Mikhail Prokhorov: The Most Fascinating Man In Sports

For the second time in a week, I got stuck in a semi-conundrum last night.

There was no basketball on TV, which in my eyes, basically meant there was nothing on TV period. As much as I like baseball, I dunno, there’s something about the monotony of it that drives me crazy. Kind of like one of those “Lions attacking antelopes,” documentaries on the Discovery Channel, watching baseball sounds like a good idea in principle, until you turn it on. Then four minutes pass, Daisuke Matsuzaka has thrown a grand total of two pitches, and you start thinking to yourself, “What the hell am I doing with my life.”

Like any early summer night, I tried everything to squash my boredom. Played around on my computer. Went for a run. Cleaned. Even called my favorite escort service, but unfortunately no one picked up (I’m kidding of course). And after all that, it was still only 8:30. Damn.

As I sat down to grab a bite to eat, I finally relented and flipped on the YES Network– a New York City TV sports station- hoping to catch the Yankees-Rays game. Nope, no luck. Instead, the simulcast of Mike Francesa’s radio show was on replay. Oh well.

And then…

Wait a second…

Francesa was talking to Mikhail Prokhorov, the new owner of the New Jersey Nets.

Within seconds I was fascinated. I was captivated. My house could have literally been invaded by Somali pirates and I wouldn’t have flinched.

While Prokhorov didn’t say anything Earth shattering while talking with Francesa, he did do one thing I’ve never seen or heard on the show before: He absolutely took control of the interview.

For those of you who don’t know Francesa’s shtick here’s a quick run down: Basically, he’s a pain in the ass New Yorker. He cuts off his callers when he can’t be bothered, raises his voice like your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving, and basically has major anger management issues. Even Dr. Phil would have given up on him a long time ago.

However, he’s also incredibly intelligent, and literally the smartest man in the room too. Francesa can get away with being an a-hole every once in awhile, because he’s right so much of the time. Meanwhile, even though he lost his co-host Chris (Mad Dog) Russo a few years ago, Francesa still owns the New York radio market, and is one of the defining sports personalities in the region.

Which is what made Prokhorov’s appearance on the show so incredible: He had the fast-talking, too smart for his own good Francesa flummoxed. Like a college freshman at his first keg party being asked by the girl to go upstairs, Francesa had no idea how to handle the situation. It was like you could see him thinking to himself, “I want to ask this question, but I’m afraid of what the answer might be.” That’s the allure of the Big Russian.

When it comes to Prokhorov, we all thought we were in for a treat when his name first surfaced as a potential owner of the Nets last fall. He was big and mysterious, and even though he’d made his money in the nickel trade, everyone assumed there was more to the story. That somewhere along the way, Prokhorov was involved in some shady business deals, that ended in broken contracts, and his rivals disappearing and ending up in Siberian ditches. Even if it none of it was true, it seemed like it could be, making him a real life International Man of Mystery.

Later on when we saw his interview on 60 Minutes in March, that’s when we knew we were in for a wild ride.

For a guy just getting his feet wet in the American market, Prokhorov didn’t seem afraid to hold anything back with the  cameras rolling. He took us into his kickboxing lair, out on the town with 20 of the most beautiful (and well paid…if you get my drift) women in Moscow, and confessed that although he owned a 200 foot yacht, it made him sea sick, and he hadn’t been on it in years. He even admitted that he had no idea where in the world it was (Honestly, that was my favorite part of the whole interview. I lost a pair of $20 sunglasses the other day, and I’m still pissed. This guy has a million dollar yacht floating around somewhere in the Baltic Sea, and couldn’t care less. Talk about conspicuous consumption.)

Upon coming stateside this past week for the NBA Draft Lottery, and to answer questions from the media, the Prokhorov mystique hit full bore. Even Nets co-owner Jay-Z- who’s seen a lot of crazy s**t in his day- seems petrified of the guy.

At his introductory press conference Prokhorov had a lot to say, one line in particular more telling to me than the rest. When asked about the impending free agent class of 2010, he said, “I’m pretty sure I can convince the best of the best that the Nets is the place to be.” He followed up with a wry smile, adding “I have my secrets.” All he needed was a persian cat on his arm, and a glass scotch in his hand.

But that quote to me is the most telling part of the Prokhorov era: We just don’t know what he’s capable of. All we do know is that he’s got a lot of money, he’s not afraid to spend it, and wants to win now. Talk about a deadly trifecta.

Which brings us back to the free agent class. I heard ESPN writer Bill Simmons mention in a podcast recently that he wondered the same, what Prokhorov is willing to do to win. Would it be against NBA rules for Prokhorov to offer “extra benefits,” like use of a private plane or his infamous yacht to free agents like LeBron James or Dwyane Wade?

My buddy Matt recently took it one step further, when he asked me, “Forget the max contract, what if he shows up at LeBron’s house on July 1 with a briefcase with $50 million in it? What’s $50 million to this guy?” Good point. It’s like Al Davis once said, “Just win baby!”

Either way, regardless of what Prokhorov is truly capable of, he’s exactly what the Nets needed.

Now I wasn’t around for the Dr. J, ABA days, but I can tell you that in 2010, the Nets are absolutely irrelevent in the New York market. And not just because they’re bad, this was a team that couldn’t sell out games when they were going to the NBA Finals with Jason Kidd. Hell, I never even met a Nets fan until I was in college, and I’m the biggest sports fan I know. Talk about a small, depressed fan base.

Even worse is the state of the organization now.

I went to a game back in December, and documented it in painful detail. There were an awful lot of empty seats, and a totally contrived “atmosphere,” if you can even call it that. The PA Announcer had to practically beg the fans to cheer, and there was some weird wolf mascot, that all these months later, I’m still not sure what his role was. For the most part the arena was dark and quiet, almost like attending a funeral. Truth be told, at least at funeral’s there’s free food toward the end.

While moving to Newark next year and Brooklyn a few years after that will help, the Nets still needed something beyond a shiny new arena. They needed an identity and a face of the franchise. What they really needed was some umph.

They’ve got all that now in Prokhorov.

He’s got the city buzzing, and talking about Nets basketball in May, during a time that is almost exclusively reserved for Yankees and Mets baseball talk. Believe me when I say, it’s easier to get a good WNBA conversation going in New York these days, than any chatter about the Nets.

But Prokhorov has changed that.

Sure everyone may be a little confused by him, and quite honestly a little terrified. He’s even already done the impossible and left Francesa, a man paid a pretty penny to talk for five straight hours, speechless.

Regardless of what the future holds for the Nets, one thing is certain right now.

Their owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, is the most fascinating man in sports.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.