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Prokhorov: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (and why the team might become the Brooklyn Bridges)

New Nets majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov arrived with a good story--a Russian multi-billionaire with wit, insouciance, and the cash to realize his significant ambitions.

He proceeded this week to get the sports press to lap up more, showing far more public presence--if not exactly candor--than the saturnine, close-mouthed multi-millionaire who owns the Knicks. (Roundup 1, roundup 2.)

So no one asked very hard questions and, if it got a wee bit in that direction, they didn't follow up. The story line is the Russian mogul who'll revive a basketball team. Forget the NBA's opaque vetting process and the inability of the press to suss out the Zimbabwe controversy. Forget the huge footnote that should be added to Prokhorov's claim of being a "self-made" man.

Forget bogus blight and eminent domain, forget the giveaway of naming rights, forget a massive interim surface parking lot next to a historic district. Forget, forget, forget. It's a sports story, globalized.

And laugh at the witty guy ESPN columnist Bill Simmons dubs "Mutant Russian Mark Cuban." (Simmons predicts a name change; scroll down to why I disagree on his pick and expect the Nets to become the Brooklyn Bridges. Prokhorov must decide by October 1.)

And a rookie journalist who luckily snagged a one-on-one interview gets praised for (and celebrates) his exclusive, not scrutinized for his caricature of the Atlantic Yards controversy. Hard to blame him, right? Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes started it.

(Two voices of dissent: Dave D'Alessandro in the Star-Ledger, asserting that Prokhorov "knows less about the NBA than Bruce Ratner did when he showed up" and criticizing "some thicket of inane blather," and Dave Zirin in HuffPost, though he's conclusory about the Zimbabwe issue.)

Telling the story

On May 19, ESPN radio's Seth Everett interviewed Nets CEO Brett Yormark. At about 20 minutes in, Everett got to the meta-story

SE: "The recruitment process. Mikhail Prokhorov appears to be a very confident guy... if he wants [superstar free agent] LeBron James so bad, how does he go out--what kind of recruitment process do the Nets have that perhaps you didn't have maybe three months ago?"

BY: "I don't know if it's recruitment or storytelling. It's no different, really, from what I do every day. We tell a story every day, and you want that story to be as convincing and compelling as possible. Right now, I think, our story is better than anyone else's in the marketplace, for sure, and who knows, maybe even in the NBA."

SE: "What is that story?"

BY: "Just the current story of the total refresh that we're going through, the ownership change, the globalization of the franchise, the interim move to a new state-of-the-art venue in Newark, and then obviously the ultimate move to Brooklyn. All the pieces are coming together and I think fans and the NBA and people around the country are truly taking notice of it. And I think Mr. Prokhorov is going to a do terrific job in communicating that message in a very convincing way to anyone who might want to join his franchise. So I'm very excited about it... People are really not focused on what has been, they're really focused on what's in front of us."

SE: "There are certain moves that can be sound basketball decisions that don't have nearly the sizzle that other moves can have that can transcend the basketball operation... I can imagine that this new era--the need to make a splash beyond the x's and o's."

BY: "Absolutely, I like sizzle. And I think sizzle sells and it's nice to have that, but you need substance behind it. I know 'Michael' Prokhorov and [President/GM] Rod [Thorn] and the entire team are discussing how do they create the right environment for the right people that want to join this franchise... but I can tell you, Seth, the story we have is convincing and compelling. We're off to the best start we've ever had in season ticket sales... It's not just one silver bullet. It's the combination of the changes."

(Note that, while Everett had no problem pronouncing "Mikhail," Yormark stuck to "Michael.")

SE: "This may be a better question for him. He is described as a billionaire playboy.... I found the best label for him.. I think he's Bruce Wayne."

Yormark chuckled with delight.

BY: "I don't know... He's a terrific guy, he's got a great sense of humor. As you get to know him... and the media gets to know him, they're going to love him."

More from Simmons

Simmons, an astute and entertaining sports fan and analyst but not exactly Neil deMause, explains the appeal:
Q: What's your favorite thing about Mutant Russian Mark Cuban?

A: I mean, there's so much to love. But what really kills me: The combination of his stilting, super-cool, super-foreign, measured accent (just fantastic) and his sense of humor (surprisingly good), which leads to him knowing the funny thing to say in English, only it takes him a while to get there, so when he deadpans an extended joke, it's an extra-long deadpan that always starts with an "I'm gonna make a funny" smirk, followed by the stilted delivery, the punch line and then a mini "Beavis & Butthead" laugh. Watch this clip (FYI: you have to sit through a stupid commercial first) to see what I mean. It's sensational.

Here's how he deals with the potential skeletons in Prokhorov's closet:

Q: Wait a second, didn't that whole [getting rich] process sound totally and completely fishy?

A: Absolutely. And we didn't even mention this part: Prokhorov and Potanin assembled their fortune during what was really the Wild Wild West in Russia. Wealthy businessmen were getting killed left and right; the Russian mafia turned into an undeniably potent force; and for anyone left standing in a position of power during this time, you couldn't help but wonder, "Wait a second, are we really supposed to believe that those guys didn't do anything genuinely illegal?"

That murky mid-'90s stretch was the NBA's biggest concern about Prokhorov, as well as the reason his sale took so long to approve. They wanted to make absolutely sure that there wasn't a mid-'90s super-skeleton lurking out there. At All-Star Weekend in Dallas, I asked a connected NBA exec how big Prokhorov's background-check file was, and the exec held his right hand as high as possible and his left hand as low as possible, with the implication being, "It's a pile of papers that's bigger than both of us."

In fairness to Prokhorov, they never found anything. When he was asked about bribing people by the media this week, he was honest: "It was 15 years ago, the last time. I need to be frank." And yes, "15 years ago" would be 1995 ... when Yeltsin's government had its auction for that 38 percent stake in Norilsk Nickel.

The NBA's vetting was a bit more murky, as suggested in the 60 Minutes piece; the Times noted that the league wouldn't provide details.

Simmons's predictions

Simmons suggests that Prokhorov will spend his dollars to make a couple of big splashes: first, a huge offer to Lakers' coach Phil Jackson. Then an offer to Russian star Andrei Kirilenko. Next summer, Prokhorov will pay for a super-successful general manager and a big free agent.

Then, in the "summer of 2012 (optimistic) or 2013 (pessimistic), when the Brooklyn move finally happens," he'll "change the team's name, logo and uniforms."

Simmons votes for the Brooklyn Bears: " Sounds cool, the logo would be cool, and it has a natural Russian tie-in."

I'd bet Brooklyn Bridges. Why? It fits Prokhorov's global ambitions and it's Brooklyn's best-known icon. So what if it's an inanimate noun: ever heard of the Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, and Oklahoma City Thunder?

Some pointers from Simmons

Simmons is mostly admiring, except here:
Q: Other than the jet-ski video, has Prokhorov ever had a moment that threatened to shatter the Unintentional Comedy Scale?

A: I'd vote for the fact he decided it would be a good idea to do this for a "60 Minutes" camera crew. Second place would be this two-minute speech that he released as a video to Nets fans that inadvertently made him sound like a terrorist requesting demands in a bad action movie.


  1. Noticing New York is dubbing this incessant parade of credulously reported fantastical Prokhorov PR stories: “Just Not So Stories” that try to recast a land grab that is in so many respects“not so just.”

    See: Friday, May 21, 2010, Not So “Just Wright” (Because It Is after All “Not So Just”)

  2. Prokhorov is a Made Man -- not a self-made man -- in the Mafia way.
    "My passion is to develop the local community," declairs Prokhorov. But we are already self-developed. Help!
    -- Patti Hagan


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