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Nets' LeBron pursuit: From Russia, with love

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

Once LeBron James(notes) meets Mikhail Prokhorov, the superstar's sightline will reflect an unprecedented visage. When offering a global vision of business and basketball, here's an NBA owner who can look James in the eyes. Russia's richest man is 6-foot-7 with an air of cool and a tenacity of the streets.

For James, there's a chance that Prokhorov won't seem like a stranger from a faraway place but rather a reflection of himself. Together, they are creations of their own industry and connected through a need for global conquest. All along, James has craved something bigger of basketball fame and fortune.

Once, it was Nets' part-owner Jay-Z who planned to escort LeBron into Brooklyn. Now, this strapping 44-year-old Russian oligarch with an estimated fortune north of $9 billion has arrived in the NBA threatening to make Mark Cuban and Paul Allen feel like mom-and-pop store owners. Prokhorov comes with a flair and a steely obsession with winning.

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Forbes magazine ranked Mikhail Prokhorov as Russia’s richest man with a worth of $9.5 billion.
(AP)

Suddenly, his arsenal and ambition make him the most dangerous man in basketball.

"He has the personality, the charisma and the wherewithal to reach any of the league's young stars on a level that I don't think other owners can," David Vanterpool said by phone Wednesday. "He likes to go out. He likes to fly to Europe and go to the most exclusive resorts. He's going to connect with these guys.

"I would think right now that a lot of people in the NBA would be scared to death of this guy, if for nothing else the unknown of what he might do here."

Vanterpool played two seasons for Prokhorov's powerhouse CSKA in Moscow, winning Euroleague and Russian championships. These past two years, Vanterpool, who played for Detroit and Washington in the NBA, had a job on the CSKA bench as an assistant coach. He had heard the talk for years about his old boss wanting an NBA team, and finally Prokhorov made an offer that Nets beleaguered owner Bruce Ratner couldn't refuse.

With lingering suggestions of possible underworld ties, there are some suggesting the Russian won't pass the NBA vetting process. As long as his issues don't spill into the public eye, no one should expect the commissioner's office to dig them up. As vetting processes go, most expect this one to bring all the tenacity of a Michael Jordan gambling investigation.

And anyway, NBA ownership is hardly an exclusive club. For every upstanding Abe Pollin, there are far too many scoundrels, slime balls and empty suits. Prokhorov has posted $700 million to spare this sorry franchise, and the league will live with whatever ethical lapses befell him on his rise to becoming Russia's richest billionaire.

For the NBA, James and Dwyane Wade(notes) and Chris Bosh(notes) – the Class of 2010 – are in play again in New York. The Knicks and Nets have cap space, and just maybe a star or two will come save the world's biggest market.

The NBA has become a recession-ridden league with owners slashing roster payrolls and front-office staff. Owners are begging for commissioner David Stern to crush the Players Association in collective bargaining with a bigger percentage of league revenue and perhaps even a hard salary cap. As long as these CBA rules are in place, Prokhorov can offer the New York stage with unlimited resources. Cablevision reached its spending breaking point with the New York Knicks, but the days of the Nets as a cash-strapped punch line are over.

This Russian is liable to treat $70 million luxury-tax payments like drops in the Jersey Turnpike toll buckets.

"If he sees something as a reasonable, smart move, then money won't be an issue," Vanterpool said. "I don't see the luxury tax affecting him. You're talking about a billionaire who will take a two-week vacation that ends up costing him $10 million. He'll do whatever it takes to win, and win big."

Prokhorov's brashness doesn't come in the basketball arena but in the clubs and fancy European resorts. Truth be told, they never noticed where the owner would sit in the arena most nights in Moscow and seldom witnessed him courting coverage with the cameras and notebooks.

He far outspent other teams in Europe, won titles and now wants to do it on the biggest stage of all. He hired the best coach overseas and had payrolls bigger than some NBA teams. One NBA executive with strong Eastern European ties says to expect Russian and Lithuanian basketball legends Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis to be included in a dramatically changed Nets organization. With CSKA, Prokhorov tried to hire Toronto Raptors assistant GM Maurizio Gherardini but was spurned. He could revisit the Italian executive for the Nets' top job, and it wouldn't be long until the NBA had its first foreign coach, Ettore Messina.

For now, Prokhorov would be wise to re-sign president Rod Thorn to an extension, and sources with knowledge of the Russian billionaire believe it's a distinct possibility.

Whatever happens, Prokhorov won't be running the Nets like Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Prokhorov likes to hang with the players, but not so much in the locker room and huddles. He likes it in a social way, and so do they. It's like running with James Bond, jets on a moment's notice to the most exotic locations in the world. That's how he lives, and that's how they'll roll. He can offer a superstar lifestyle that few would dare try in the public eye.

The fact there are whispers about him would give him street cred with a lot of players. Mostly, players see owners as dopes to be stroked, but invading Brooklyn with the Russian boss and a stocked, bloated payroll could be a blast.

Two years ago, Prokhorov was detained for four days as a material witness in an investigation into a prostitution ring at a French resort. He was never charged, but French authorities alleged someone was jetting prostitutes in and out of there. When his CSKA team traveled to the Euroleague championships, NBA executives marveled over the spillover of Prokhorov-supplied blondes and brunettes that turned the tournament locale into a remote Playboy Mansion.

"Unlike anything you've ever seen in your life," one Eastern Conference executive said. "They flooded the hotel. But the [NBA office's] international people know all about it. They were staying there, too."

Said a Western Conference official, "Stern will have to put 24 hour guards around this guy's castle. Unless this guy completely divorces himself from his lifestyle over there, he's going to have a little trouble assimilating. I mean, we do have some rules over here. … But damn, he's got more money than anyone here, and that's going to win out."

For whatever wink-wink that comes with suggesting that Prokhorov made his fortune as simply a "banker and mining executive," there's a grudging acceptance that he's the future of the NBA. Someone had to get the Nets to Brooklyn, and if it took $700 million of funny money, most of Stern's bottom-feeder owners couldn't care less. When no one is looking, most of the NBA Board of Governors will be pestering Prokhorov for jet rides from Russia, with love.

"I guarantee you that some of the owners in our league who are desperate to sell were on the phone with Stern today looking for other foreign owners with deep pockets," one team president said Wednesday.

LeBron James used Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert's connections to get him into the prestigious Allen & Company billionaire conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, this summer, a gathering of 260 of America's richest and most powerful people. As much as James wants to win championships, he also wants an unprecedented global brand. There's still a good chance that he'll pursue it with his hometown Cavaliers, but the odds tilted a touch on Wednesday, when a $9 billion man pledged $700 million to a fledgling NBA franchise.

One of these days, Mikhail Prokhorov could get his audience with LeBron and other NBA stars, and tempt them with unprecedented resources and possibilities. Historic player meets historic owner, gaze into each other's eyes and they're liable to concoct the most historic partnership of all.

As the Nets bled money, as the move to Brooklyn seemed a bleaker proposition, it felt like Cleveland could exhale. Suddenly, the game changes and here comes this charismatic and charming and murky Russian rolling out of his jet with basketball's deepest pockets and a gripping global pitch.

Here comes trouble for everyone.

Here comes tomorrow.