The Russian Connection: How big a factor?

cskabasket.com

Mikhail Prokhorov has pursued Andrei Kirilenko for years. The talks that ultimately led to the Deron Williams trade started as a conversation about Andrei Kirilenko. The Nets made a half-hearted attempt last summer at Kirilenko but could only offer him the vets minimum and then Minnesota swept in with a $20 million deal. Now AK-47, a Russian national hero, has agreed to play for the NBA's first Russian owner for a guarantee of no more than $6.5 million.

How strong is the Russian connection? Kirilenko's agent told David Aldridge it was a big factor but not the only one. There was also a chance to play for a winner.

But there's no doubt that Andrei Kirilenko and Mikhail Prokhorov have a connection. Kirilenko has called Prokhorov "someone I know very well." The two have supported each other's charities and Kirilenko endorsed Prokhorov's bid for the Russian presidency last year. "I have all the respect towards him and support his decision to try himself on Russian presidential elections," he said at the time.

The relationship between the two 6'9" basketball-loving Russians began 15 years ago when Kirilenko was a teenager ... and a Prokhorov employee. From 1998 through 2001, Kirilenko played for CSKA Moscow when it was owned by Prokhorov. The CSKA connection goes even deeper. CSKA's GM at the time was Sergei Kushchenko, who then and now is Prokhorov's top sports advisor --- and a member of the Nets board of directors.

In 2007, after Kirilenko led Russia to the FIBA European championships, upsetting Spain in Madrid, Prokhorov did something uncharacteristic, something out of his deep respect for Prokhorov.

"There was only one time when he got involved in a personnel decision, and that was when there was a chance to bring Andrei Kirilenko back to Moscow," former CSKA coach Ettore Messina told Harvey Araton not long after Prokhorov bought the Nets. "It was after Russia had won the European championship in 2007. It would have been a big patriotic thing for Kirilenko to come back, but he had a contract with the Jazz and they wouldn’t let him go."

Prokhorov was willing to buy out Kirlenko's contract with the Jazz. The cost would have been $40 million and Kirilenko was torn about it. He, too, is a Russian patriot. It would have been a grand moment for him and their country.

Kirilenko publicly supported Prokhorov's bid for the Nets in 2009. In an interview with Russian TV, Kirilenko said, "I'm pretty sure he can turn New Jersey Nets into a contender, adding Prokhorov turned CSKA Moscow into "the best team in Europe" and his goal is to help the Nets "do the same thing". Prokhorov reportedly asked for Kirilenko's advice before closing the deal.

In an interview with a German sports site last year, Kirilenko drew on his experience at CSKA to explain why he thought Prokhorov would do well as an NBA owner: long-term vision and smart management. "Pretty sure that he sees the perspective for the club and for the team. I know that business-wise he is always trying to bring the best management possible for his assets."

Last season, the two met up at Barclays Center before Nets let the Timberwolves steal a game in Brooklyn. "He asked, like, how is everything," said Kirilenko. "I said everything is great obviously. I just said it’s a great arena because when we get to the arena it looks very flashy."

Now, it appears Prokhorov's plan to re-unite with his former teenaged employee is nearing completion, not in Moscow, but in Brooklyn. No surprise, but Aldridge says Prokhorov was indeed part of the recruiting effort in Moscow this week.

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