Grit or Gift: Andrey Kirilenko

As you can probably guess by our tagline, “Be your best, naturally,” we’re kind of obsessed with greatness around here. We want to understand how regular people, facing all the regular obstacles, find the strength and drive to succeed. Sometimes it’s precisely the improbability of it all that lights a spark. Sometimes it’s being at the right place in the right time. Sometimes it just comes from inside, in a way that no one can really explain.

For former professional basketball player Andrey Kirilenko, otherwise known as AK47, it’s kind of a mixture of all three. After growing up in St. Petersburg, Russia, he was drafted by the Utah Jazz, where he became one of the top players in the NBA. Andrey now acts as the commissioner for the Russian Basketball Federation and runs a nonprofit foundation with his wife, Masha, that helps kids in need. We caught up with him recently over Zoom to find out how he rose to the top…and what the story was behind the infamous “hall pass” (see question No. 7).

To hear it from Kirilenko himself, check out the full podcast, here.

Q: Tell me about what it was like growing up in St. Petersburg. How did you find basketball, or did it find you?

Kirilenko: Oh it was fun. When you’re a kid there are so many routes to take. We were a very sporty family. My dad was a soccer coach, my mom played basketball. At 7 years old I was given the opportunity to join a basketball team. Then my dad said, “Join a soccer team,” and then track and field. But at the same time, I kept at the basketball part for a long time. Finally, I went to school with my teammates, and it became like a job for me.

Q: You were the youngest to be drafted by the NBA at the time. It must have been a culture shock.

Kirilenko: I wouldn’t say it was a shock, but it was different scenery. Learning all the little things, starting with finding the right things to eat. The legal system was different, mentalities were different. I have so many funny stories. Little things like, changing plugs in the house—one plug wasn’t working, and I got a guy to come change the plug. I said, “Can we put a shelf to cover it?” He said, “I can’t do that, I can lose my license.” I was like, “You can’t cover the plug?” and when he left, I covered it myself. I understand why, but it would never come to my mind in Russia. So many little things like that, when somebody can’t do something. It’s an adjustment. Living for 15 years in the U.S., you get used to it. 

Q: How is the basketball culture different in Russia and the U.S.?

Kirilenko: I wouldn’t even say it is different. It’s the perception of the basketball and the attention of the basketball that is. Because in the NBA, in the U.S., it’s like show business. It’s like the movie industry, politicians, a lot of attention to the basketball players. In Europe and Russia, it is attention, but not as much. NBA is a huge business. It makes you a target but also gives you an opportunity to earn more, to make money. So you’re making more money but losing your privacy. And when you’re playing in Russia and Europe, you have your privacy, but less money. You can go to the store, you can go to the show or to the restaurant without being recognizable. Even though it’s hard for the basketball player, being 6’9” feet tall. 

Q: You must have a love/hate relationship with the media. There’s all this stuff that comes up when you google your name—tattoos, haircuts, you gave your wife a hall pass…How did you manage that?

Kirilenko: The more things you go through, the tougher skin you have. I went through a lot of different things that bothered me at that time, but now I’m thinking, “So what.” All these people writing about your haircut—when we’re young we experiment with different styles. Right now, though, it’s a nightmare. Everyone has a video camera on their phone. Times are evolving, and we’re evolving with it. You just get used to it. 

Q: Your wife is also a super star, a Russian pop singer and entrepreneur. You guys raised three kids—

Kirilenko: Four kids. We lived in Salt Lake City. We have a great example.

Q: Ah, right. How did you and your wife balance that?

Kirilenko: I think it’s like in any family, it’s an adjustment. We just made it to 20 years together. I don’t think it’s possible to be perfect. You get tougher skin for the jokes. Our success is that we can really talk about anything. It’s always been our key to our relationship. Doesn’t matter how hard the topic is, we can bring it up. Not necessarily that we agree, but we bring it up. Sometimes people are afraid or shy to bring certain topics into the marriage, and I’m like, if it bothers you, you have to bring it up. It’s a vital part of our relationship, and sometimes it brings us to funny situations. 

Q: Like what?

Kirilenko: Like the hall pass you mentioned earlier. It is ridiculous. We had one very famous journalist from ESPN, and we were talking about relationships. Masha said, “I love my husband and I don’t even care if he have somebody on the side,” and I said that I respect that she trusts me so much, and it turned into “his wife gives him the hall pass.” The next day I had a swarm of journalists in my locker. Coaches, refs, everyone was coming to me, “AK, great job. We all envy.” Sometimes that’s how media works. It gets blown out of proportion. We all like to look at life under the microscope to see what other people do.

Q: Tell me about your kids. Any basketball players?

Kirilenko: We have three boys and one girl, who was adopted from Moscow. We have one son, 19, who’s in the university. And a son who’s a hockey player. No basketball players.

Q: Tell me more about the foundation you’ve started with your wife. You’ve been building basketball courts in Russia for kids, which they typically don’t really have access to otherwise, right?

Kirilenko: Let’s start from the beginning. We opened the foundation in 2004, me and Masha. I’ve been lucky enough to play in the best league in the world and make a lot of money. And actually America gave me a great example, because there are so many individuals who become successful and give back. We set up our foundation to help in Russia and in the U.S., but of course I concentrated in Russia.

We had three different focuses with the kids. Hospitals, orphanages, and sports schools. In Russia, with sports schools, they don’t have much. Not enough balls, shoes, gear… In the last five years, we developed a program where we help more with the sports. We figure out there’s a lot of demand for the basketball court. 

Q: Do you get feedback about how that impacts kids’ lives? 

Kirilenko: I hear it every day. When we open a court, it’s supposed to be open to the public 24-7. Some people say it saved their lives, they didn’t know what to do or where to go. 

Q: I want to talk about some of the challenges you’ve faced. What is your philosophy on how to overcome the tough stuff in your path? 

Kirilenko: People always ask me what I would change in my past, like put all my money in Amazon in 2007. Right now, you know they’re great, but back then you don’t. It’s the same with basketball. Some people say, Andrey, you could do better. But others say, Andrey, for a kid who grew up in St. Petersburg and didn’t have anything to play in NBA and be an Allstar and carry the flag for the Olympic team, you’re not doing so bad. What’s the criteria? You comparing me to Michael Jordan or the kid who grew up on the street?

I’m a believer that I would not change anything. Any step along the way you learn. There is a rock, and you go over it or move it out of the way. I wish I could have less injuries, but you can’t control that. I’m not LeBron James. I’m Andrey Kirilenko. It’s my way.

Q: I think that speaks to your work ethic, too.

Kirilenko: I know I gave 100 percent. I know I was not laying down.

Q: And you still are. A lot of people in your position retire. But you’re still at it. Tell me about your work ethic and how that fuels you.

Kirilenko: It’s very hard to explain where it comes from. I guess it’s just the way you get used to work. Growing up playing basketball, we had a great team, we won lots of tournaments. I remember one kid said, “The reality is that one or two of us will make it to the next level.” I would always disagree with him. He was right, but even at that point, it’s always been the mindset that I have: Do the best you can do. I’m a believer that it’s not the final result that matters, it’s the process you’re going through. If you put everything into the process, the result will come. 

Even in basketball I’ve always been a fan of little goals instead of large goals. Step by step you win the little goals and get to the big goal. I feel like sometimes behind the big-picture goal, you’re losing those little steps. 

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