Former NBA star Kirilenko hopes to rescue Russian basketball
MOSCOW— After spending more than a decade in the NBA, former All-Star Andrei Kirilenko is taking on what may be his biggest challenge yet — rescuing basketball in his native Russia.
Since Kirilenko helped his national team win Olympic bronze in 2012, Russian basketball has gone into a tailspin. The national team is in danger of failing to qualify for next year’s Olympics and the sport is losing fans to the likes of soccer and ice hockey. But Kirilenko thinks he can help turn things around.
“A couple of years ago, (basketball) was the fourth or third (most popular) sport; right now I think it’s seventh, something like that,” said the 6-foot-9 forward. “I want basketball to be popular and to be in every house in our country.”
Kirilenko only retired from playing in June after a final season with CSKA Moscow, but already he is throwing himself into the bearpit of Russian basketball politics with a bid to become president of the Russian Basketball Federation, an organization so notorious for scandals that it was suspended by international governing body FIBA after years of legal battles.
Kirilenko faces resistance from some in the federation old guard and, with nationalist sentiment riding high in Russia, he has been criticized for having a U.S. passport in addition to his Russian nationality after becoming an American citizen in 2011 while with the Utah Jazz.
“People who talk about that, they want to be picky, they want to find something that doesn’t fit a good profile,” he says. “I was born in Russia, the whole of my life I’ve been a Russian and I will die a Russian.”
So far Kirilenko is the only candidate for Tuesday’s election, though there is a late push to get national team general manager Dmitry Domani onto the ballot too. If elected, Kirilenko vows to shake up Russian basketball.
“We got used to working a certain way, I call it the old-fashioned way,” he says, speaking in an upscale restaurant in central Moscow. He wants to use his celebrity profile to attract sponsors, bring in modern management techniques and attract many more youngsters to the game in a long-term project to rebuild Russia’s struggling national team.
“Right now, we’re choosing from 20, 30 people (for the national team), but I want there to be a big number, I want it to be 300, so we have the privilege of choice,” he says. Focusing only on the Russian pro game while neglecting youth basketball is like “trying to fix the roof when the foundations, the walls are not there.”
Despite being heir to the gold medal-winning Soviet teams of the past, Russia’s hopes of making next year’s Olympics are fading. The women’s team has already failed to qualify, while the men must hope for FIBA to lift its ban and then perform well at next month’s European championship to continue in the qualification process. That seems unlikely after poor recent performances, including a 34-point blowout loss to Serbia.
Tuesday’s presidential vote is only being held because the last election in 2013 was overturned by the Russian courts after a two-year campaign by the losing candidate, former WNBA player Svetlana Abrosimova, who says she was stunned by the level of bitterness she encountered.
“The first thing that happened to me at the last election was that I walked inside the building and I had my team with me, the people who worked with me for all the pre-election stuff, and they were not allowed to get inside the building,” Abrosimova said.
That was one of numerous violations that biased the vote in favor of eventual winner Yulia Anikeeva, she has alleged.
A court eventually ruled that the vote had been conducted unfairly. Anikeeva was removed from office along with other senior officials and a new vote was ordered. After “constant court hearings and people just talking bad stuff about me,” Abrosimova has no desire to run again and has thrown her support behind Kirilenko who is, she believes, a reformer who can show that it’s “not the Soviet Union any more.”
For his part, Kirilenko says “there is no sense that something wrong is going to happen” at Tuesday’s vote, adding that representatives from the Russian sports and justice ministries will attend to ensure fairness.
However, Abrosimova fears a late surprise from the old guard to derail the former NBA star’s plans.
“I’m sure they’re going to come up with something,” she said. “They’ve been very quiet recently.”
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