Imagine turning on the CBS news one night and, instead of Dan
Rather sitting there, in all his square-jawed solemnity, there
was some bony Russian kid with a spiky hairdo. Then imagine
quickly surfing in search of Tom Brokaw--steady old Brokaw--only
to see, occupying his chair, a baby-faced Puerto Rican with an
earring. ¬∂ In a sense, this is what's happening to Utah Jazz
fans. For 17 years Salt Lake City was the domain of John Stockton
and Karl Malone, the city's own Rather and Brokaw--or, to use a
sports analogy, its Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. Night after night
the stoic, efficient Stockton threw the perfect bounce pass to
the stoic, chiseled Malone as the Mailman roared down the wing
like one of the big rigs he is so fond of. That's almost 1,400
games of the same pick-and-roll plays, of Stockton pulling up
for his shoulder-launched jumper, of Malone seemingly rooted at
the foul line, his knees tilted inward and his lips mouthing
words that no one could decipher. Seventeen years of edging
thisclose to a title before exiting at Almostville.
Now, in the wake of those two Dream Teamers comes 22-year-old
Andrei Kirilenko, a power forward with swizzle-stick arms, and
24-year-old Carlos Arroyo, a vagabond point guard. So little was
expected of the new duo and their young, anonymous teammates that
most publications--this one included--picked the Jazz to finish
last in the Western Conference, especially after the free agents
it signed to offer sheets over the summer, Los Angeles Clippers
forward Corey Maggette and Atlanta Hawks point guard Jason Terry,
were retained by their clubs. ESPN.com columnist Frank Hughes
went so far as to predict that Utah would break the alltime
record for futility (nine wins) set by the Philadelphia 76ers in
So what in the name of Hot Rod Hundley is going on at the Delta
Center? Behind the coaching of a rejuvenated Jerry Sloan and the
play of Kirilenko and Arroyo, Utah was 9-6 through Sunday and had
already beaten such Western playoff contenders as the Houston
Rockets, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns and the
Minnesota Timberwolves (twice). Those victories are almost
secondary to the new crew's other major accomplishment: making
Jazz basketball exciting to watch. On sports radio shows and
Internet message boards some fans have begun expressing a
previously sacrilegious sentiment--that the team may be better
off without Stockton and Malone.
Take last week's 83-76 home victory over the Rockets. Even with
Arroyo sidelined by a sprained left ankle, Utah players ran the
floor, hustled like crazy, threw alley-oops for dunks, swatted
Yao Ming's shots against the backboard and--in a definite
Stockton and Malone no-no--had the gall to be animated during a
fourth-quarter scoring burst. "I'll tell you, I miss those two
guys horribly," says Jazz strength and conditioning coach Mark
McKown. "But these kids are fun to watch, aren't they?"
No longer are Utah games as formulaic as an episode of Three's
Company. The core system is the same as it's been for a dozen
years, but in the past the Jazz ran almost exclusively a
one-guard front to take full advantage of Stockton's
decision-making; now it's a two-guard look that creates more ball
movement and more touches for everybody. (Exhibit A: Four players
are averaging between 11 and 18 points.) And while about 25 of
Utah's approximately 75 set plays are still predicated on the
pick-and-roll, those 25 don't see as much action as they used to.
Now, says Kirilenko in his fractured English, "Coach calls plays
for who is scoring. Before, we stand and watch Karl and John. Now
everybody is involved."
The 61-year-old Sloan is clearly enjoying his new team. "The fun
part of coming to work every day for me is finding a way to win
with the guys we have," he says. "Physically we may be
overmatched, but you can still play basketball if you do it as a
Long known for his old-school values and ref-directed tirades,
Sloan has mellowed this season, reducing his sideline f bombs and
player lambastings. "It's a nice change," says center Greg
Ostertag, a frequent resident of Sloan's doghouse in years past.
"He'll still get on you, but now he'll back off and say what he
likes about what you're doing." Says Sloan, almost
apologetically, "I don't like mistakes, but I also have to
understand that these players have to grow some and I have to
bite the bullet a little bit."
Because of Utah's surprising success, Sloan is suddenly a
front-runner for Coach of the Year, an award that, despite his 15
straight playoff appearances, he has never won. His take on the
matter is predictably Sloanian--"I've never played or coached
basketball for a compliment," he says. "I could give a s--- about
that"--but others think the honor is overdue. "Jerry always got
credit from coaches," says Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy. "I don't
think fans realized his greatness like they realized Stockton or
Minus those two, the closest thing this year's team has to a star
is Kirilenko. Lithe and flamingo-legged at 225 pounds, the 6'9"
forward has flourished as a starter in his third season,
averaging 17.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.9 steals at
week's end while shooting 51.1% from the floor and 88.0% from the
free throw line. Against the Rockets he not only made clutch
baskets, scoring 23 points on a variety of three-pointers, follow
dunks and fearless drives, but also excelled on defense, swooping
in from the help side to bat away shots three times and pinning
two more shots against the glass. Two nights later, in a 98-81
win over the Seattle SuperSonics, Kirilenko had four steals and
four blocks to go along with 12 boards.
"Andrei's the unique NBA player who can dominate a game with his
defense," says Jazz assistant Gordie Chiesa, who believes that
only two NBA players have the ability to regularly thwart
opponents' three-on-one breaks: Kirilenko and Ben Wallace of the
Detroit Pistons, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Though he plays Malone's position, Kirilenko couldn't be more
dissimilar from his down-home, tractor-driving predecessor.
Unfailingly upbeat--a friend nicknamed him the Joker because his
wide grin looked like Jack Nicholson's in Batman--Kirilenko gels
his hair in a Beckham-style faux-hawk and has a Russian pop diva
wife, Masha, 30, whose song Sakharny (it translates as Sugary)
was a huge hit at home last winter. In the background of her
video, Andrei flails away at a dance club, a performance that has
earned him "much joking," he says, from members of the Russian
national team. Explains Kirilenko sheepishly, "I was tired, and
it was dark. I just make dance moves."
Kirilenko is the product of athletic genes. His father, Gennady,
coached professional soccer and handball teams, while his mother,
Olga, played for the national basketball team. He began his pro
career as a 15-year-old for the local St. Petersburg team and was
drafted by the Jazz with the 19th pick in 1999. He arrived
Stateside two years later, and after initially feeling lost in
the U.S. and hating Salt Lake, Kirilenko--who describes himself
as a homebody who likes to "eat good and sleep good"--grew to
appreciate the city's small Russian community and subdued charms.
The feeling is mutual. Kirilenko has become a fan favorite,
answering to the nickname AK-47--his initials combined with his
uniform number, a nod to the Russian assault rifle--and in many
ways becoming the face of the Jazz. After a morning practice last
week Kirilenko stuck around for three hours to tape a
public-service announcement with Masha for AIDS awareness that
will be aired in Russian, film a sequence of 25 trivia questions
and answers for a Russian kids show and do a magazine interview.
Rather than rush through his obligations, he advised the American
producer on the difficulty of the trivia questions ("Russians do
not know White Chock-late," he said of a question about Memphis
Grizzlies point guard Jason Williams. "Only five percent know
Oll-en Iverson!"), joked during the filming (told to act serious
by the producer, he stared into the camera and said, "Hi, I'm
Serious!") and taught a reporter how to say beautiful in Russian
The player who preceded Kirilenko in the makeshift studio was the
other half of the new Jazz tandem, Arroyo, who was doing
interviews in Spanish. Starting with his season-opening 18-point,
13-assist performance in a win over the Blazers, he has
demonstrated surprising quickness and scoring ability. The 6'2"
Arroyo played his college ball at Florida International and spent
a year with a pro team in Spain before landing short stints with
the Toronto Raptors and the Denver Nuggets in the last two
seasons. This is the first time he has played major minutes, and
he has made the most of them, averaging 15.5 points and 6.1
assists. (While injured, he has been ably replaced by Spanish
import Raul Lopez, 23, yet another heady Utah playmaker.)
Arroyo's hot start, combined with his star turn on the Puerto
Rican national team over the summer--he led the squad to an upset
victory over Steve Nash and Canada to take the bronze medal in
the Olympic regional qualifying tournament--has made him into "a
Michael Jordan figure at home," says Jazz p.r. man Kim Turner.
"The Puerto Rican media call all the time. They call me, they
call him at home. Finally, I had to set up a biweekly conference
call. It was just too much."
Multicultural, multinational, multiplying wins; it's easy to see
why Utah fans are warming to their team's new incarnation. On
Jazzfanz.com, a surprisingly active message board devoted to the
team, the tide of opinion is changing. "Watching this new Jazz
has been a lot of fun in ways that the old team never was,"
writes one frequent poster who goes by tatermoog. "With Stockton
and Malone there was a predictability, both playwise and
Though many of the posts begin with a tribute to their departed
heroes, there is a feeling in the air: Change is good. "A group
of people would have wanted Stockton and Malone to play until
they were 55," says David James, a local news anchor who hosts a
Sunday talk-radio show. "But there's also a contingent that feels
like, 'We weren't going to get past the first round anyway, so
why not change it up?'"
That contingent was easy to identify after the Rockets game. They
were the ones who stayed after the victory, filing down to the
lower deck to sit and listen as Utah players did courtside
interviews broadcast over the P.A. Upon finishing his, Kirilenko
raised his arms to the crowd, eliciting a giant cheer, and then
strode off the court into the tunnel, grinning his goofy grin and
slapping every hand proffered to him, a new kind of star for a
new era in Salt Lake.
The latest NBA news, scores and statistics, plus analysis from
Jack McCallum and Marty Burns, at si.com/basketball.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY KENT HORNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES K RATION With the spindly Kirilenko (47) replacing the Mailman, Sloan (right) has found he can still deliver wins to the Jazz.
COLOR PHOTO: GREG NELSON [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: KENT HORNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES STOCK ANSWER Already a superstar in his native Puerto Rico, Arroyo is quickly making his point with fans in Utah.
COLOR PHOTO: ALEXANDER WILF FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE Masha is a bigger star than Andrei back home, where her singing puts his dancing to shame.
THEY'VE GOT SOME POP
Utah's current roster had the fewest combined points in 2002-03
of any team this season. (Karl Malone and his new Lakers
teammates had the most: 10,547.) Here are the teams with the
least proven firepower, each of which was going great guns at
TEAM PLAYERS' TEAM SCORING
COMBINED IN 2003-04
POINTS IN (NBA RANK)
Jazz 4,057 93.1 (10th)
Sonics 5,709 93.7 (eighth)
Nuggets 5,739 94.8 (seventh)
Clippers 5,876 96.6 (fourth)
Bucks 6,109 95.2 (sixth)
Sloan is the early front-runner for an award he's never won:
Coach of the Year.
"Before, we watch Karl and John," says Kirilenko. "Now everybody