of us had mini-goals which we set up for the first group – get as many points as we can and advance to the next round. Actually we were the first team to qualify for the quarterfinals. We tried to set the tone for the quarterfinal. France was our opening matchup, which is one of the most uncomfortable teams for us to play. We lost to France in a pre-tournament in Paris by 36 points. So it was a really huge challenge. I’m so happy that we won the quarterfinal and broke the curse. The next two games were much easier emotionally.
What’s been the reaction in Russia as a result of the tourney win?
Kirilenko: Every newspaper, we are on the front page. All the guys got so excited. For most of the guys who are 22, 23 years old, young guys, they are being congratulated by all their parents, relatives, fans. Of course we met with our government people who are really impressed with our performance and they are so happy we made the Olympics. It is a huge impact in Russia right now. I think right now, we have a great chance to develop our basketball.
Russia outscored Spain 26-10 in the post during the final game. How were you so effective in the paint?
Kirilenko: It is not that we are effective in the paint, we are very effective defensively in the paint. We don’t let other teams score. Have you ever heard the Brazilian slogan in soccer? They say: You’re going to score as many as you can, we’re going to score as many as we want.’ We play anti-Brazilian soccer, which means, we are going to score some on you, but you’re not going to score at all. That is the slogan of our team. We are supposed to play great defense, which we did for the whole tournament. Spain scored only 59 points in the final game, and they are a world championship team. They have such great shooters and we were able to hold them under 60 points. That is a huge compliment to all of our players.
Were you surprised to see Spain falter down the stretch, especially with so many missed free throws?
Kirilenko: I think we made them feel uncomfortable. In the early moments, they were feeling pretty good. They had been making shots, they had been running, they were feeling the crowd and they made a very good run to start the game. But our goal was to stay in the game until the end. There was only one chance for us – to stay in the game and try and win in the end. I think we did it perfectly. We didn’t panic when we were down 22-11 and we stayed in the game. Step by step we chased the Spanish team. Finally at the end of the game, they were a little bit tired, they stopped making shots, we forced them to create turnovers and we won the game. We really showed the whole continent that we are really a team because we really cover each other, we really help each other and we really play for each other.
Talk about the play of your NBA colleague, Viktor Khryapa, in the tournament.
Kirilenko: He is unbelievable. I am shocked that he is not playing with Chicago in the NBA. I am amazed by his performance and I know that he can play this game. I know he can be a great contributor for any team in the NBA. I am so surprised that he hasn’t been used there. He is one of my best friends. I can only give more and more compliments because it’s not a secret. Everybody can see that I can lie as a friend, but everybody in Europe and around the world sees that. He is competing on the highest level and I think he is one of the best players in this championship. Sometimes it seems like NBA teams don’t really care about how the players play in the European championship. They are more worried about the team in the summer league and preseason. I hope these championships will change their mind and that people really see the potential of Viktor.
How long have you been playing for the National team and how many years have you and your teammates played together?
Kirilenko: With one of my teammates, I have played since I was 10 years old. I started with him as a kid. With some of the guys, I have played for like five, six years only. With some, this is the first time. That is the reality of the national team.
The 2008 Olympic field is nearly set. How do you rate Russia’s chances of finishing with a medal in Beijing?
Kirilenko: We have been a dark horse before in tournaments. Right now, we are going into Beijing again as a dark horse, but everybody will look at us differently, everybody will be prepared for us. Everybody will learn and study how we play. It will be very hard for us to surprise the world, but we’ll try to do our best. We’re not coming to the tournament to lose. We like to win. We like the taste. We want to hear our national anthem, not only before the game, but after the tournament. I am telling you, it is a fantastic feeling. That is why we live basketball. That is why we are so proud of our country.
Why did so many NBA players represent their countries for the EuroBasket tourney, especially since it’s so close to the NBA season?
Kirilenko: That is an easy answer – because we’re citizens. We love our countries. We want our country to be the best. We want to be proud of our country. I am really thinking about that and I am really happy to be part of my country. I am really happy to be involved in the national team and be part of the history of Russian basketball. It is really huge. I can feel the difference right now when we got back to Russia. Not only between the government people who are responsible for the basketball, but even between the kid who looks at you and wants to be the next Khryapa, the next Holden, the next Pashutin, all the guys. We set a great example for the young generation, how you can win by not being the favorite but just by putting your heart and soul on the line.
For fans in the United States who haven’t watched EuroBasket tournament, how would you describe it?
Kirilenko: It was fantastic. In Europe it is a little different because many, many countries have their own fans following them around. It’s not that no fans from Russia are in the building. There are fans from Russia, there are fans from Greece, from Lithuania, and of course the home crowd made everyone feel good in this tournament. It was the best championship from an organization standpoint.
Your head coach, David Blatt, played for Pete Carril at Princeton and has earned a reputation as one of the best coaches in Europe, presiding over such marquee teams as Maccabi-Tel Aviv, Benetton Treviso, and, starting this season, Efes Pilsen in Turkey. Against Spain, he seemed to give the team offensive freedom. Describe his coaching style.
Kirilenko: I wouldn’t say he gives us freedom on offense. It is part of the truth. He believes in us. He gives us the green light, yes, but he wants us to play controlled. We have different kinds of sets. We’re not perfect. We make mistakes and he gets mad with that. But the main thing, he made us believe. Because of his positiveness and his connection with the players, it makes us enjoy basketball. He made us so happy and so proud to play for our country that we just came to the court ready to fight for him. That is really important, that you’re ready to die for your comrades and coaches.
Do you think we will see Blatt coach one day in the NBA?
Kirilenko: I wouldn’t be surprised if he is in the NBA in a couple of years. He is a very progressive coach. He is really trying to bring an understanding of the game from different aspects, not only from the basketball standpoint, but from all aspects. As a coach, his greatest strengths are his flexibility and courage. We are not playing for the money. We are playing for the happiness, for the basketball. That is the main thing. Sometimes people have to understand that. Yes, we have huge contracts, but that is not why we are playing basketball.