In Russia, Andrei Kirilenko says, there’s an old maxim about changing jobs every six years. He’s not sure where it comes from, but since 2008, it’s applied to even the office of the Russian president. It doesn’t matter who you are — six years, and it’s time for something new.
Maybe it’s that idea that makes Kirilenko describe his time in Utah as an overachievement, perhaps even an overstaying of his welcome. Today, there are 49 active NBA players who debuted in or before Kirilenko’s first season (2001-02), and in that span, those players have played for an average of 4.7 teams. Kirilenko was permitted 10 seasons in Utah, 726 games in the same uniform, and 711 of them for the same boss, Jerry Sloan.
By the end of Kirilenko's days in Salt Lake City, his stay had spoiled. When he returned to the NBA after spending last year’s lockout-shortened season in Russia, it had to be somewhere new. The Jazz had moved on, and Kirilenko knew it was time for him to do the same.
With nine minutes left in the fourth quarter of the Timberwolves’ November 16 loss to the Warriors, a middle-aged couple descended from the stands at the Target Center, ostensibly on their way out. After bypassing the exits, they eventually reached court level and paused behind the Timberwolves’ bench, where Ricky Rubio was perched in a black folding chair. Inches away, but just out of Rubio’s line of vision, the woman posed while her companion snapped a photo.
A security guard stopped them shortly after, stepping in just as the line between excited fans and crazed invaders of personal space was crossed. The two laughed, and turned back into the stands. Turns out, it hadn’t been a stop on their way out. This was a short Ricky pilgrimage, a chance to get close to the point-guard-cum-pop-idol who’s risen to a mythical status among fans in Minnesota over the past eight months.
When Rubio tore his ACL March 9 and the Timberwolves’ charmed season fell apart, the Spaniard's cult following grew larger than ever before. Even noted curmudgeon Rick Adelman admitted he hadn’t realized Rubio’s full import to the team, both on the court and off. The locker room was quieter, practices became lifeless, and a team that had been convinced it was only getting better was crippled by the belief that it couldn't do so without Ricky. Now, just eight months after surgery, and with Minnesota sitting at 8-8, Rubio’s return looms, and with it, the hope that a team that’s managed to stay afloat without him will leap forward with him. That’s a lot for a 22-year-old who’s played a grand total of 41 NBA games and was falling off last season even before his injury.