Living the good life in Los Angeles, Andrei Kirilenko remains wedded to Mother Russia.

President of his country’s basketball federation, the one-time NBA All Star and Olympic medallist has become accustomed to inhabiting worlds past and present, shuttling (pre-Covid) back and forth between parenting his four kids on America’s west coast and nurturing the next generation of child hoopsters in his homeland.

Now 39, and four years removed from his final game for CSKA Moscow, the former EuroLeague MVP retains his thirst for the game.

And yet the politics encompassing sport leave a nasty taste, he declares.

This week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport is set to hear what is effectively an appeal by Russia against its exclusion from global events, including the Olympic Games, with an argument that the sanctions were “unfounded, lacked legal basis … and violated the principle of proportionality.”

It was triggered by the World Anti-Doping Agency last December, a four-year ban imposed for multiple misdemeanours including the manipulation of testing data at its laboratories and an apparent refusal to fully clean house.

Cheaters should pay, Kirilenko insists. Ban those who dope for life, he underlines.

But the long-time Utah Jazz forward senses a lack of parity, an injustice that while countries like Kenya and Ethiopia are churning out positive tests by the dozen, they are free to arrive in Tokyo en masse next summer while Russians who have never troubled the testers are staring exclusion in the face.

“It’s very sad, to see an athlete in Russia, who’s never done any doping or never been involved in anything like that. They are punished for something they had never done. And they lose an opportunity to represent the country in the Olympics.

“Like Maria Lasitskene, the high jumper. I know her personally. And when I see what she’s going through, I’m so sad.

“Because you know, I’ve been granted this opportunity to be on this ladder. Olympics is a number one in sport. And in the end, right now, she doesn’t have opportunity to be at the Olympics. This is wrong.

“Believe me, I’m a strong and intolerant for the people who are cheating who are using doping, to reach the best results. I think they have to be punished. I think they have to be suspended and never be able to participate in the events.

“But when we’re talking about people who’ve never done it, like it’s just unfair. It cannot be. What I see right now is a lot of like talking about collective punishment, collective management, like what are we talking about? What collective punishment?”

Listen to the full interview on the MVP Cast

That Russian’s systematic doping programme was exposed as state-sponsored by WADA turned the spotlight on a single nation like never before.

The revelations that samples had been swapped through holes in the wall at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi seemed like a level above even the alleged worst excesses of East Germany and elsewhere in its testosterone-pumping pomp of four decades ago.

Simply seedy.

But if punishment is to be fair and just, Kirilenko maintains, then it must be applied on an equal basis to all.

“Doping is a huge problem in the world, not only Russia,” he says. “But if you take a look around the world, oh my god, there’s so many people who tried to cheat. And were using doping.

“But we’re not punishing countries. We punish and people who’s using prohibited substances.

“One of my favourite athletes is Marion Jones. I was in love with the way she was participating in the Olympics. But then she even went to jail for this. It was a huge scandal. I remember this scandal.

“She said that, yes, she used the substances. And then she went to jail. My heart was broken.

“Lance Armstrong … huge athletes with the huge names. They’ve been accused on this. And they said they did it.

“And it’s a it’s a big deal, but nobody punished countries for this. And that this is what I find out is unfair.”

Blame the misconceptions and stereotypes, he adds. Of Russia the big bad wolf, running riot in the henhouse.

There are definitive changes, he insists. The junior talents coming through the Russian basketball pathway are educated and constrained, he adds. The messages clear. Say no to drugs, kids.

From what was a relative slump into the abyss for Russian basketball has become a revival under his watch as its under-age sides excel again.

Four years after David Blatt oversaw an Olympic bronze in London for Russia’s men, the team failed to qualify for Rio in 2016, finishing a humbling 21st at EuroBasket a year later and missing the subsequent summer’s FIBA World Cup.

The women’s side sat out Rio and the next two worlds on top. A national disaster.

It uncovered huge structural flaws, Kirilenko concedes.

“Before I came in, Federation was picking the best kids in Russia at 16 years old, and they’d be coming to the European Championship or European events. And at that time, for the first time, our kids start facing the same age kids from Spain, from Germany, from France, from Lithuania.

“And they start losing because they never had the experience to play against international kids. So what we did is we start getting everybody together about 14 years old.

“So at 14, we’re trying to present them with opportunity. And this is a costly opportunity, because it takes a lot of resources to pay for the teams, because at this point, the government not involved in budgeting or sponsoring it.

“So we have to find the partners, which is a commercial partner, who’s going to be able to pay those money for the national teams to travel around Europe, or around the world, and have those necessary experience. And it really brings a lot of help to us, because they start playing against Spanish teams, for example.

“I remember our first year when they start playing, they lose by like, 35-40 points. And when they get back to Russia, they’re like, ‘OK, we’ve seen what they do’.

“We’ve seen what they can do, they start practising and, and in about a year, at 15 years old, they come to play against the same teams, they lose by 15 points.

“And then at 16 years old, they’ve seen those teams for two years already. They know this age, they know this generation.

“When you play against LeBron James, since 14 years old, you would not be afraid of him to play against him at 25.”

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What he fears is that some of those burgeoning talents will be lost – or never reach their potential – if Russians are kept out in the international cold.

One of the trailblazers for a generation of Europeans who made their homes in the NBA, Kirilenko knows he owes so much to the exposure that the international stage provided to him.

“I’m trying imagine myself 20 years ago. Imagine Andre Kirilenko right now.

“17-18 years old. And this situation going on and I’m prohibited from playing at the Olympics.

“So probably there’s no AK-47 in the basketball world says just because somebody said, ‘OK, it’s the country’s fault. Right now you can’t play.’

“And I know I’m saying, ‘how come – why?’ That’s the normal question.

‘I think right now there is, in skateboarding, a kid who’s supposed to be debuting in Tokyo. I think he’s like 12-13 years old. He was six years old when it was Sochi.

“So how come he’s supposed to be a victim of this particular situation, when he’s he was six years old? What kind of benefits could he get there back then?

“I mean, this is just wrong.”

It feels personal, he hints.

Emotional too, given how much the Olympics meant to him, especially London eight years ago when he adjoined the best of the USA and Spain on the rostrum in north Greenwich to fulfil a boyhood dream.

“In my opinion, it was the most fun Games for me at least because it was in Europe. And I love London. Even without sport.

“Without the Olympics, I love to be in London. I love Great Britain as a culture. I grew up on this fairy tales of Sherlock Holmes and Oliver Twist, different stories by different authors.

“But my best memories about the Olympics is not in London.

“My best memories are in Beijing (2008), because I was granted an honour by my country to be a flag bearer for the national team on the opening ceremony.

“This is the highlight of my career. Not winning titles, or even though it’s nice to win titles and win medals, but being able to hold the flag and bear the flag for your national team.

“I think this is the biggest honour that you can have.”

Before he departs to shuttle his kids off to school or an activity, I pause to ask him about his kinship with John Amaechi, who has made much of the hand of friendship extended by his Russian colleague during their time together in Utah.

The Briton, Kirilenko reveals, had an unique and long-lasting influence on his career, one that provided his hallmark in the two decades since.

“Actually, he was the reason why I got 47,” he says.

“My favourite number for the jersey always been 13 because my mum played 13. And when I came to Utah, I was drafted and took 13.

“But then John Amaechi was signed by Utah after this fact. And because he’s a veteran, he has a chance to choose the number of the jersey. So he picked 13.

“And I was like, ‘uh-oh, I need to change mine. And one of my friends in the team at that time, he said like, ‘why don’t you pick 47? You’re Andre Kirilenko, AK-47. This is a Russian rifle.

“I’m like, ‘well, sure, let’s try’. And I’ve tried this.

“And later in fact, I figured out that AK-47 was invented by Mikhail Kalashnikov who did this in Izhevsk. Izhevsk is the city where I was born.

“So it was like, everything goes into the same part.

“And since this, AK-47 was born.”

Images: Ahmedphotos

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