You really think NBA billionaires will help end racism?

Deep pockets, filled with entanglements.

Part one of a two-part series. To read part two:

BY HENRY ABBOTT

NBA players have a platform and conviction. They want to play a role in making America safer for Black Americans fearful of police violence, and they wouldn’t mind finding some partners in the cause.

Are the NBA billionaires likely to be meaningful partners on this project? The plan, just announced, shies away from specific policy changes like defunding the police.

It seems the NBA knows they are vulnerable on this issue—going to some trouble to include the name Michael Jordan, the only Black governor, in the NBA’s official statement on the matter.

Adam Silver’s “strong bond” to NYPD

The New York Police Department’s history is riddled with racial strife. Eric Garner, Nicholas Heyward Jr., Amadou Diallo, Malcolm Ferguson—the list of unarmed Black men and boys who have died at the hands of the NYPD is long. And the department wrestles with wrongful arrests, accusations of profiling, and a controversial Stop-and-Frisk program.

The Netflix series When They See Us delves into the 1989 wrongful arrest of the Central Park Five (five Black and Latino teenagers) for the brutal rape of a Central Park jogger. 

At the time of the incident, Donald Trump made one of his first big splashes into politics with a full-page ad in The New York Times. The all-caps headline: “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE.” The accompanying copy talked about Trump as a child, in a diner with his dad, witnessing the police roughing people up, and missing that. It talked about the mayor saying, “hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts.” Trump wrote, “I do not think so. I want to hate those muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed.”

To be clear, the ad was in support of executing five Black and Latino teenagers who, it turned out, were innocent the whole time. It’s often told as a tale of insight into Trump’s racist thinking, but the NYPD did the arresting and charging of the wrong people. Years later, the case became famous for mean-spirited incompetence on the part of the police and prosecutors—another man, a serial rapist, was proved responsible for the crime. It ultimately cost the city a $41 million settlement. 

In 2015, the NYPD broke the right fibula, and damaged the ligaments of the highly respected forward Thabo Sefolosha. The police instigated a fight with Sefolosha, who was peaceful throughout. When he wasn’t submissive enough with his words, though, they first beat him, then charged him with crimes, of which he was later exonerated at trial. The NYPD would later pay him $4 million in a settlement

ESPN’s Scott Eden reported that it was hardly an isolated incident for the NYPD:

The New York City Police Department has a contentious history of allegations of misconduct—enough of one that there's a heated Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject. In the past 15 years, the city has paid out on behalf of its police more than $1.2 billion in settlements and judgments. In 2014 and 2015 alone, it paid $318.4 million in settlements. By way of comparison, Los Angeles paid $74.4 million over those same two years. Adjusting for population, NYC paid almost twice as much per person.

New York's problem also appears to be growing. From 2000 to 2013, the NYPD averaged payouts of $64.4 million per year; the past two years, that figure has risen to $159.2 million, almost 2.5 times as much. New York City's Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent watchdog agency that investigates grievances by citizens against the police, also reported that in the first half of 2015, 49 percent of the alleged victims in CCRB complaints were black; NYC's black population stands at 26 percent. That ratio conforms to national averages. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, from 2002 to 2011, black people were 2.5 times more likely than white people to have experienced nonfatal force in their most recent contact with police and 1.7 times more likely than Hispanics.


Despite all that, on November 11, 2019, Adam Silver stood on a stage at Cipriani Wall Street, at a fundraiser for Answer the Call, which provides financial assistance to first responders—New York City police and fire—who die in the line of duty. His job was to introduce the evening’s honoree, a personal friend, but he went out of his way to talk about the NBA and the police:

On behalf of the NBA, let me thank all of you at NYPD, FDNY, and the Port Authority police for your service in protecting our city. As you know, there is a strong bond between you and all of the New York sports teams and we are always grateful to you for keeping our teams, arenas, and stadiums safe. So I know I speak for all leagues: Thank you very much.

A lot has changed in the months since Silver’s talk. He couldn’t have known then that the NYPD would soon be on video doing terrible things at Black Lives Matter protests, or that the police union would break with tradition to endorse a presidential candidate, Donald Trump. 

But here we are. What will the league do now?

The NBA has thanked an organization of fallen officers. Now the rest of the season hinges on understanding what the NBA and its billionaires can do for those felled by officers.


Derecka Purnell makes specific policy recommendations to players writing for The Appeal. And she notes:

The NBA cannot even control the racist police officers at games, including the treatment of their Black executive management. Just days ago, bodycam footage was released of a California sheriff’s deputy shoving Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri after the team’s victory in the NBA finals last year. 

In the same Finals, in the same arena, one of the Warriors white billionaire investors shoved and cursed at Kyle Lowry in a way that incensed players from both teams.

A Russian campaign to divide America, starring Steve Bannon

It’s worth asking how America came to this racial boiling point. Much of it is obviously woven into the very creation of America. Today’s version, though, is unquestionably amped up by the election of Trump—especially as he has been advised through the years by Steve Bannon, who pops up in a recent Senate Intelligence report with a curious connection to one of the NBA’s most important financiers.

If you dig a little, you can see that the emergent, internet-based American alt-right, of which Bannon has been a central figure, has often had Russian support. For example: Robert Mueller’s indictment of Russians for meddling in the 2016 election said they “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system.” At the time, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, said the Russian “social media campaign was designed to further a broader Kremlin objective: sowing discord in the U.S. by inflaming passions on a range of divisive issues.”

Russia’s approach involved flooding social media with all kinds of amped up identity politics, for every group you can imagine, but especially Black Americans—and the alt right. This worked in no small part by simply elevating the social media postings of Bannon’s operation: Breitbart. According to a forensic examination, one of the primary activities of the Russian troll farm was promoting Breitbart content. Bannon led a publishing effort that fit perfectly with the Kremlin’s goals to divide America. 

Do we know that Bannon’s relationship with the Kremlin didn’t run deeper? A British investigation has reportedly found that Bannon’s firm, Cambridge Analytica, shared data with Russia. The evidence in a recent Senate Intelligence report on Russian active measures in the 2016 campaign includes accounts of many Bannon communications concerning information Russians hacked and dumped on Wikileaks—all of which is now seen as Russia-driven. And there’s an anecdote from one witness of Bannon working in conjunction with Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik on projects at Cambridge Analytica in 2014. (If we are contemplating Bannon as doing Russia’s bidding, remember that even though it didn’t fit his job or experience, Bannon ruffled feathers by getting himself, for a time, where he could be incredibly useful to a foreign power: on the National Security Council.)

Which brings us to one of the more curious episodes of the Senate Intelligence report, which involves one of the richest men in the world, a secretive oligarch who is very close to the NBA and Bannon.

The secret oligarch

In 2004, Suleiman Kerimov bought a brand-new Ferrari Enzo. Kerimov is generally reclusive—an article about him was headlined “the secret oligarch.” But in other ways he is a showboat. Reportedly he throws $10 million parties. Both Beyonce and Amy Winehouse have reportedly performed at his parties. He is sometimes called “a playboy.” That day, he drove fast through the traffic of the French Riviera city Nice and then—something went wrong—hard into a tree. The Enzo went up in flames and was damaged so badly it was towed away in two pieces, taking Kerimov’s privacy with it. 

His guest in the car, Tina Kandelaki, is a Russian celebrity (who recently made news by accusing Katy Perry of inappropriate sexual advances). Kerimov was so badly burned that after an extended hospitalization, he still wears fingerless gloves to cover his damaged skin. For a time, he was a media sensation. 

Then he went quiet again. As Catherine Belton wrote in the Financial Times in 2012, he made several billions in Russia, with which he approached several of Wall Street’s biggest banks when they were cash poor during the financial crash of 2007. He gained significant influence. 

Senior western bankers were impressed with Kerimov’s financial agility. They introduced him to the likes of Josef Ackermann, chief executive of Deutsche Bank, John Mack, the former Morgan Stanley boss, and, later, JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, and Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs who, according to one of them, has since visited Kerimov’s Moscow residence twice. But privately some have wondered whether there may be more to the mysterious Kerimov than meets the eye. Much speculation has rested on whether he sometimes invests funds for other silent partners – in particular, the Kremlin. “There were times when I wondered whether it was a front for the Kremlin,” said one banker. “Nobody would be surprised if he was,” said another.

By 2011, the goal to gain influence over Wall Street showed signs of working. Then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev had an agenda to make Moscow an international financial hub. Kerimov hosted a conference in support of the initiative, and got JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon, Citigroup’s Richard Parsons, and Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman to attend in person. Goldman Sachs’ head Lloyd Blankfein joined a session by video conference which started at 5 a.m. local time. 

Getting closer to the NBA

Those money guys who were getting to know Kerimov and attending his conference? Citigroup’s Richard Parsons is close enough to the league that he was appointed to run the Clippers after Donald Sterling was ejected. Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman is close to many NBA figures—one of his key deputies at Blackstone, David Blitzer, is Josh Harris’ equal partner in the 76ers. Schwarzman is a Knicks fan who has mused about buying an NBA team

Belton recently published a book, “Putin’s People,” says Kerimov built significant stakes in Western financial firms like Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Fortis, and Credit Suisse. Wrapping up the section about Kerimov, Belton writes:

Everything was dictated by the Kremlin. … It was a mafia system in which business was done on informal ‘understandings’ like those that ruled mafia groups. When the entire system was built on corruption, on kickbacks and access, every participant could be controlled. Putin and his men would have kompromat on everyone—from businessmen to state officials receiving bribes. It was a way to keep everyone on the hook, fully aware that at any time, if they stepped out of line, they could go to jail. 

Kompromat on everyone. More on that in part two of this series

One of the insiders the Senate Intelligence committee interviewed in creating the report: Leon Black, founder of Apollo Global Management and arguably the most important money man in the NBA sphere. One of the biggest, and most aggressive private equity firms in the world, Apollo was founded by a group of five people. Two current NBA governors—Josh Harris of the 76ers and Tony Ressler of the Hawks—are Black’s co-founders. Black is married to Ressler’s sister. His network bubbles with NBA bigwigs. Apollo is core to the NBA.

The Senate report includes a photo of Apollo founder Leon Black partying in Moscow with Donald Trump as far back as 1996:

Black served on the board of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) until 2014, and has previously met with Kirill Dmitriev. In 2011, Black reportedly met one-on-one with Vladimir Putin. Black also knows Oleg Deripaska, and has interacted with him in Russia and the United States prior to Deripaska being sanctioned by the United States in 2018. 

In New York, Kerimov has a right-hand man manage his affairs—Allen Vine, who was born in Russia, formerly worked at Merrill Lynch, and is well known in Wall Street circles. (According to the report, Carter Page, another figure in the Trump-Russia story, once worked for Vine.) Kerimov’s own business associates believe he may well invest on behalf of the Kremlin. The report continues:

Black knows Allen Vine, whom Black described as "consigliere" to the Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov, who was sanctioned by the United States in 2018. Black told the Committee, "Steve Bannon and I have a common friend, and I went over to see my friend and Bannon was meeting him for breakfast. And so on two occasions I spent time talking to Steve Bannon.”

So many Russia connections

Black has certainly put years into ascending the ranks of Russian influence at a time when some of the biggest capital flows have come from Moscow. Black’s net worth is said to be more than $8 billion. If he has truly met with Putin one-on-one, he has access most Russian oligarchs don’t. And he is the source of two NBA governors’ wealth. 

Putin, in the judgment of the most insightful experts, wants to inflame America’s internal tensions, the St. Petersburg troll farm has worked hard in that regard. Black meets with Kerimov’s right-hand man, Vine, often enough to call him a friend; sometimes Steve Bannon is there. Bannon has a career encouraging white racists in ways that are so consistent with the troll farm’s goals that Breitbart can often simply be retweeted. Kerimov also has influence over a collection of the most important money people in the world.

“Putin’s People” discusses dozens more channels of influence that could affect current domestic American politics. One cast of characters has worked its way close to Rudy Giuliani. Others control many billions in collateralized debt, “a vehicle of potentially untold leverage and influence over indebted American businessmen.” There are real estate deals, yachts. One of Belton’s sources says Putin sent Roman Abramovich and his wife to New York “to continue the influence campaign” on Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. 

Russia is at war with the U.S., but instead of battling with tanks and planes, they have invaded with influence over those with the deepest pockets. Kremlin money comes with strings attached. At least in Russia, Belton argues, oligarchs aren’t even powerful figures anymore. They don’t get to exercise their own politics. “The tycoons once known as powerful oligarchs were now the vassals of Putin’s Kremlin,” writes Belton, “their every move closely followed, most of their telephones bugged.” 

Partners in fighting racism?

None of this means that every single billionaire is in bed with Russian influences. But in general it’s hard for decent people to gather enough dollars to own an NBA team. Are the apex predators of capitalism—people who thrive under the policies of Trump, and cross paths with influential figures from Russia, Steve Bannon, and even Jeffrey Epstein (see part two of the series)—ever likely to truly join the project of reducing predation? 

The talks are ongoing: Players are eager to see what billionaires can do to help the cause of Black Lives Matter. In vague statements on social media, many teams and billionaires are in. Will they still be there when we progress to real policy changes? In somes cases, NBA billionaires contributed to the very policies that Black Lives Matter would now like to overturn. NBA billionaires certainly have the resources and connections to make real change, but do they have the conviction, or the freedom?

I am not saying that the NBA’s politics have been wholly bought. But I am saying that the NBA requires deep pockets, and deep pockets are filled with complications and entanglements that can hurt, especially on the topic of race.

How does Commissioner Silver—a man who has been lauded, and who has earned deep trust from players for his command of racial issues—end up making speeches about the NBA’s connection with the NYPD? 

Silver made the speech at that event to honor his college roommate from Duke, Jim Zelter. Zelter is now the co-president of Leon Black’s Apollo. Zelter has been at Apollo since 2006; his job offer was signed by 76ers governor Josh Harris. Things can get complicated in a hurry.


Read part two, where Jeffrey Epstein enters the story.