I spent some time over NBA All-Star Weekend with Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s second richest man and owner of the New Jersey Nets, who bought the team nine months ago.
I had watched the “60 Minutes” piece on Prokhorov and have obviously read up on what made him a successful business man, but that didn’t prepare me for what I encountered when I entered his suite at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills on Sunday.
Prokhorov talked to me on camera about Carmelo Anthony, who, at the time had not yet gone to the Knicks. He candidly told me that the meeting went “fantastic,” but reiterated that he didn’t think it was the right strategy to continue to make the pitch to him.
On Wednesday, the team reportedly agreed to a deal that would send Utah Jazz guard Deron Williams to New Jersey.
What happened off camera with Prokhorov was equally as fascinating. Prokhorov challenged me in hand-eye coordination moves from the Tibetan mixed martial arts discipline of Tescao. I, of course, couldn’t do any one of them. He told me he was working on perfecting about 1,000 of the moves. By the time I met him at 10 am that morning, he had already worked out – twice!
He told me he has never taken a sip of vodka and the only caviar he eats is fresh, as in getting it straight from a beluga out of the Caspian Sea. While it appears as if he’s now in a tougher position with his team at 17-40, having not gotten Anthony or any other marketable piece by the trade deadline, the 45-year-old worth $22.7 billion exuded the confidence you’d expect him to during our interview.
I started by asking him about Carmelo Anthony.
Prokhorov: I think we’ve made a very good tactical decision to force (the) Knicks just to pay as much as they can. So I think it’s very good, it’s very interesting, it’s very competitive. As you know, my instinct was to stay away and I still think that is the right decision.
Darren: You said it might be in your best interest if he potentially winds up on the Knicks, but the Knicks give up their whole team for that. Is what is bad for the Knicks, good for the Nets? Are you more competitive now because of moving into Brooklyn in a year and a half?
Prokhorov: I am sure we will be more competitive in Brooklyn because when we move to Brooklyn, we have 2.5 million people, it would be the fourth largest city in the US. It’s really the first professional team there in 50 years. I am sure there will be great excitement there. I hope our current fans will stick with us as we move to Brooklyn and also we have new fans in Brooklyn that will be really fascinated. It’s also really good for the business franchise also.
Darren: How much does moving to Brooklyn help the business on its own?
Prokhorov: On one hand, I’m sure the sponsorship is way up in Brooklyn compared with New Jersey. We will have a state-of-the-art arena with nine subways and one train go directly to our arena. It will be really great for our sponsorship to have the best arena in the NBA.
"We have everything at our disposal – very young people, young talented players, we just need one superstar to push us to the next level."
Darren: You said that within five years of you buying the team that you would bring a championship to the Nets. Is that timeline still on track?
Prokhorov: For sure. I’m still sure because we have practically everything at our disposal and we have made a lot of fundamentals during our first season. We have a new coach, we have a strong front office, we have great roster of talented young players, we have five first-round draft picks and we have a lot of tradeable assets – it sounds great. What we missed? We need just one superstar. But any superstar player from our roster, or what can be traded, he will be the king of the world. The first really global basketball player.
Darren: Jay-Z has a small ownership of the team, but didn’t go to a game last year. When you bought the team, you immediately met with him and kept him on the negotiating team kind of as a global icon to help guide your negotiating efforts. How important is Jay-Z to the Nets future?
Prokhorov: I think Jay-Z, he’s an excellent testimony of the global icon. He’s self-made man and he’s like living legend. A guy from Brooklyn. A very simple one and he became a real global star. And it’s a great opportunity for any player to be same in basketball. That’s why he’s an excellent shareholder and I’m lucky we have opportunity just to chat socially.
Darren: So you’ve owned the team for a while now. What did you expect that has happened and what didn’t you expect that has happened. How much of a challenge is it?
Prokhorov: I enjoy every minute of being a member of the NBA family. Maybe the league from inside, it looks more competitive that I predicted. But this excites me even more because I like challenges, I like competition, that’s why I’m much more excited than I was before.
Darren: You’ve been to less than 10 games since you’ve owned the team. Some people might say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t necessarily care about the Nets,’ but you also say you’ve spent 85 percent of your time devoted to the Nets, so do you expect fans will see you more and what’s your level of involvement is going to be.
Prokhorov: You know that I promised to be at 25 percent of home games and I’m very close to this figure. I think still most of my business is in Russia and for the time being I can’t do more at the present moment with games. But we have the opportunity in Moscow to watch Nets games and more than 60 percent of the games I have the experience to watch.
Darren: And what do see now and what to hope to change?
Prokhorov: We have everything at our disposal – very young people, young talented players, we just need one superstar to push us to the next level. It’s very important for the team, just a real leader.
Darren: What have you taken from your business world and brought to owning an NBA team?
Prokhorov: I would like (to) have (an) effective business model managing real business and counting all expenditures, including salaries. That’s very important and I keep an eye on what is going on with the negotiations between the players union and the owners and I do feel the responsibility to both parties, owners and players.
Darren: You’ve made the right moves at the right times in the business world, whether it’s getting into investment banking, being in the metals, being in the hybrid car business, what’s your take on the NBA labor negotiations and the costs from an ownership standpoint?
Prokhorov: We need to sit together and to create a very effective business franchise. Everyone needs to create growth, owners and players. It’s not easy. Now, as I feel, there’s a more or less positive conversation and I don’t want to spoil it with my comments as a newcomer.
Darren: What’s your sense of the business world right now versus where we were two years ago in the overall world economy?
Prokhorov: We are more or less in turbulence for the time being. Nothing is stable. I like this situation. It gives me more competitive advantage because I like when everything is not stable. It gives me good blood pressure to push all my businesses forward.
Darren: You are playing the Raptors for two games in London, it’s the first midseason, international, regular season games that are being played. What does this mean to the NBA and what do you think this holds for the prospects of having an NBA team in Europe?
Prokhorov: Personally I share the NBA’s view for the globalization. I think these games in London is a great testimony (to) how sports is going global. Just imagine: A US team, with a Russian owner with a French and Slovenian player facing against Canadian team with Brazilian, Spanish and Lithuanian players playing in London. It’s the United Nationals.
Darren: The ultimate international game.
Prokhorov: For sure.
Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com
Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com