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Goodnight, Sweet Oligarch: The Legacy That Mikhail Prokhorov Leaves Behind

The Russian owner stormed in on a Jet Ski, but will now exit the NBA with nothing more than a press release. Here’s a look back at his wild run with the Nets.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What I remember most is the smirk. There sat Mikhail Prokhorov, mere days after the NBA’s Board of Governors had approved his bid to purchase a majority stake in the then–New Jersey Nets, chatting with David Aldridge in an introductory interview. Aldridge asked Prokhorov—a figure unknown to NBA fans, save for those with an abiding interest in nickel mining and financial intrigue in post-Soviet Russia—what his sales pitch would be when trying to lure a top-flight free agent to the Nets. Say, one considered the best player in the world, who was about to hit the open market.

Prokhorov highlighted the “competitive advantages” of giving a player the chance to create a franchise’s history “practically from scratch,” and the Nets’ opportunity to create the NBA’s first “really global team” by virtue of his international influence. Then the league’s first foreign-born owner expressed the belief that, no matter what baggage his new purchase might carry from its largely unremarkable past, he could still land any whale that got close enough to his boat.

“I feel pretty sure [I will be able] to persuade the best of the best that the Nets is the place they need to be,” he said.

And then, there it was.

There was such ease in that smirk, such confidence. It betrayed the assurance of a man who knew it would all work out in the end, that this bet couldn’t bust, and maybe that was because he knew something you didn’t. Now, nearly 10 years after paying $223 million for 80 percent of the Nets, and more than three and a half years after taking full ownership of the team and Barclays Center in a deal valued at $1.9 billion, Prokhorov is cashing out.

The Nets announced Friday that Prokhorov had entered an agreement to sell his majority stake to Joseph Tsai, the billionaire cofounder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Tsai bought 49 percent of the team two years ago for $1 billion. He’ll reportedly get the rest for an additional $1.35 billion, bringing the purchase price to $2.35 billion, topping what Steve Ballmer shelled out for the Clippers and Tilman Fertitta paid for the Rockets to become the new richest franchise sale in NBA history.

Add in what Tsai is paying for Barclays Center itself, and the total cost of the deal reportedly comes to about $3.5 billion—a monster profit that you could credibly argue didn’t owe much to anything that Prokhorov himself actually did. Maybe he knew something we didn’t after all.

When the Board of Governors signs off on the sale, which the Nets say should happen “by the end of September,” that’ll be the end of the Mikhail Prokhorov era in the NBA. It’s been … eventful.

Prokhorov descended upon the NBA as something of an international man of mystery. He was reportedly worth $17.8 billion at the time of his arrival. There was no small amount of curiosity over how he built that fortune, from selling stonewashed jeans, to starting a bank in Russia’s early days as a wobbling market economy, to sweetheart “loans for shares” deals that made him the manager of Russia’s largest platinum and nickel producer—and a billionaire. “Since childhood, money had a way of finding me,” he told Julia Ioffe of The New Yorker in 2012.

That piece also included Prokhorov’s answer to a question about whether he’d ever been part of corrupt dealings during his rise in Russia: “Yes, of course I participated in them. What, don’t I live in this country?” That specter of impropriety, and associated questions surrounding what role Prokhorov played in Russia’s political ecosystem—how real was that presidential run, anyway?—always clung to the edges of his tenure, but never really progressed from smoke to fire (though Henry Abbott has spent quite a bit of time digging into it of late). An obscenely wealthy Russian oligarch with connections to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin doesn’t cut quite as charming a figure in the States these days. A decade ago, though, it made Prokhorov an object of fascination.

Prokhorov was famously arrested at a ski resort in the French Alps in 2007 and held for several days on suspicion that he’d flown women in from Russia to supply them “as prostitutes to his wealthy friends.” He was released without charges—French officials later apologized, and even awarded him the Legion of Honor—but the ensuing scandal resulted in Prokhorov being pressured to sell his shares of Norilsk Nickel. The $7 billion windfall made him unbelievably rich—Russia’s richest man, for a spell—and he lived like it.

He went Hot Rod on his personal watercraft in the Maldives, and introduced all of us broke blog boys to something called “heli-skiing.” He told 60 Minutes that he didn’t know where he’d left his $50 million, 200-foot yacht. He spoke about his devotion to the ancient Tibetan martial art of tescao, and described himself as “a boa constrictor” due to his “calm, good mood.” He frequently drew comparisons to the villains in James Bond movies, to the point where those connections became clichéd; they still kept popping up, though, because clichés don’t become clichés if they don’t have a ring of truth to them.

Prokhorov also entered the NBA, in a sense, as a means to an end—a Brink’s truck to the rescue of then-Nets owner Bruce Ratner. Battered by the 2008 recession, the real estate developer needed an infusion of cash to sustain his Atlantic Yards project—one that got off the ground only through the threatened use of eminent domain to clear out buildings and people from the neighborhood surrounding the planned arena site. Providing that infusion allowed for the completion of Barclays Center, and the Nets’ move into it before the 2012-13 season. It also drastically changed the neighboring community, and some of the promised benefits for area residents affected by the project appear no closer to being realized; on the court and off, Prokhorov leaves behind unfinished business.

As soon as he arrived, Prokhorov took aim at the Knicks. On the eve of the 2010 free-agency period, when the Knicks had cleared the decks to make a run at LeBron James, Prokhorov bought a massive billboard on the corner of 34th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, directly across from Madison Square Garden. The ad depicted Prokhorov alongside Jay-Z, a longtime LeBron associate and a newly minted part-owner of the Nets, under the heading, “The Blueprint for Greatness.” James didn’t wind up choosing either New York team, but the battle lines were drawn: Prokhorov insisted that within five years, Knicks fans would become Nets fans, and the Nets would be NBA champions. If they weren’t, Prokhorov—fond of speaking about how much he loved the opposite sex, and of “partying it up with a phalanx” of them in the mountains—would submit to the ultimate punishment: marriage.

The winning didn’t happen. (Neither did the wedding.) But Prokhorov’s injection of personality made the Nets … I don’t know, noteworthy. A franchise that had been forgettable for most of its existence suddenly had some juice, some flair—a chance to become something new, exciting, and formidable.

The excitement didn’t come right away, though, no matter how willing Prokhorov was to splash the cash. Despite the confidence belied by that smirk, he came up empty in attempts to land superstars like James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony—a pursuit that saw Prokhorov pull the rare move of announcing he was cutting off trade talks during an on-camera media session—and Dwight Howard. The Nets did trade for Deron Williams, which didn’t go quite the way they’d hoped. It did lead to one of my favorite odd Prokhorov moments, though: when the Nets were later competing with the Mavericks for Williams’s affections in free agency, and Prokhorov said that if Dallas owner Mark Cuban won the point guard’s favor, he would “crush [Cuban] with the kickboxing throwdown.” (Williams wound up spurning the Mavs’ advances to re-up with the Nets, sparing all parties involved from trading high kicks.)

With Prokhorov’s imprimatur and wide-open checkbook, general manager Billy King aimed to build a contender around Williams and Brook Lopez, swinging deals to import Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson for the franchise’s first season in its new home in Brooklyn. The Nets won 49 games, their most in seven years, but failed to capture either the passion of the New York market or their first taste of postseason success, falling to a short-handed Bulls team in seven games in the opening round of the playoffs.

Then came the all in move—the blockbuster deal with the Celtics on the night of the 2013 NBA draft that brought veteran stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry to Brooklyn in exchange for three future first-round draft picks and the ability to swap rights on a fourth first-rounder. The deal replenished Boston’s coffers after the end of its Big Three run, putting the Celtics back on a path to postseason success. It landed the Nets one playoff series win, a seven-game triumph over the Raptors in 2014, but nothing more. Brooklyn’s veteran core aged. Pierce and head coach Jason Kidd both skipped town; Prokhorov said farewell to Kidd with the immortal line, “Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you.” Soon enough, Garnett was traded back to Minnesota.

Suddenly, the Nets had nothing to show for their title chase but an underwhelming collection of talent that couldn’t even compete in the East, and no draft assets with which to add high-impact young players. And suddenly, Prokhorov—who had shelled out more than $186 million in salary and luxury tax payments in 2013-14, a season in which the Nets’ basketball business reportedly lost a staggering $144 million—no longer felt quite so eager to write big checks for a bad team.

Save for the occasional core-blasting, tescao-based dribbling exhibition, we didn’t hear too much from Prokhorov for a while after that. As the Nets’ descent into salary cap hell led to a prolonged fallow period, the owner seemed to stop finding the franchise fun. His name stopped popping up in the papers, unless it was to tamp down a new report about his being open to selling off his stake. A couple of years after those denials started, he sold Tsai 49 percent.

In on-court terms, Prokhorov’s run was a failure. The Nets own the NBA’s fourth-worst winning percentage since he bought the team. They’ve made just three postseason appearances in nine seasons, with only one playoff series win. They consummated not only the worst trade in recent NBA history, but a second that stings plenty in its own right: the 2012 deal that sent Gerald Wallace to Portland in exchange for a couple of veterans and a top-three-protected first-round pick that would wind up becoming Damian Lillard. Off the court, though, Prokhorov’s swagger and willingness to spend helped fundamentally alter the idea of who the Nets could be, from an afterthought in East Rutherford to an ascendant could-be glamour franchise. His own record won’t look all that rosy, but as a friend who covered the team before and during Prokhorov’s tenure said to me this weekend, “Kevin Durant doesn’t sign with Bruce Ratner’s Nets.”

The lengthy rebuild began to bear fruit last season, with Kenny Atkinson coaching Sean Marks’s roster to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. But Prokhorov didn’t suddenly become a fixture at games, or a Cuban-style mouthpiece for the team’s resurgence. The team came around, and the fans started to come, and now, after landing two bona fide superstars this summer, the Nets are finally on the verge of becoming the kind of marquee team Prokhorov loudly proclaimed they one day would.

He won’t be there to watch it happen, though. If he’s watching at all, it’ll be from afar, with the kind of peace that only a multibillion-dollar come-up can buy. You can almost see the smirk from here.