Commentary

From Russia with ... ugh

New owner brings serious mojo, and then lottery brings him back to Nets' reality

Updated: May 19, 2010, 12:51 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Mikhail Prokhorov was making a quick getaway from the NBA draft lottery, and suddenly the big man looked about 5 feet tall. He was hunched over, his face a ghostly shade of pale, and that graceful and athletic stride of his had been replaced by a loser's stagger.

On the night of his grand debut as New Jersey Nets owner, Prokhorov's magical, mystery carpet ride smacked into a brick wall. He was supposed to land the first pick, supposed to draft John Wall and order him to lead the fast break from Newark to Brooklyn.

The Russian oligarch ended up on the bronze-medal platform instead. Abe Pollin's widow, Irene, wore her husband's 1978 championship ring for the good luck that landed Washington the gold and left Prokhorov to wonder why he'd checked his own superstitions at the door.

No, the new Nets owner doesn't believe in luck nearly as much as he does in personality, charisma, pizzazz. The self-styled playboy with billions to spare was the unchallenged star of the pre-lottery show, charming everyone with his flirtatious humor and bold predictions of an NBA title within five years.

But once the pingpong balls started flying this way and that, Prokhorov became just another New Jersey Net who couldn't close the deal.

During commercial breaks in the NBA Entertainment studio, Prokhorov was bobbing his shoulders to a rhythmic beat, no doubt rehearsing his acceptance speech in his head.

He was all but winking his bad-boy wink, coming across as one of those living-large guys in a casino ad. Prokhorov was asked about growing his customer base in the world's most competitive market.

[+] EnlargeMikhail Prokhorov and Irene Pollin
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty ImagesAnd there you have it: The exact moment Mikhail Prokhorov's night went downhill -- and Irene Pollin's got really, really good.

"I think the way is very simple, the way to success," he said. "We're going to turn Knicks fans into Nets fans, that's it."

Lottery slots 14 through 4 were quickly filled, and the Nets joined their two fellow finalists on the stage. At 6-8, with the build of a lean and mean small forward, Prokhorov towered over Irene Pollin and the Philadelphia 76ers' Jrue Holiday. For once the 12-70 Nets were the favorites, the losers expected to win.

They entered with a 25 percent chance of getting Wall. The Wizards entered with a 10.3 percent chance, and the Sixers entered with a 5.3 percent chance.

But when it came time to announce the unfortunate recipient of the third pick, the placard turned up the logo of the Nets. Prokhorov didn't appear so sleek and cool anymore. His body stiffened, his expression tightened into something of a knot, and the blood rushed from his head to his toes.

Prokhorov wasn't putting the ball or his franchise in John Wall's hands, and he wasn't getting Ohio State's Evan Turner, either. He would have to settle for Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors or Wall's Kentucky teammate, DeMarcus Cousins, a poor man's Derrick Coleman.

How do you say whoop-de-damn-do in Russian?

"It never comes down to just one player," Prokhorov said. "I'm sure we're going to get a great player for our team."

Just not as sure he was 15 minutes earlier.

"If everything goes as planned," Prokhorov said, "I predict that next season we'll be in the playoffs, and as [a] championship [team] a minimum of one year and maximum of five."

He'd already made the same Joe Willie guarantee in a video message to Nets fans, swearing his team would own "the desire to win that is unmatched anywhere in the league" and would recruit "the best of the best."

Only he sounded more certain in the video than he did on the post-lottery stage, surrounded by inquiring minds wanting to know about his big night gone bad.

Prokhorov needed the kind of fist-pumping moment Dave DeBusschere delivered when a Hoya Destroya named Patrick Ewing fell into his lap. Prokhorov desperately wanted to advance the momentum created when "60 Minutes" introduced him to a brave new world.

But after playing himself into the final three Tuesday night, Prokhorov lost out to a little old lady and a point guard about half his size.

"We need to go back to square one," he conceded.

Square one? On the first night of the rest of the Nets' lives, thoughts of square one were supposed to be as far away as Moscow.

"Your old state didn't come through again," commissioner David Stern, formerly of Teaneck, N.J, was told.

"Think of Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Stephen Curry," Stern said of the rookies who didn't go No. 1 overall last June and yet thrived in the NBA. "The Nets are going to be fine."

Stern praised Prokhorov's commitment and his "presence," a presence that weakened with every step the owner took on his way out the draft lottery door. Prokhorov lurched gracelessly into a steady rain when asked if he would have a better showing in free agency starting July 1.

"Yes, I am always confident," he said. "I will spend one week here in July for free agents."

One week in the U.S. to personally recruit against the Knicks, Bulls, Heat and other corporate raiders?

"Yes, I will."

And LeBron James will be your main target?

"No comment, please."

Prokhorov wasn't telling any more cute jokes, and he wasn't promising to conquer any additional frontiers. His grim march complete, the owner folded himself into the front seat of a dark Mercedes 4Matic and shut the rain-splashed door.

Prokhorov's Nets were suddenly 12-71, and already speaking the international language of pain.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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