Andrei Kirilenko on Russian Hoops, Losing Home to LA Fire: 'I Saw Hell on Earth'

David Pick@@IAmDPickInternational Hoops InsiderDecember 22, 2017

Utah Jazz's Andrei Kirilenko looks at the basket during practice before the start of their NBA basketball game with the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010, in Portland, Ore.  (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Andrei Kirilenko hasn't played in the NBA since the 2014-15 season, but his life is still consumed by the sport. As the commissioner of the Russian Basketball Federation, he aims to groom the next generation of Russian players and build a program better off than the one he joined when he was just a 15-year-old prospect.

But like many, he saw things take an unexpected turn when he woke up at 5:30 in the morning in early December. Kirilenko, who owns a $5.55 million home in Los Angles, had a courtside seat to the L.A. hills illuminated in flames, and he knew it was time to get out.

"I saw hell on earth," Kirilenko told Bleacher Report. "It looked like the end of the world."

Kirilenko, who was home with his family on a quick vacation from Russia, is now finding a balance between his professional career and rebuilding what he had in the City of Angels. FIBA's next set of 2019 World Cup qualifiers are scheduled for late February, as Russia battles France and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but as so many L.A. natives can attest to, there are legal papers, inspections and everything else that comes with the non-celebrity side of being victim to a tragedy.

While Kirilenko's world moves on, his Russian and Los Angeles roots both have the spotlight. He recently sat down with B/R to talk about his home, the Russian Basketball Federation and Russia's banishment from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

     

B/R: What was your first reaction to the firestorm?

MONTECITO, CA - DECEMBER 16: Smoke fills the sky over the ocean beyond homes threatened by the Thomas Fire on December 16, 2017 in Montecito, California. The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings of dangerous fire weather in Southern Calif
David McNew/Getty Images

AK: It was crazy. Fortunately, I was home...I was there [for my family]. I flew in for the weekend but extended my trip for a few more days. I woke up at 5:30 in the morning and the entire mountain was on fire. I saw hell on earth. It looked like the end of the world.

... I don't spend a lot of time in L.A. Most of the time I'm in Russia because of the Federation, but I travel back to the U.S. for the weekends. It's amazing that I decided to extend my trip and was home for the fire, because I wasn't supposed to be here.

     

I'm sure you had a lot of memorabilia lost in the fire, but what were some of the things your wife and kids decided they couldn't live without when leaving the house?

At first, I couldn't believe it. I thought it wouldn't reach us. After we evacuated, I watched the news and was like, 'Oh, our house is on fire.' The funny thing I keep thinking about is the most important things my kids decided to take. These were crucial moments of our lives—we all had big decisions to make. My eldest son (Stepan) took his school stuff and his homework. My daughter (Alexandra) took her coloring books, and my other son (Fedor) took his hockey gear. My wife ran for the documents and passports. Literally, we all ran out. We packed our lives into two cars in under an hour, and the last thing we squeezed in was dog food for our dogs (laughs).

We fled to an L.A. hotel, but just for a few hours. I was lucky to have so many great friends reach out—people from all over the world called to check in. We're staying [with] a friend who invited us to live with them for a little while.

Kirilenko's wife, Masha, from her private Instagram account: "My house burned down. Today is the hardest day for me and my family, but I’m happy we’re alive….So far in shock. Since I’m a monster, I will build a new house... times better. As Kobe Bryant would say #mambaout."

     

What's next for the Kirilenkos? Did you consider taking everyone back to Russia, or continue to live in Los Angeles?

We need to settle all the legal papers and inspection; it's not that easy. I would love to rebuild and finish, but it takes time. Credit to my wife and kids for being strong. It was an adventure. No one cried about it; we were all in shock. I would have brought them all back to Russia, but they go to schools here. My daughter has gymnastics; my son plays hockey; they have lives here, and it would be unfair to them.

     

What's happening with the Russian Basketball Federation and what are you hoping to accomplish next?

Russia's next goal is to qualify for the 2019 World Cup games. I'm a fan of FIBA's current schedule of having games in-season because we get to host in Russia. In November, we played in Nizhny, and despite not having Timofey Mozgov, Alexey Shved or other Euroleague stars, it was a blast.

We had tremendous success with TV coverage. At one point, we hit a 4.0 rating and had 2 million people tuned in. Of course, the format has pros and cons, and the major problem is not being able to compete with NBA and top Euro players. But other than that, I'm for it. Only positive things.

There's huge pressure to win. I was a player as well. There is no difference between playing for your club or national team. Either way, you're practicing, watching film or traveling, so this format actually is a breath of fresh air from the season. Players get a week off from the grind with a club and get a chance to speak the same language, represent your country and return to your club re-energized.

     

On How Far the Federation Has Come

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12: Andrei Kirilenko #15 of Russia stands on the podium with the Bronze medal after the Men's Gold Medal Basketball Game against Spain on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the North Greenwich Arena on August 12, 2012 in L
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

When I joined the Federation, its relationship with the clubs was really unhealthy. I didn't believe it, but people didn't want to talk to each other, or even look at one another. But things have changed for the better, and we're on the same page.

     

Outside of Timofey Mozgov, Russia no longer has players in the NBA. Are there any young stars on the rise who could see their names called in NBA someday?

Mozgov is the lone Russian-born player in the NBA. ... I don't see other Russian NBA talent at this time, but maybe Mikhail [6'3", 23 years old] and Dmitry Kulagin [6'6", 25] can be at that level with the right situation. My goal is to build the next generation of players for Russia, because our main national stars are 30 years old or older, and the reality is they'll be finished with their national careers after the Olympics.

These in-season windows for the national teams are crucial for us to give our next generation a chance to take responsibility for the results and carry the nation on their backs. Imagine if Spain had a full roster during these windows—their next generation will never have a chance to compete with the Gasols [Marc and Pau] or Ricky Rubio and Alex Abrines. But when those players return from the NBA, these kids will have the experience to compete and become leaders.

     

How devastated are Russian athletes by the 2018 Winter Olympics banishment?

I hope it doesn't carry over for the Summer Olympics in [2020]. It's an unfortunate situation. Russia has a rich history in sports. Not being able to hear the Russian anthem or see our flag at the Olympics, no one likes it. I don't think people in the top echelon of politics or the government care about these kind of [things]; they have bigger issues on their plates than doping athletes. There are certain individuals pushing this from behind the scenes.

Imagine you're an athlete who comes to represent his country in football or handball and you walk into the locker room and everything is set up for you—what vitamins or conditions pills to take. Remember, these kids are just 16, 18 years old. They don't even know about this stuff. You're telling them these vitamins will help them recover, and they say, 'Oh, that's nice.' I played all around the world. I know doctors that give bio vitamins to help players recover. It's everywhere. It's not doping. If it's a bad doctor, you're not going to know what's in your body. Some kids have asthma or other health conditions such as recovering from surgery or to help cartilage or bone repair. Not all athletes know how long some of this stuff stays in your system, but it can take a long time, and then you're in the Olympics and you test positive.

All the cycling and skiing sports require a long recovery process. Before the Rio Olympics, Russia was told six months ahead that they can't go. (More than 100 Russian athletes were barred from the 2016 Olympics) It doesn't make sense. Test them before individually, each athlete. Whoever fails, suspend them. I disagree with a collective punishment. Yelena Isinbayeva [a two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world-champion pole vaulter] is one of the greatest athletes of all time, was never in her life even close to doping. But she was banned. I agree with bans, but you can't ban an entire delegation.

     

How did you feel about the ruling?

The Olympics for Russians is the greatest honor and biggest achievement of their careers. People train 10-15 years [for] this moment, but because someone said something, they don't have a chance. That's crazy.

   

David Pick is a veteran pro basketball reporter covering overseas hoops and American players abroad since 2010. Follow him on Twitter: @IAmDPick.

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