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NEW YORK -- Mikhail Prokhorov arrived like a James Bond villain, a swashbuckler straight out of a private jet, ready to deliver grand proclamations, spend big money and needle James Dolan. (He once called the Knicks owner "little man.")

For the first few years of his ownership of the Nets, Prokhorov was present and fun. He hung a billboard of himself and Jay-Z over Dolan's MSG that read "The Blueprint for Greatness." His news conferences were unique and entertaining, must-see TV for the deadpan one-liners and the broken-English bravado. Perhaps his finest moment was the surprise interview inside the Prudential Center in 2011, when Prokhorov declared the trade negotiations for Carmelo Anthony "hereby canceled."

"I never met Carmela" -- yes, he called him Carmela -- "and I never spoke with him," Prokhorov said that day. "Maybe he sent me an email, but I didn't see it. Or maybe the carrier pigeon got lost."

Earlier that season, Mark Cuban had called Prokhorov a "p----." Prokhorov's response: "I think Mark has it wrong. I don't like cats."

About two years later, Prokhorov warned that if Cuban signed away Deron Williams, "I will crush him in kickboxing throwdown."

These are real quotes from a billionaire Russian oligarch. Prokhorov also produced videos of himself shredding waves on a jet ski, showed off his AK-47 to 60 Minutes and was arrested, though not charged, for flying suspected prostitutes from Moscow to France for his friends.

Mainly, Prokhorov enjoyed the persona. His PR arm liked to call him "The Most Interesting Man in The World."

But that's not his legacy. As Prokhorov prepares to unload his majority shares of the Nets to Taiwanese billionaire Joseph Tsai, it's clear that Prokhorov as outlandish playboy was an act. And that's OK.

Prokhorov's true mark on the Nets, made in less than a decade of ownership, is pumping money into the franchise and funding the move to Brooklyn. He saved the Nets from Bruce Ratner, who wasn't wealthy enough to be an owner in the new NBA in a big market.

The recession in 2008 nearly killed Barclays Center. Prokhorov revived it. He opened his wallet, absorbed huge losses and made a killing. His $200 million original investment in the Nets turned into a $2.2 billion sale to Tsai.

Above all, Prokhorov is a businessman.

Along the way, his philosophies and ownership strategies morphed significantly. Prokhorov started with the European soccer mentality of trying to buy a championship, assembling stars and squandering assets for short-term, slightly above-average gains. He ran through coaches like cellphone data, although Prokhorov claims to not own a cellphone.

He signed off on trading several first-round draft picks for Kevin Garnett's corpse and one year of Paul Pierce. As much as that 2013 deal is criticized -- even labeled the worst trade of all time -- it became the impetus for the Nets' only playoff series victory in the last 12 years.

Then Prokhorov lost interest and closed his wallet. He was hurt by the new luxury tax rules, paying dearly without much reward. He had run for president of Russia in 2012, and it was never quite clear if he was a legitimate candidate or simply a Kremlin-created opponent for Vladimir Putin to easily crush.

So Prokhorov had already been distracted. He stopped attending games, preferring to remain overseas. The Nets became the worst team in the NBA in 2016-17, and by then Prokhorov was plotting his exit strategy.

It's a weird time to leave, considering the Nets have just signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and are perhaps on a path to fulfill his promise (albeit six years late) of winning the NBA title. But, again, Prokhorov is a businessman before he's a basketball owner. He's selling high; he didn't turn out to be the Russian Steinbrenner.

But he funded the arena and the $50 million practice facility, and hired GM Sean Marks. If Durant and Irving lead the Nets to the Promised Land, Prokhorov's fingerprints will be all over it.

Photo by FR170537 AP
Mikhail Prokhorov

Sports on 08/18/2019

Print Headline: Nets owner wasn't who he said he was

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