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"Does he care whether their wives like him?" she says.
Andrei turns and mutters something to her in Russian.
"He doesn't like me to talk about that," says Masha.
"It's not that I don't like Jerry," says Andrei. "He's a good person. He's just from an older generation that treats players like kids. Let's say your boss comes to you and says, 'Hey, son. Come here'. And you look at him like, What did you call me? It doesn't hurt your feelings, but it doesn't feel comfortable."
Says Masha, "The guy remembers a time when he was driving a '65 Chevy. To him, Andrei will always be a kid."
A first-round pick in 1999, Kirilenko arrived in the U.S. two years later, fresh from CSKA Moscow. Despite his seemingly fragile 220-pound frame he quickly became one of Utah's most consistent and versatile players. The anti--Karl Malone—the Mailman made his living running the pick-and-roll and banging in the low post—Kirilenko is rarely used as a screener and can score from almost anywhere on the floor. He played in all 82 games in his first season, was an All-Star by his third and made the All-Defensive first team in his fifth.
The Kirilenkos' issues with Sloan first developed during 2006--07, when point guard Deron Williams and power forward Carlos Boozer emerged as Utah's primary options. That squeezed out Kirilenko, who saw his scoring average decline from 15.6 in '05--06 to 8.3 and his playing time drop by 10 minutes per game. In closed-door meetings Sloan advised him to keep playing defense while Kirilenko asked for a bigger role in the offense. "I was really frustrated," says Kirilenko. "I didn't know how Coach wanted me to play. I didn't know what to do on the floor. I played hard defensively, but I was lost on the other end."
Rock bottom came during the first round of the playoffs. After sitting on the bench for the final 17 minutes of Utah's Game 1 loss to the Rockets, Kirilenko began sobbing as he talked to the press at practice the next day. "I have no confidence," he told reporters. "None." A horrified Masha could barely watch. The following morning she flew to Houston and found her husband alone in his hotel room, inconsolable. "The thing that you have to realize about Andrei," says Masha, "is that he is impossible to get upset. I can't do it. So when I saw him like that, I knew something was seriously wrong."
After the season the couple returned to Moscow, where Kirilenko led the Russian national team to the European championship and was named MVP of the tournament. "I found out there was nothing wrong with my game," he says. "I was still the same player." Emboldened by his success, Kirilenko began to lash out. He complained to the Russian press that the Jazz treated him like a rookie instead of a franchise player. He praised Russia's coach, David Blatt, in his blog for helping him "realize a dream" while attacking Sloan for constantly reminding players of their exorbitant contracts and harping on their mistakes. To top it all off, he demanded a trade and threatened to walk away from his contract and stay in Russia if it didn't happen. "We didn't want to go through that again," says Masha. "That was the worst year of my life. I cried every day."
The trade never materialized. Kirilenko reported to camp (he blamed the media for blowing his remarks out of proportion), and after a clear-the-air meeting with Sloan and general manager Kevin O'Conner, he stepped right back into the starting lineup. "There was a frustration on our part and a frustration on Andrei's part," says O'Conner. "He told us what he had to do to get over the hump, and we tried to give him what he needed." Kirilenko's numbers ticked up last year, and, more important, he and Sloan appeared to bury the hatchet—or at least learned to coexist. "If you have two competitive guys, there are going to be disagreements," says Bucks coach Scott Skiles. "Too much is made of that. Nobody wants a team full of patsies who won't voice their opinions."