Russians prepare to invade Timberwolves
Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved helped put Russian basketball back on the map after leading the national team to a bronze medal at the London Olympics.
Now they're hoping to do the same thing for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Kirilenko and Shved were the two stars for Russia in London, with Shved scoring 25 points in the bronze medal game against Argentina. The victory helped restore Russia's standing on the international stage after a long drought of competitiveness when the former Soviet Union was dismantled.
They returned to Moscow as heroes and have been embraced by the passionate sporting fan base.
''They look at the Olympic games and get excited about Russian basketball,'' Shved said in a phone interview from Russia. ''Many kids come to play basketball, not like football before.''
Basketball's popularity dipped in Moscow after the national program struggled to capture the same edge the Soviet Union had. It hit a low point in 2004 when the Russians failed to qualify for Athens, and the nation had difficulty cultivating young talent to compete in a more challenging international field.
As a result, youngsters turned away from basketball as an option, preferring soccer and hockey. Now, after coach David Blatt, Kirilenko and Shved enjoyed such success, basketball is cool again in Russia.
''Everybody loves us,'' Shved said. ''When I get to my city many people come to me and want to take some photos. That's great. In five or 10 years maybe it's the no. 1 sport and not football.''
Hoping to capitalize on the summer, Kirilenko and Shved are participating in the NBA's ''Basketball Without Borders'' program, which has come to Russia for the first time. It's geared around global basketball development and community outreach, and brings 50 of the top young players in Europe to Moscow for the weekend to participate in camps with NBA players and coaches.
''I think it's great, great timing,'' Kirilenko said. ''The Russian team did a very good job in the Olympics. We have a very good impact on basketball in Russia. All of the kids look at basketball a different way.''
The Timberwolves are in the middle of a reclamation project of their own. They haven't made the playoffs since 2004, but with a young core of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, and coach Rick Adelman running the show, things are looking up.
President of basketball operations David Kahn signed Kirilenko, a 10-year NBA veteran who feels rejuvenated after spending the lockout-shortened season playing professionally in Moscow, to add some versatility and badly needed veteran leadership to the team. Shved was brought in to add depth to both backcourt positions.
Both players plan to head to Minnesota in the next 10 days or so, with training camp set to open on Oct. 2.
''I'm working a lot on my physical condition,'' Kirilenko said. ''It's the most important thing in the NBA. My game is very energetic. As long as I'm in good shape, I'm running. That's my game is running.''
Kirilenko is also giving Shved, who has never played in the NBA, some pointers on making the transition.
''He's helped me,'' Shved said. ''He played in Utah. He knows everything. I'm like a rookie. It's very important for me that we come on the same team together and for sure it helps me.''
The Russian invasion will be less hostile takeover, more cavalry arriving to help. To them, it's already clear who runs things in Minnesota. Those two may have won bronze and helped repair Russia's tattered basketball reputation, but Love won gold. He played a critical role in helping the United States to the Olympic title, emerging as coach Mike Krzyzewski's favored big man. He's also a two-time All-Star who has cemented himself as one of the best players in the league.
''He really improved from just a good player to a superstar,'' Kirilenko said. ''It's obviously his team. He's the franchise player. He's a go-to guy. So we have to give him the support.''
The three players crossed paths briefly on a few occasions in London, but didn't have a whole lot of time to connect during the hectic Olympic schedule. That's what training camp is for, and everyone in Minnesota is eagerly awaiting their arrival.
The Wolves also have the Montenegrin Pekovic, the Spaniard Rubio and Puerto Rican JJ Barea on a roster with plenty of international flavor.
''It's going to work good for sure,'' Pekovic said. ''It's all good guys. I think everything will work good.''
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