'We will turn Knicks fans into Nets fans'
NEW YORK -- Over and over again, Mikhail Prokhorov repeated his stock quote of "I do not want to reveal all my secrets,'' all the while carefully heeding the NBA rule prohibiting him from mentioning any soon-to-be free agents by name.
But Prokhorov still managed to reveal much Wednesday as he introduced himself to New Yorkers, having breakfast with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, touring Yankee Stadium and sitting down with the media for more than two hours in between to discuss his purchase of and his plans for the New Jersey Nets.
Among the highlights:
• Prokhorov revealed he initially wanted to purchase the New York Knicks, but quickly discovered it would not be feasible given the other assets, including Madison Square Garden and the NHL's New York Rangers, that were tied into the sports arm of Cablevision, the Knicks' corporate owner. Six months after abandoning that pursuit, his investment banker called and said there was an opportunity to buy controlling interest in the Nets.
• Prokhorov was coy on several matters, including the search for a new coach, which he twice said he expected to have completed by December. Yes, December. But whether he was serious on that time frame or not, and he tried his best to show his humorous side, Prokhorov did definitively state that he wants a coach with experience as either an NBA head coach or as an NBA assistant. He explicitly ruled out hiring a coach with only overseas experience, and he was dismissive of the notion of making an offer to Duke and Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski.
• The new owner stressed that he wanted the Nets to become a global brand, and it was telling when he turned the tables on reporters and asked a few questions of his own, including what the scribes thought of the team's nickname. It was clear that Prokhorov will strongly consider changing it by the time the team moves to Brooklyn for the 2012-13 season at the earliest.
• Scheduled to fly back to Moscow later Wednesday, Prokhorov said he would return to America shortly before July 1 when the Nets will be more than $20 million below the salary cap and eager to go shopping on the free-agent market. But pressed on what his selling points might be when his franchise will be competing against the likes of the Knicks, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls, Prokhorov would only say: "I plan to meet them personally," and "If you play in Miami, you are not a global player."
• Despite the abysmal season the Nets are coming off, Prokhorov said he expects the team to make the playoffs next season and win a championship within five years. "In Russia, five years is like an eternity," he said, explaining his business philosophy has always been to never think more than five years ahead.
The brashest statement to come out of his mouth was: "We will turn Knicks fans into Nets fans," and Prokhorov provided some rare insight into himself, his history and his plans in a 90-minute sitdown with a group of 10 Nets beat writers and national writers prior to a formal news conference at which he actually said, jokingly, "If I tell you, I will have to kill you," when one reporter asked about the Nets' coaching plans.
The 44-year-old billionaire, ranked as the world's 39th richest man by Forbes, said he routinely works 15-hour days, spends two hours exercising and the rest sleeping. Once every three weeks, he said, he has a party with friends or goes to a discotheque.
He does not own a cell phone, you won't find him on Twitter, and he does not personally communicate by e-mail. "I am too old to learn to type," Prokhorov said, explaining that he has a secretary to answer his calls and read his e-mails, and if it is necessary to reply to an e-mail he can write out what he needs to say in longhand, as he does for his blog entries.
Prokhorov said he has traveled to America perhaps 20 times since first setting foot on U.S. soil in 1993 when he accompanied then Russian president Boris Yeltsin for a ceremony marking the opening of the new Russian embassy in Washington. He first saw an NBA game in person in New Jersey, sitting in the owner's box (through a friend's connection) at Game 2 of the 2002 NBA Finals against the Lakers. His first exposure to the NBA was in the mid-1980s, before the Soviet Union had crumbled, when owning a VCR was a risky proposition because one could be jailed, Prokhorov explained, for turning one's home into a makeshift cinema by showing bootleg movies on videotape.
Prokhorov said he grew up more Westernized than most Russians his age because of his father's travels as a high-ranking member of the Soviet sports establishment, and what he knew of the United States came from what he heard on Voice of America. He said he read an underground copy of "The Gulag Archipelago," Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's famous chronicle of the Soviet Union's forced labor and concentration camp system, long before publication of the book was legalized in Russia in 1989, and he remembered that the game he watched nervously on that old VCR was a Celtics game, and one of the players was Larry Bird, who Prokhorov met Tuesday night when he represented the Nets at the draft lottery, where they finished third.
Curiously, given his repeated insistence that he wanted to make the Nets a global team with a fan base extending from New Jersey to Brooklyn to Moscow, Asia and Europe, he had nothing positive to say about Chinese forward Yi Jianlian, declaring the need for a power forward to play alongside Brook Lopez as one of the team's two greatest needs, the other being a deeper bench.
Prokhorov also made clear that Kiki Vandeweghe's stint with the organization is over: "His contract is expiring, and we wish him well."
On his direct involvement in trades, signings and hirings, Prokhorov was wishy-washy, explaining that he prefers to be a hands-on operator at the first stage of a business venture, then let his employees do their jobs. While noting that you "suffer" for five or six years when you make a mistake in the NBA, he said he'll give his staff the right to make mistakes, and expects his executives to have a 75 percent success rate in their business decisions, because that's what he has found his own success ratio to be.
"I've never lost my cool. Even in love affairs," Prokhorov said. "If you have Plan B and Plan C, you are all the time relaxed."
Questions Prokhorov wouldn't answer included what exactly his selling points and/or strategies will be for his personal involvement in the July 1 opening of the free-agent market, and who he feels are the top three players in Europe (though he did hint that there were players who are not yet draft eligible who he would include in that list). He said he had three or four Russian candidates in mind to compete with American candidates for positions under team president Rod Thorn in the front office, but he would not guarantee that any of his countrymen would be employed by the team for the upcoming season, when he plans to attend "25 percent" of the Nets' home games.
Optimistically, he predicted the Nets -- or whatever they eventually end up changing their name to -- would become a global brand not only because of the unique ethnic mix in the borough of Brooklyn, but because other foreigners will gravitate toward taking a rooting interest in the only team owned by a non-American.
"When you are the first foreigner, you have a better chance of attracting other foreigners, and Brooklyn is home to everyone from everywhere. That is a competitive edge," he said.
But first Prokhorov will have to put a team together, and the learning curve could be steep as he discovers it is not as easy to turn a roster around year to year in the NBA as it was when he ran perennial Euroleague powerhouse CSKA Moscow.
Prokhorov will undoubtedly lean on minority owner Jay-Z, who he met with Tuesday at Manhattan's 40-40 club, to make a case for the Nets in any discussions the rap mogul might have (after July 1, of course, wink-wink) with his buddy, LeBron James.
"We have a lot in common because we are both self-made, and I look forward to hanging out with him," Prokhorov said.
But if Prokhorov is truly on a five-year championship quest, the smart thing to have Jay-Z whisper to LeBron is this: If you sign somewhere else, be it Chicago, New York, Miami or Cleveland, sign a four-year deal with an opt-out after three years.
By then, it'll be 2013, the arena in Brooklyn should be built, the purgatory in Newark should be behind them, and the Summer of LeBron II can take place when he's 28. The tall Russian owner will only be 47 then, and his global brand will need a global icon.
It'll be going into Year 4 of Prokhorov's five-year plan, and if it all works out, the championship parade can go right down Flatbush Avenue in late June of 2014 or 2015.