You can't teach height or dumb luck, and Mikhail Prokhorov has both in abundance. The long-legged, lady-killing Russian oligarch has been rumored to be shopping his 80 percent stake in the Brooklyn Nets for some time, and on Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that Prokhorov is now taking serious steps toward moving on from the $220 million investment he made five years ago. If he chooses to do so, he'll walk away with, depending on what brand of Ouija board the folks who get paid to estimate these such things are using, an amount in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion.
In a 2012 article about his shamtastic run at Russia's presidency, Prokhorov talks to New Yorker contributor Julia Ioffe about how, when he was young, "money just found me on its own. I didn't do anything for it." He claims that ability has since abandoned him--"I guess I don't really need it,"--but it seems he has confused sustained good fortune with tactical brilliance. Prokhorov isn't without business acumen, but the reason he's obscenely rich as opposed to comfortably rich is because he was more or less in the right place at the right time when Russia's post-Soviet economy fishtailed as it entered the global market.
The short version: Prokhorov and a partner founded a bank that, through a few shady favors, was given the opportunity to loan the money-hemorrhaging, state-owned nickel industry a relatively small amount of cash ($170 million) that everyone involved knew the government would never be able to pay back. When the state defaulted, Prokhorov and his partner took the mining operation as collateral. And that's how our hero came to own a business that at the time was doing $3.5 billion per year in revenue. (He would later flip that asset into an even-more-lucrative gold mining company.)
At least Prokhorov's initial fortune can be chalked up to his knowing how to navigate the oligarchic back-rooms of the fledgling Russian state. That's a skill, if a despicable one. With the Nets, he has done nothing so much as fail upward. He bought his stake in the team in 2010 and finally completed the Brooklyn move that Bruce Ratner--the Brooklyn real estate developer who had purchased the team as the centerpiece of a massive and taste-free development gambit--had been trying to make since long before basketball fans had heard the name Mikhail Prokhorov. With the help of some generous subsidy, Prokhorov and Ratner built a luxury arena (of which he owns 45 percent) that looks like a nouveau douche spaceship in Prospect Heights. And then he proceeded to cock up every subsequent decision.
Jason Kidd was right about at least one thing, when he tried to seize control of the team's front office before leaving Brooklyn this past summer: Billy King is terrible at his job. Prokhorov hired King--whose level of expertise could be gleaned from his largely disastrous tenure in Philadelphia--as his general manager in the summer of 2010. Four-and-a-half years later, King is still at that post, despite the Nets being a capped-out, mediocre mess. King's signature achievement as an executive, thus far, doubles as one of the biggest and most intricate bungles in NBA history: trading away a draft pick that Portland used to select Damian Lillard in exchange for a rapidly declining Gerald Wallace, then resigning Wallace to a four-year extension in July of 2012, and then having to give Boston three future first-rounders just to get rid of Wallace a year later.
King has made other, lesser mistakes. Those Deron Williams and Joe Johnson trades were defensible enough at the time they were made, but neither has worked out. Nor did the signing of Travis Outlaw, who signed a five-year, $35 million contract in the summer of 2010 and was amnestied by the Nets the following offseason. King's strategy has been, with little regard for how the collective bargaining agreement or indeed a basketball team works, throwing money and star-power at the problem of the Nets not being particularly good. The problem remains unsolved.
But King is merely the face of all the missteps the Nets have made since he was hired. It's hard to know which moves he made of his own volition and which ones were made at the urging of Prokhorov, who James Fucking Dolan once pointed to in an effort to convince Knicks fans that he's a smart, patient owner. Prokhorov wanted the Nets to compete for titles the very second they moved to Brooklyn, and the result of that voracious ambition has been heedless, extravagant trading and spending. The fruits of that approach: nine playoff wins and a $144 million loss last season. This year's model is hobbling, unhappy, and fully inert; the entire roster is presently on the trading block. The franchise, given the state of its cap sheet and paltry reserve of draft picks, looks doomed to the opposite of success until at least 2020.
As per usual, Prokhorov will feel none of the painful effects from his mistakes. In fact, he'll escape richer than ever, believing what everyone else sees as a debacle to be a remarkable bit of business. He is a zero-sum man guided by the purest and coldest capitalistic logic. The results speak for themselves, but they also speak to the priorities that produced them, a certain calculating blankness that puts ends before everything else--above morality, above compassion, above humanity. Through one lens, this makes him hilariously myopic. (How can he not see how bad he is at this?) But through another, he's a man who participated in a system that effectively screwed his countrymen out of billions of dollars, and whose actions indicate an unwillingness to self-evaluate in any way that doesn't involve bank statements. (How can he not see how bad he is?) His myopia has hurt many people, in ways great and small. It's almost reassuring to see that it does not work as a way of building a basketball team.
Maybe Mikhail Prokhorov does think about these things. If he does, he shoves them down deep. Nets fans will hate him for years, and with good reason. Millions of others hate him for better ones. It's hard to imagine any of that bothering him much.