With Donald Sterling being politely shoved out the door, Mikhail Prokhorov is now the NBA owner most likely to be tabbed as a villain.
The prestigious ranks of NBA owners have no shortage of attention-grabbers. Dallas Maverick’s owner Mark Cuban holds more celebrity than his player Dirk Nowitzki, who is only the greatest European basketball player of all time. And recently-ousted Clippers owner Donald Sterling has long been a public symbol for everything that is wrong with the NBA.
But with Sterling being banned from the NBA for life and Cuban’s attention-seeking antics (including his interest in online poker sites in America before the passing of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Act in 2006) becoming old news, expect the American media machine to set its sights on Mikhail Prokhorov, the mysterious Russian billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets. Here are four reasons why:
He’s a Russian billionaire and political figure
• Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov bought the New Jersey Nets in 2011, quickly moving them to Brooklyn and turning them into a competitive team
• He has sparked controversy due to his signing of fellow-Russian Andrei Kirilenko absentee ownership style
• When league owners banded together to publicly condemn Donald Sterling, Prokhorov chose to remain silent
The Cold War is back on, and Americans never really warmed up to Russians in the first place. Prokhorov also happens to be an “oligarch,” which to the average American equates to “Russian bad guy.” Hey, we’ve all seen plenty of Hollywood action movies.
Prokhorov does his best to keep a low-profile, spending most of his time back home in Russia. While this should keep public scrutiny to a minimum, it actually has the opposite effect because it feeds the mysterious aura surrounding him.
He is also a highly-visible political figure in Russia, finishing third in the 2012 Presidential elections as an independent candidate. Granted, he is part of the “official opposition,” Kremlin-sponsored non-United Russia candidates who serve Putin by siphoning votes away from real opposition parties. However, he is the only NBA owner to have run in a presidential election, needless to say a Russian presidential election.
The Nets have become relevant
Aside from a few winning seasons during the early 2000s, the Nets have been a perennial laughingstock, playing in the literal and figurative shadow of the neighboring New York Knicks. Prokhorov has put them on the map since buying the team in 2012.
Along with minority owner and fellow controversial celebrity Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) one of the first things Prokhorov did was announce he was moving the team from New Jersey to Brooklyn. He also pushed through public opposition and legal hurdles to get the 18,000 seat Barclay’s Center built.
Better yet, he broke the bank to assemble a team of all-stars and this year the Nets advanced past the first-round of the playoffs for the first time since 2007. Online sportsbooks in the US and Canada are giving the Nets a chance to beat Lebron James’s Miami Heat in the second round.
And by broke the bank, I mean that Prokhorov is paying $80 million in luxury tax on top of $101 million in player salaries. Sure, his bunch of aging former stars isn’t worth $181 million, but considering that Prokhorov is worth upwards of $13 billion, it’s a small price to pay.
The other owners distrust him
Donald Sterling was unpopular with most of his counterparts, but that was largely personal, not business-related. Prokhorov has only been an NBA owner since 2010 and has already drawn the ire of many around the league, much of it stemming from the Nets signing of fellow-Russian Andrei Kirilenko in 2013.
Kirilenko opted-out of a $10 million-dollar contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves to sign for $3 million with Prokhorov’s club. Fellow owners immediately jumped to the conclusion that the two Russians had reached an under-the-table agreement involving some clandestine compensation for Kirilenko.
While no evidence of collusion has been found and I personally think it was coincidence rather than some shady Russian business deal, the incident shed light on Prokhorov’s perception among other NBA owners. Dislike and distrust, whether fair or not.
He doesn’t care about fitting in
While he is now a significant public figure in Russia, Prokhorov enjoys cultivating a playboy image and doesn’t seem to concern himself with his reputation in America. He is primarily an absentee owner, rarely spending time around the team and engaging the fan base even less.
When owners around the league considered it their politically-correct duty to publicly condemn Donald Sterling, Prokhorov chose to stay silent. It would have been in his best interest to score some brownie points around the league for expressing support for commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to ban Sterling, but Prokhorov clearly doesn’t care about brownie points. He marches to beat of a different drum. In the NBA, not fitting in is bound to result in negative publicity.