The Nets are quietly getting ready for the opening of Barclays Center, now 15 months and a season and a half away. In the team's offices at the PNY Center in East Rutherford and across the Hudson at the Barclays Center Showroom in the New York Times building and at the offices of Mikhail Prokhorov's ONEXIM Sports and Entertainment Holdings in the Seagram Building, decisions are being made: Will the team name be changed? How about the colors? What will new uniforms look like? Where will the team offices be located?
Much of it is behind closed doors, but Prokhorov recently permitted NetsDaily to take an exclusive peek inside the team's plans for what officials are calling "best in class" locker room facilities...and talk to the man the owner has assigned to make it happen.
Milton Lee's tiny office at the PNY Center is cluttered with wood panel samples, carpet samples, pictures of 20 locker rooms around the league and a pile of design drawings for what he and the Barclays Center architects call the arena's "basketball operations campus", but what others might simply but erroneously call "a locker room".
"The first one is July's, this one is August's, this one is September's, and we finally get to January" the Nets director of basketball operations says as he flips through the revised designs, each the product of hours of discussion
with architects at Ellerbe Becket, and virtually everyone who will use the 12,000 square foot area. That includes Billy King and Bobby Marks, Avery Johnson and Tim Walsh, the Nets players. The design is a big deal for Mikhail Prokhorov, say associates and he doesn't want it to be just "state of the art".
"I would say best in class," is how Lee describes the goal, borrowing the phrase that's printed on the back of his and every Net official's business cards. "Prokhorov and (Bruce) Ratner, because he's the majority owner of the arena, have been consistent in that they want this to be best in class."
Prokhorov has made it clear on more than one occasion how important all this is to him. Back in May, at the end of his first trip to the US as Nets owner, he stopped by Yankee Stadium. The big news out of that visit was his one-on-one with Mike Francesa, but he was mostly interested in the Yankees' locker room, generally seen as the best in baseball. Yankee President Randy Levine brought him around pre-game and he stopped to talk with players, including Nick Swisher, to ask about player amenities.
In June, when he toured the Prudential Center with Devils' owner Jeff Vanderbeek, Prokhorov told Russia's Snob Magazine about the importance he places on facilities devoted to players:
"It's very important in any sport nowadays that a player who comes for a game doesn't have to think about anything else. Everything needs to be comfortable, functional and the way he likes things to be. He needs to feel at home. It's very important. And the first thing free agents ask about, aside from salary, is what the so-called perks will be. And we need to be able to give them an answer that is absolutely competitive with other teams".
No one will put a price tag on the "campus", but it's estimated to be well into seven figures, nearly $10 million.
The 40-year-old Lee has the job of making that all happen, on time and on budget. Admittedly, his background didn't prepare him to be dealing with wood paneling and carpeting, but it's been so varied nothing he does around the Nets should be a surprise, either. Part of the Nets' Wharton School Mafia --he and two members of the Nets' seven man board, Chairman Christophe Charlier and Gary Lieberman, studied at U. of Penn's prestigious business school-- Lee was one of the first people hired by ONEXIM, Prokhorov's investment vehicle, even before Prokhorov bought the team. He certainly has the basketball credentials. The point guard-sized executive with general manager ambitions had played for Penn's junior varsity before getting every gym rat's dream job: intern with the "Dream Team" at the 1992 Olympics.
Then, after a stint as a Wall Street trader for a bank and a hedge fund, he returned to basketball, setting up his own services company where he worked in various capacities with the NBA, teams and players. Lee personally worked as a skills coach with a number of NBA players, including Troy Murphy, Josh Boone, and Mike Dunleavy. He was an assistant coach for the Clippers summer league team in 2008 and 2009, and a consultant to the NBA at the past five Pre-Draft Combines as well as director of basketball of the New York Athletic Club. The Bergen County native also had another qualification: He's a lifelong Nets fan.
"Because I was consulting for ONEXIM, once we took ownership of the team...we had to get involved with the development of the arena. Because I was one of two people in New York with Irina (Pavlova, Prokhorov's New York representative), just by default, I ended up looking at all the things that were Nets-related and the arena was a major issue. A lot of the tasks I took on evolved organically.
"I was in Orlando for the summer league with the Nets and Orlando was about to complete their new arena. So one morning, I thought 'why not go down to that new arena, get a tour, look at the layout of their locker room, look at their lockers, look at what they accentuated, try to discover what they learned from other teams, what to do, what not to do, how important is natural light, how important is a high ceiling, how important is the width of your locker, how important is two TV's as opposed to one in your locker room".
Next stop was Las Vegas where he surveyed other teams' trainers, equipment managers, assistant coaches, players on what each NBA team liked or disliked about their current setup..."kind of a due diligence process." Overall, he visited more than 20 NBA locker rooms.
Lee has a love of detail and technology. Although he was initially sold as a stats guru, Lee describes his responsibilities as "stats/technology." "It's just as much a technology buildout as it is stats because you can't analyze the stats without the technology," he says describing his job. He could just as easily be describing the design of the basketball operations campus, which he calls the "platform for what we've embarked on". It's not just about deep pile carpeting and maple veneer. It's about easily accessing video for a 65-foot touch screen TV or a player's iPad and creating linkages between video and stats, between video and scouting. It also has to be part of a "seamless technology solution," as Lee calls it.
The most visible part of the assignment, the individual locker within the locker room, may not seem hi-tech, but in Lee's concept of how things will work, it is. The design of everything, including the players' 8-foot by 3.5-foot space, will have to fit into the area set aside for the players, coaches, trainers and the video coordinators ...and it must be "functional", a word you hear him use over and over. While not skimping on the "luxury" aspects that has made Marc Cuban's Maverick locker room the league standard, Lee wants things to "flow", both literally and figuratively, along a 135-foot corridor that links everything from the media room to the training rooms and ultimately to the practice court, 75 feet away.
"I think some people went over board with the architecture in design as opposed to functionality, flow and practicality of the whole basketball operations 'campus'," he says of those responsible for other arenas. "From day one, we wanted best in class but at the same time we wanted highly functional, where the players flow through the training room, into the wet area, into their locker room. We call that whole area their private area and then that flows into the player lounge. That's all on one side of the corridor. On the other side of the corridor is kind of coaches' campus, where the coaches have their individual offices, the coaches have their meeting room/lounge, Avery has his office, Avery has flow directly into the media/press room for post-game."
Nothing seems to escape Lee's attention. In one of the original designs, there was pillar that could obstruct a player's view (or provide a place for a player to hide from the coach's view). It was quickly dropped. The corridor was reconfigured so Johnson could peer down it and see who's where.
In a macro sense, Lee says, the Nets also wanted to "future proof" the whole area, meaning "we're not sure where technology is going to be in the fall of 2012...we want to anticipate the ability to handle whatever new technology that arrives."
The big driver, Lee notes, is video. "Technology in a basketball campus is driven by the video coordinator. He's the one that 'splices' the video, he's the one that cuts clips for a player or for the coach. The way we have set everything up is so he can direct the video to our head or assistant coach's office or he can direct video to our locker room or he can direct video to the GM's office or Avery's office...shoot that data feed." The entire campus will be wired for that data feed to make sure that once software becomes available, the Nets will have the hardware in place to use it.
Lee imagines for example several 65" touch screen TVs around the "campus", even though there's no software yet available for them. He envisions a wireless network that will feed video to players and coaches' iPads...or whatever device may succeed them. "We want that level of seamless technology using the cutting edge of what is out there even though we don't know what that will be." Assisting Lee in that is one of the team's rising "stars", video coordinator Patrick Spurgin who was hired away from San Antonio in part because of technological prowess.
On the micro level, the players' lockers will be larger and better appointed that what they have at the Prudential Center...and integrated into that web. But mostly, it will be about raising the players' comfort level. Lee describes the home locker at "The Rock" as "make-shift" and "very vanilla". It has "too much space for the sneakers, it's kind of shoddily kept. There' no drawer for them to put any items in. There's no hanging bar."
Now listen to Lee describe, with the excitement of ownership, what a player will see when standing in front of his locker at Barclays Center: "What we wanted to create was this open space, this closet for them to put their nice clothes when they walk in, padding so they can sit if they want--but they can also sit on their chairs, a drawer for miscellaneous items--a knee pad or a book, whatever, sneakers and shoes on the bottom, shelving on top and then a lock box as well. We'll probably put three tiny shelves in the back with electric sockets so they can charge their iPod, their phone, their iPad...it's fully functional."
Even more to the point of how deeply Lee gets into detail is his assessment of the Mavericks setup which he describes as "allegedly one of the best [but] I found it had a lot of flaws." He enumerates,"The cabinetry doesn't make sense to me...A) it's too low; B) it's too big. A big drawer on the bottom doesn't make sense to me either. There's no ventilation for your sneakers. Little things you pick up from trainers and equipment managers. They say the sneakers stink. The hanging bar, little things. There's no sense in an NBA locker to have a bar that's six feet high. You're dealing with the average 6'7" human being that can reach up to 6'10" comfortably.
"They don't have a massage room," Lee continues, matter-of-factly with a bit of disdain. "They drape some sheets in the corner of the weight room...We are taking it to a finer detail." Lee has also had discussions with the architect on how hard the pile should be in the carpeting, how rich the colors should be in the paint scheme.
The level of detail goes beyond the locker room to other player amenities. "A lot different NBA arenas do not have a players' lounge and we will have a fully functional players' lounge. Are we going to have computers there, yes. Are we going to have big screen tv's, yes. Are we going to have a functioning kitchenette, yes. It will be a room big enough to handle all of those things. We will have a large weight room. At Prudential, we don't have a weight room. We have weights. We will have a fully functioning, step-in hot tub, cold tub area which a lot of places don't. We will have a massage room. We will have a steam room. We put in a doctor's office, an x-ray room."
And there will be something else that will appeal to players on a highly personal level. "We will have a fantastic ‘family lounge’. It too will be developed with a ‘best in class’ theme while fully functional," he adds. Lee wouldn't confirm another touch rumored around the PNY Center, that the Nets will have a full-time "conceierge" who will staff that lounge.
At the far end of the operation, 75 feet away from the campus, will be a practice court, visible from Atlantic Avenue. Whether the Nets will have an additional practice facility, separate from Barclays is yet to be determined. The Cavaliers for example have both an NBA-regulation practice court at the Quicken Loans Arena and a larger, spa-like practice facility in suburban Independence, Ohio, called the Cleveland Clinics Courts. It was designed by the same architects working on Barclays.
So far, everyone seems happy with the way things are going. Charlier, Prokhorov's French banker and the chairman of the Nets board, emailed NetsDaily last week, "We have been particularly focusing on the design of the 'Player's Campus' because it will house and nurture our players, our most valuable assets...We reviewed meticulously all details, even things as simple as the design of the lockers. There will be an interconnecting lounge for the players and a state-of-the-art area for the trainer and his staff to address players' concerns before, during and after games. Every detail has been carefully considered."
Leo Ehrline, the Nets' chief administrative officer, recently said, "We've toured the entire country to get the best ideas to bring into our Barclays Center in Brooklyn. this will be the finest facility in the world."
Bottom line, though, is how do the players like what Lee has come up with..and will it help them win. "In the end, I showed a picture of that drawing (the latest design) to a couple of players and Anthony Morrow's comment was "Damn, that's first class, I like that'. They've seen other places, they see what the Nets used to be. They see the direction we're going and the amount of care we're putting into the investigative process. Anthony doesn't know exactly what I'm going but he knows I'm doing something and I think he appreciates it. And I think the players in general appreciate that."
The process, Lee says, is collaborative now that the players sees things moving. "Jordan Farmar will hit me with an idea or Humphries or Brook or Devin. They like the fact that there's an upgrade in the making, there's research being done and they have some input."
Can't hurt. And although the effect of the "campus" would be felt until October 2012 when the first Nets (or whatever they're called) run out on the court, the Nets' embrace of technology has already helped win a game. When the Nets beat the Cavaliers last month with a last second hook shot by Brook Lopez, it was not drawn up on a white board. The play had been loaded onto Johnson's iPad. As Apple says, amazing.