NEW YORK — In late June 2010, just a few weeks after Mikhail Prokhorov became the majority owner of the New Jersey Nets, a large billboard sprung up overlooking Madison Square Garden. Two men were pictured: a smiling Prokhorov, wearing a dark suit with a spotted tie, and rapper Jay Z, then a part owner of the franchise, staring straight ahead.
Above them read a simple phrase: “The blueprint for greatness.”
The billboard was in full view of 2 Penn Plaza, the offices of New York Knicks owner James Dolan, and it infuriated the city’s long-preeminent NBA franchise. But it was a bold signal of intent from Prokhorov, the billionaire Russian oligarch who spent $220 million of his personal fortune to become the league’s first foreign owner.
The Nets were in the midst of trying to build a new, billion-dollar arena — what eventually became Barclays Center — in downtown Brooklyn, the cornerstone of the franchise’s effort to move from New Jersey to within the city limits. Prokhorov’s predecessor, Bruce Ratner, had spent years working to make the move happen but appeared to be running out of money and momentum to get the deal done.
Prokhorov, a bold and charismatic 6-foot-8 bachelor — not to mention one of the richest men in Russia — provided a healthy dose of both, buying 80 percent of the franchise and 45 percent of the to-be-completed arena.
“How fast can we build a championship team?” Prokhorov asked in a video message to Nets fans in May 2010. “If everything goes as planned, I expect us to be in the playoffs next season and [win a] championship in one year and maximum of five years.”
In the 51/2 years since, the combination of that desire to win a championship and the impulse to impress with bold moves and star power have come to define what has been Prokhorov’s chaotic and tumultuous reign atop the franchise.
The latest chapter was written Sunday, when the Nets — sporting one of the worst records in the NBA at 10-27 — fired coach Lionel Hollins and reassigned general manager Billy King in a move that virtually the entire organization learned of when the press release announcing it was issued to the media.
The next day, Prokhorov sat in front of a bay of microphones and tape recorders inside Barclays Center after flying to New York from a skiing trip and offered few details about his future plans for the team. He threw out a few of his patented one-liners — including, at one point, thanking the New York media for being so persistent and demanding in doing its job — but he also didn’t lay out many concrete plans.
“The most important thing we need to change is we need, maybe, a new level of leadership here in the front office and in the coaching staff,” Prokhorov said. “ We need big leadership. This is maybe the most important lesson [I’ve learned].”
When Prokhorov first arrived on the scene six years ago, he was a mysterious and foreboding presence to the rest of the NBA. There was a sense at league headquarters and among the 29 other franchises that Prokhorov would be willing to spend whatever it would take to win and that players would be attracted by the lavish lifestyle he leads as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors. Many thought he could have a similar impact to that of Mark Cuban, the entrepreneur who bought the Dallas Mavericks in 2000 for $285 million.
From the league’s perspective, the biggest draw, though, was the fact that Prokhorov was willing to buy a team. Unlike today, when there is no shortage of suitors to buy virtually any franchise thanks to the impact soaring TV revenues are having on team valuations, buying into the NBA back then was far less of a sure thing. Prokhorov, with his deep pockets, was an ideal suitor.
“He seems most anxious to get to work to improve the performance of the team on and off the court,” then-NBA commissioner David Stern said at a news conference in May 2010 after the sale became official. The Nets had just completed a season in which they won only 12 games and lost 70.
In reality, though, the theory of Prokhorov’s presence has proved to be far more expansive than his actual role with the franchise. For most of the past six years, Prokhorov, now 50, has been a largely absentee owner. He drops in for the occasional game here and there, but for the most part, he stays away from the team.
The team’s marquee player acquisition during Prokhorov’s ownership tenure, Deron Williams, said he met Prokhorov only twice — once when he was traded from the Utah Jazz to the Nets in February 2011 and a second time when he visited Moscow in May 2012. Many of the team’s other players have never met the owner at all.
Prokhorov was spending the vast majority of his time monitoring his many business interests abroad, as well as fostering a political career in his homeland — including runs for the Russian presidency and to become Moscow’s mayor.
In fact, Jay Z — who only owned a tiny percentage of the Nets and the arena — was a far more visible presence in and around the team. He and his wife, Beyonce Knowles, held a concert at the arena for its first event, and the rapper was credited with being the driving force behind the team’s black-and-white color scheme. He also regularly attended games early on, sitting in his courtside seats right next to Brooklyn’s bench.
But his role within the organization was short-lived. By the spring of 2013, he was in the process of selling his stake in the team so he could focus on a new line of work: spearheading a new sports agency, Roc Nation Sports, which has gone on to add big-name clients such as Kevin Durant and Robinson Cano.
As Prokhorov’s other interests often kept him elsewhere, the day-to-day operations of the team were largely handled by his right-hand man, Dmitry Razumov. A lawyer by trade, Razumov — an avid basketball fan — threw himself headlong into the basketball side of the operation.
Razumov was fully on-board with Prokhorov’s vision to rapidly transform the Nets into one of the NBA’s top franchises. The club immediately began chasing big names — first hiring a high-profile coach in Avery Johnson, then going after the star-studded 2010 free agent class, which featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson, among others.
When the Nets struck out with all of them — and signed Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, Jordan Farmar and Travis Outlaw instead — they spent most of the following season trying to pry Carmelo Anthony away from the Denver Nuggets, only to watch them deal him to the Knicks. That was when the Nets struck the deal with the Jazz for Williams, giving them one of the league’s best point guards and a worthy star to serve as the face of the team as it moved to Brooklyn.
“I look at it as we’ve just acquired a player that’s going to be a cornerstone of this franchise for a long time,” King, the general manager, said after making the trade.
One star wasn’t enough for Prokhorov, Razumov and the Nets, though; they needed more. So they continued to chase them. From March 2012 to July 2013, they acquired Gerald Wallace, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. But the price was steep: They traded away the rights to five first-round picks and the rights to swap two others.
Those moves have left the Nets without control of their first-round pick until 2019 — severely impacting the franchise’s ability to turn things around.
The Nets didn’t just seek stars on the player side, however. Just 28 games into their first season in Brooklyn in 2012-13, Prokhorov fired Johnson, cutting short another skiing trip — this time in British Columbia — to come to New York just after Christmas to explain his move.
“[Expectations] are not very high,” Prokhorov said. “Just championship, not more.”
With Johnson out of the way, Prokhorov set his sights on former Bulls and Lakers coach Phil Jackson, hoping to lure him out of retirement.
When that failed, Razumov became convinced that Jason Kidd — who had just retired as a player — was the right choice. Kidd was hired as the team’s coach two weeks before the team acquired Pierce and Garnett from the Celtics in June 2013.
It took three years, but Prokhorov had the team he always had wanted: one that was full of star power, one expected to contend for a championship.
“Today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets,” Prokhorov said after the Celtics trade became official. “With the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, we have achieved a great balance between veteran stars and young talents. This team will be dazzling to watch and tough to compete against.”
Things didn’t quite work out that way. The next season, 2013-14, was even more chaotic than the last. The Nets began the year 10-21, with rampant rumors that Kidd could be fired after less than two months on the job. Williams, meanwhile, appeared to have his spirit broken by the combined presence of Kidd, Garnett and Pierce.
But even after it looked as if the franchise might have finally stabilized — recovering to win 44 games and advance to the second round of the playoffs — things got even crazier, with Kidd leaving to become the coach of the Milwaukee Bucks after ownership failed to meet a series of demands he made after that season, including control of basketball operations.
“This is business,” Kidd said at his introductory news conference in Milwaukee. “This is business, and that’s what it comes down to.”
Prokhorov didn’t make himself any more of a presence after Kidd’s departure, but one noticeable thing began to change: What once was a bottomless vault, including spending a record $193 million in payroll and luxury taxes on the 2013-14 version of the team, in fact had a floor.
The Nets cut back in a big way over the past 18 months, including a decision to buy out the final two years of Williams’s contract by paying him $27.5 million of the $43.5 million he was owed. The move saved Prokhorov $60 million in combined payroll and luxury taxes.
It was a smart business decision, to be sure — as was Prokhorov buying the remaining 20 percent of the team and 55 percent of the arena last month, making him the sole owner of both. But buying out star players wasn’t the kind of move a title-seeking team backed by Prokhorov’s billions was supposed to make.
Cutting ties with Williams also ensured Brooklyn would be one of the worst teams in the NBA this season, which it has been, and in part led to Prokhorov’s news conference Monday, when he tried to explain where his broken franchise will go from here.
“We have been really bold and we did our best in order to reach a championship,” Prokhorov said. “And I still believe, with some luck, our results might have been more promising.
“But I’ll do my best to make us a championship team.”
The goal, like it was when Prokhorov had that billboard painted overlooking Madison Square Garden, remains the same. The Nets ended a 10-game home losing streak Wednesday by beating the New York Knicks, but nearly six years later and after an incredible amount of twists and turns along the way, the chances of Prokhorov and his team attaining that title appear as far away as ever.