LONDON—Andrei Kirilenko was asked if he is well known throughout Europe. After all, he is one of the most versatile players in the NBA, and in 2011-12 during the lockout, he was named the Euroleague MVP. “This is a football country,’’ Kirilenko said with a smile. “A real football country.’’
By football, of course, he means soccer. It turns out that one of the biggest soccer fans you’ll ever meet wears the black and white of the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Garnett, a longtime Chelsea Football Club fan, was almost reduced to tears yesterday as he got a tour of the Premier League’s facilities. KG received a Chelsea jersey with his name that was hanging in the locker room, met a couple of Chelsea players, and sat in the chair reserved for manager Jose Mourinho. “I’m like a kid in a candy store,’’ said KG.
Knowing of KG’s passion for soccer, and his fierce devotion to Chelsea, which began years ago with a chance meeting with former team star Didier Drogba, basketball operations manager Matt Riccardi set up the visit. KG was so blown away by the experience that when he sat in Mourinho’s plush chair in the stadium and gazed out at the field, he pulled out his cell phone and took a selfie. “I never do this,’’ said Garnett.
The Nets are here to play the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday (3:00pm, YES) and after Sunday’s cross-Atlantic flight, the other players opted for a nap after practice. Not KG. As he said to 9-year-old Chris Carrino, the son of the Nets radio voice by the same name, “Lead, don’t follow.’’
Garnett described his passion for soccer as an addiction. In his Minnesota home he has two televisions always set to soccer. And he has two goals set up on his property. Before reporting to training camp, KG hosts pickup soccer games with longtime friends as a way to get in shape. KG’s initial reaction to soccer was similar to many Americans: He didn’t understand it and there wasn’t enough scoring. But as he learned and watched more of the world’s most popular sport, KG began to understand the strategy, was mesmerized by the skill and was blown away by the passion of the fans.
The tour to Chelsea was the pinnacle of his love affair with soccer although he said when he’s done playing he intends to go on a worldwide tour, taking in Premier League, European Cup and World Cup games. “Cross this off the bucket list, man,’’ said a grinning Garnett.