Andrei Kirilenko comes from a nation without a history of tolerance towards gay people. But having a gay teammate is nothing new to the Nets forward. Jason Collins may be his first openly gay teammate, but more than a decade ago, as another teammate was struggling with coming out, --something he didn't do until he retired-- Kirilenko reached out in such a personal manner that it brought tears to John Amaechi's eyes.
To Amaechi, the British NBA player who came out in 2007, Kirilenko was a huge help to him when the two were teammates in Utah, a team owned by a businessman who once prohibited theaters he owned from showing "Brokeback Mountain."
Here's what Amaechi wrote of Kirilenko who he had nicknamed "Malinka" in his 2007 book, "Man in the Middle." Kirilenko was 22.
Sometime after Christmas of my last Utah season, in 2002, Malinka instant-messaged an invitation to his New Year's Eve party. Then he wrote something that brought tears to my eyes: "Please come, John. You are welcome to bring your partner, if you have one, someone special to you. Who it is makes no difference to me."
I was hosting my own party, so I had to decline his invitation. But I had Ryan deliver Malinka a $500 bottle of Jean Paul Gaultier-dressed champagne. Malinka's generous overture made the season more bearable. It showed that in my own paranoia and overwhelming desire for privacy, I'd failed to give some of my teammates the benefit of the doubt. It was the boorish idiots who gave the rest of us athletes a bad name.
Kirilenko hasn't spoken much about that moment, certainly not in Russia. In an interview Saturday with Championat, a big Russian sports site, he DID speak of the signing of Jason Collins.
Actually, I know Jason Collins very well and his family - I played with his brother with the Jazz in Utah. Lovely family, by the way! I will be happy if Jason would be in our team. I have no doubt that he will help us.