Russian to the rescue as Prokhorov saves Nets

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by Tim Dahlberg
AP Sports Columnist

(AP) —Mikhail Prokhorov got a chance to meet Larry Bird the other night, though he could be forgiven if he didn’t recognize him. The Bird he knew, after all, was the young blond he saw in grainy videotapes wearing tight shorts and taking on Magic Johnson.

A lot has changed in 30 years, not the least of which is the shorts.

Back then, the Cold War was still raging. The U.S. and Soviet Union boycotted each other’s Olympics, and the idea that one day they might compete in sports without political overtones seemed preposterous.

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‘I COME IN PEACE’—New Jersey Nets new owner Mikhail Prokhorov, of Russia, speaks to reporters during a news conference, May 19 in New York.

The idea that a Russian would someday buy an NBA team was even more preposterous. The entire country couldn’t scrape together enough rubles for that.

Now Prokhorov owns the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets. And, if his debut under the spotlight in New York is any indication, the American sports oligarchy will never be the same.

Sure, Mark Cuban is entertaining, but what could be more fun than a 6-foot-6 self-deprecating multibillionaire who cracks jokes and doesn’t flinch at the idea of taking on the Knicks on their own turf?

“I come in peace,” Prokhorov said May 19.

Russians, it turns out, do have a sense of humor.

Prokhorov will need it, and more, because of the tall task that awaits him. The Nets are a miserable franchise, so mired in losing that David Stern should have handed them the No. 1 draft pick instead of allowing the Ping-Pong balls to drop the way of the Washington Wizards.

Prokhorov invested $200 million and a promise of many millions more with little to show for it other than membership in the NBA and a future new arena in Brooklyn. He didn’t get the No. 1 draft pick, and he doesn’t know if the many talents of LeBron James will even be up for a bid.

One week into his new job, though, he’s already talking about going up against the Knicks for fans and the Lakers for championships. How he plans to turn the beleaguered Nets around isn’t quite clear, but he insists he does have a plan.

“If I tell you, I’d have to kill you,” he told reporters in New York.

Funny guy, this Russian whom Forbes recently ranked No. 39 among the world’s billionaires with assets of $13.8 billion. Other reports say he’s worth closer to $18 billion.

Suffice it to say he is rich enough to barely blink when he lost a $53 million deposit recently on a chateau in France. Rich enough to have a $45 million yacht he barely uses because he gets seasick easily.

Whether that’s enough to get LeBron may determine the viability of Prokhorov’s plan to win an NBA title within five years. Though the Nets have plenty of cap money that would have gone unused under the previous ownership, there’s a handful of other teams that can also sign James to the maximum contract.

If Prokhorov’s first days of ownership are any indication, though, he may prove a hard man to turn down.

He showed up at the draft lottery to personally represent the Nets, a task most NBA owners relegate to their underlings. Clearly, he intends to be the public face of the franchise, a role most owners in the league shun—except for Cuban—and he cut an imposing figure in his first real public appearance.

Prokhorov began the day by having breakfast with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Nets part-owner Jay-Z, then moved on to a brunch with reporters, where he made his first move by unceremoniously dumping general manager and interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe.

There will be many more moves soon, as expected when someone inherits a team that lost 70 games in a season. Most interesting, though, may be the moves Prokhorov makes that have nothing to do with the team he puts on the court.

He seems to have intentions of fulfilling Stern’s goal of making the NBA an international brand all by himself, and he surely has the reach and resources to do it. The Nets may have trouble winning over die-hard Knicks fans, but imagine the fan base he could build for the team in Russia.

“With exceptional international exposure no other team can reach, there will be fans of the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn to Moscow,” Prokhorov predicted.

Stern loves this guy so much he quickly brushed off any questions about foreign ownership of an NBA team when Prokhorov came forward. Easy to see why. With him, Stern has a rock star owner with deep pockets who will spread the gospel of the NBA wherever he travels.

Thirty years ago, Bird and Johnson helped save the NBA by ushering in a new era of superstardom that captured the imagination of a teenager in the Soviet Union.

The task is easier for Prokhorov. He just has to save the Nets.

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