The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

I, For One, Welcome Our Gigantic, Sketchy, Allegedly High-Class Call Girl Hiring, Kickboxing Russian Billionaire Playboy Overlords

I’ll be honest: I saw the initial reports of this one, laughed them off on the theory that these kinds of outlandish notions get booted around the press all the time, and moved on figuring it’d never be mentioned again. I appear to have been really wrong about this one- Mikhail Prokhorov appears to be genuinely interested in buying the New Jersey Nets (instantly re-nicknamed the Nyets) and ESPN is reporting that he’s sent proposals to current shareholders. So much to say about this one, much of it over time as more is revealed. There’s an apparently professional translation of Prokhorov’s blog post here.

Upfront, I’ll say this- if Prokhorov really wants this team I think he’ll get them with no trouble. Money is obviously no object for the richest man in Russia who’s listed by Forbes as owner of a $9.5 Billion fortune. Also, interestingly, so far as some cursory research can determine he appears to be relatively less sketchy than most oligarchs (the arrest for getting hookers for his guests, for which he was not charged, appears to be the only obvious thing) which should help him slide through whatever oversight process the NBA may apply fairly easily. It helps as well that he’s from a potentially important overseas market for the league, has basketball experience as a backer for CSKA, and one presumes has all the right friends and connections. As to whether Ratner is selling, he’s been slashing costs and looking for “investors” for months now, which is all but putting a for-sale sign up; moreover, if he weren’t jumping at the bit for this deal, he’d have had a denial out by now. I’d say the odds are well over 50% of this thing happening especially since in the fine tradition of crazy-rich Russian billionaire foreign sports team owners, I doubt actually making a profit off the team- or worrying about the losses discovered in due diligence- is really foremost among Prokhorov’s concerns.

The major question for a Nets fan is: is this a good thing? The short answer is that we simply won’t know for a while. If this becomes purely some sort of weird let’s bolster-Russia’s-national-basketball-profile thing, we could end up with a coach overmatched by the league, and owner selecting the team, and trading our next 5 first round draft picks for Andrei Kirilenko. That would obviously not be progress. Let’s call that the Vladimir Romanov/Heart of Midlothian option. Alternately, we could have a team with perhaps one or two vanity let’s-have-a-Russian-on-the-Nets players, a bunch of completely harmless-to-mildly-useful background policies like providing training methods and coaching apprenticeships to Russian coaches and exposure in training camps for Russian players, plus colossal financial backing, a new area, and an owner willing to pay for success on the theory that success for a traditionally beleaguered team under Russian ownership will in and of itself bolster the image of Russia. Let’s call that the Roman Abamovich/Chelsea FC option. My instincts, for that that’s worth, strongly suggest that the Chelsea option is more likely here- we’re talking about a potential owner with a profoundly circumspect legal and ethical profile for such a wealthy and famous man, a potential owner who’s ridden the stormy waves of Russia’s politics to the absolute top at age 44 by making a series of prescient and practical decisions. This is not a man to go crazy and start demanding to fill out the team sheet- partly because it doesn’t fit his history, partly because- let’s be honest- a Russian billionaire with a taste for hookers probably has more diverting pleasures to hand than obsessing about our small forward rotation.

It should be noted as well that Vladimir Romanov came of age under the Soviet Union, and was 48 when it dissolved; Prokhorov was 26 (Roman Abramovich was 25), and has spent the majority of his adult and working life in a very different country. The land is the same, but the ideas and pressures are very different. It’s certainly possible to overstate this, but so far the evidence suggests that the younger men who rose to the heights in the privatization years- especially near the center of power- are much more calculating (which can be a good thing), much more measured and precise in their dealings, much more focused on results than bluster and fame, much more professional in a sense. Romanov, a Lithuanian citizen, claimed earlier this year that he was going to run for the presidency of that nation, only to be told that would be impossible as he was born in Russia It’s equally impossible to imagine the famously silent Abramovich making such an embarrassing mistake or causing such a pointless furor. All evidence suggests that Prokhorov’s temperament and experiences are much closer to the latter’s.

One potential concern which will have to be addressed will be in regards to funding. The versions of the deal floating about right now refer to loaning the team money to fund the new arena, rather than picking up the check outright. I’m inclined to be fine with this, on the theory that the loan terms are likely to be generous if contracted with the team’s owner or his interests and the new arena should generate sufficient revenues to service the debt load without a serious drag on competitive integrity. At the moment the team’s in major cost-cutting mode under Ratner partly because of arena debt and arena issues; even if that major drag is only reduced to a minor drag, that can be a substantial improvement.

There will also be, inevitably, some concerns raised about foreign ownership. In effect I’ve raised them myself above by noting the history of men like Vladimir Romanov and Roman Abramovich as team owners. There may be culture clash issues; but the fact that the owner is Russian really shouldn’t be an issue any more than the fact that the power forward is Chinese and one of his backups is Mexican. The issue is winning basketball games and getting this team on some kind of a solid long-term footing for the first time in its existence, arguably- if a Russian billionaire wants to help out with that and advance some his own and his country’s interests in the process, than that’s just fine by me as a fan. Everyone benefits and everyone’s happy.

On a personal note I find this incredibly funny on some level. Ever since Chelsea got Abramovich’ed into a title I’ve reluctantly accepted that similar treatment for my club, Arsenal, would have major problems associated with it (see: Alisher Usmanov) but I’ve always half-jokingly defended Chelsea (and now Man City) fans thrilled at their teams’ takeovers by wealthy foreigners by saying that I’d be overjoyed if the Nets suffered a similar fate. Life appears to have called my bluff on that one, and you know what? I’m actually really ok with that. The bottom line here is that the current situation for the Nets sucks: their arena move is stalled, they’re stuck in a swamp wasting a good young core, they’ve got no money to spend on anything including competing, their attendance is for shit, and given the increasing uncertainty over the ownership and arena issues they’re among the least attractive teams in the league for players. They are, in a word, fucked. There’s a great deal of uncertainty in an ownership change, but to my mind there’s vastly more danger associated with things remaining as they are. I am, cautiously, in favor of Mikhail Prokhorov’s takeover and I look forward to seeing what he does with the Nyets.

Fun facts to clinch it: Prokhorov is 6’9. In a battle between watching Devin Harris’s best years go to waste or seeing my team sold, I’m going to have to go with the gigantic Russian kickboxing billionaire on this one. Whether it works out alright or not, there’s no way this guy owning a team in America’s biggest media market- possibly in partnership with Jay-Z- can’t be a crapload more entertaining than the alternative.

EDIT: incidentally, I’ve seen some people worried that Prokhorov is talking about using the Nets to aid Russian basketball and such on his blog. Folks, let’s not be parochial on this one: the man is a Russian writing in Russian on a Russian website for a Russian audience. Of COURSE he’s going to talk about how this could benefit Russia- it would be ridiculous for him not to! And if his ownership benefits Russian basketball, great- that’s a goal which is potentially achievable alongside making the Nets a contender and improving their foundation for the long term. There’s no reason whatsoever that serving the two ends is mutually exclusive, especially when the methods mentioned so far for benefiting Russian basketball on Prokhorov’s blog are all background infrastructure-building projects which would present no obvious issues for the Nets as an organization. It’ll all be in the execution, or it won’t be- time will tell, and we can scream about interference when and if it happens.

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September 23, 2009 - Posted by | The Nets | ,

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