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This is Part 1 of an 8-part TrueHoop investigation into Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov.
The first project: Investigating Mikhail Prokhorov
I’ve always felt that we, the NBA media, could do a better job covering owners. A player throws a little soup; it’s viral within hours. Donald Sterling supplies guests with women as party favors for years, though, and … crickets. He brought friends into the locker room to watch players shower, we were told years later, saying look at those beautiful black bodies. He ran a housing empire in a swirl of racist comments and, evidently, leasing practices.
But he was only really hauled in for serious examination decades into his ownership when secret recordings of a crazy racist rant were leaked. Makes you wonder: among all these owners, what else are we missing?
This is TrueHoop’s next project.
How much do we know about Mikhail Prokhorov?
When he arrived in the NBA’s consciousness in 2009, Mikhail “call me Mike” Prokhorov seemed like a svelte, dapper Russian playboy who would be right at home taking the Larry O’Brien trophy to a nightclub, with his players, after winning a championship. And that is the vision he projected: a can-do businessman with deep pockets who would do whatever it took, and spend whatever it took, to fix the Nets.
He proceeded to make a series of hasty moves, capped by a trade of legendary awfulness. In hindsight the Kevin Garnet trade was the equivalent of a gigantic wealth transfer from Brooklyn to Boston, turning Prokhorov’s Nets into an object of curiosity--briefly--and then ridicule. Only after a total re-boot is the team finally now rekindling the kind of hope they had before Prokhorov took over. In 2018, he effectively gave up, selling 49 percent of the team to Joe Tsai in a complex deal that will likely result in Prokhorov’s leaving NBA ownership altogether in a couple of years.
Meanwhile, mainly thanks to the the election of Donald Trump, the word “oligarch” has taken on new, more sinister connotations. The many investigations into election meddling and money laundering contribute to a growing pile of evidence that Russia … has done a rather shocking list of things.
Which might sound laughable. But unlike most conspiracy theories, in this one, those with the best insight sound the most alarmed. Up to and including sober former heads of intelligence agencies saying—no joke—that the president of the United States, with all of his weapons, vetoes, and levers, is behaving like an agent of Russia.
What a relief that the NBA has some distance from all that! Here, well-lit young athletes run, jump, and dunk, and we can forget about all that for a while.
Only, look around:
There was a time that no American banker would deal with Donald Trump, except Rosemary Vrablic at Deutsche Bank. Vrablic keeps a short list of clients. The Mortgage Observer identified only one who’d discuss this magical banker: Pacers owner Herb Simon. He said: “When she came into the picture, it was a tough time to get money, and she was able to be very creative and get us what we needed.” The bank is facing hundreds of millions in fines and has been a world leader in offshoring assets from Moscow. Recently they’ve had offices raided and executives resign.
Celtics minority owner Jim Breyer is a titan of venture capital, and Mitch McConnell’s brother-in-law. Breyer played a role in bringing Russian investment to some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley and has ties to deep-pocketed Russians connected to the Kremlin.
76ers owners Joshua Harris and David Blitzer work at Apollo Global Management and Blackstone Group, respectively. Both firms have done big deals with Jared Kushner’s family real estate business. And both firms’ founders advise the Russia Direct Investment Fund (RDIF). One of the sexier phrases in the Trump investigation is the “Seychelles Meeting,” which was between Erik Prince and the man who runs RDIF, Kirill Dmitriev.
One of the Russia Direct Investment Fund’s biggest investments, the Alibaba group, was co-founded by incoming Nets owner Joe Tsai, the man who is purchasing the Nets from Prokhorov.
Now that we’re here, trying to absorb all that, I cast my memory back to a decade ago, when Mikhail Prokhorov, a bona fide oligarch, became the NBA’s first foreign-born owner. Our NBA oligarch … he’s still cool. Right?
In trying to answer that, I’ve been to vodka-infused lunches. I’ve talked to survivors of poisoning attempts in basement meetings, protected by counterterrorism units. I bought more cloud data just to store the business records, transcribed interview notes, and audio recordings.
And … holy crap.
It’s a story that starts in 2003, when Prokhorov says he first started dreaming of owning an NBA team with conversations about buying the Knicks. And then again in 2006, when, reportedly, Prokhorov’s next attempt to buy an NBA team fell apart in the last minute.
But as the decade wound down, the economy hit the skids: Lehman Brothers collapsed, the markets crashed and seemingly everyone in America—from families with adjustable-rate mortgages to billionaire New York City developers—all needed the one thing: cash. In some cases, the solution to that problem was a flight to Moscow.