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Is Mikhail Prokhorov Getting Richer?

Rumors swirl about where the Nets will play and who will own them. There are reports the current owners are having trouble arranging the financing for Barclays Center while others suggest if Brooklyn fails, Mikhail Prokhorov is "so geeked" about owning the Nets he'd be willing to keep them in New Jersey. And how will the Court of Appeals ruling affect all this?

One thing does appear certain: while all that is going on in New York, the Nets' prospective owner, Prokhorov, is getting richer while sitting in Moscow. How much richer? Hard to tell, but the words "a lot" seem to be an accurate description. Moreover, he stands to get even richer by week's end...again a lot richer.

Part of it is luck, but part of it is shrewdly picking up the pieces from the world economy's meltdown.

Prokhorov's wealth has been estimated at anywhere from $9.5 billion (Forbes) to $14.5 billion (Finans, a Russian business magazine). But those numbers are outdated. They're estimates of what he was worth at the beginning of the year.

Economic times have changed.

Take for example his 40% stake in Polyus Gold, the world's sixth largest gold producer...and Russia's largest. As the dollar collapsed in price, gold became a safe haven for investors and last week reached an all-time high of $1,100 an ounce. The value of Polyus, Reuters reported Monday, has "quadrupled in the last year". That would make his stake worth an estimated $4 billion.

And Tuesday, Reuters is reporting, Polyus is going to announce that Prokhorov is selling about 5% of his stock on the open market, permitting him to cash out on those gains. There should be plenty of investors willing to buy in.

Meanwhile, Prokhorov is also busy with his stake in RusAl, the world's largest--and possibly most troubled--aluminum company. When Prokhorov was forced out of Norilsk Nickel in spring of last year, he sold his stake to RusAl's biggest investor, Oleg Derispaska. With it went all of his responsibility for Norilsk's debt. In return Prokhorov reportedly received $4.4 billion in cash, $2.8 billion in debt and a 14% stake in RusAl from Derispaska, essentially swapping his interest in nickel for one in aluminum. He was able to retain his interest in Polyus Gold, a spinoff from Norilsk, in the deal.

All three things have worked out quite well well for the 44-year-old Prokhorov.

When the world economy crashed last fall, the price of gold soared but commodity prices like nickel and aluminum plummeted.

Now, reports Bloomberg, Derispaska is trying to take RusAl public on the Hong Kong and Paris exchanges to raise cash to pay off his enormous debt. Before he can do that, he must restructure that debt. He owes about $16 billion to the 70 western banks that have lent him money...and to Prokhorov. Under a tenative deal with Derispaska, Prokhorov will receive an additional 5+% of RusAl, giving him a total of 20%. Deripaska will still retain owe him about $1 billion, according to reports.

The Hong Kong exchange will decide Thursday if RusAl has done what all it needs to do. If the exchange approves, RusAl will sell 10% of its stock to the public--mostly, it's expected, to Chinese investors. For the first time, the value of Prokhorov's stake in RusAl will be established on a recognized stock exchange. The estimates are that his 20% will wind up being worth anywhere between $4 billion and $6 billion. Again, it's a substantial premium over what it's now worth.

How does this affect his pursuit of the Nets? It can't hurt. Prokhorov is swimming in cash. Cash can help sweeten and close any of the various deals the Nets need to get done, first off the court, then on. Will he be willing to spend? There's plenty of evidence, not all of it yet public, that he is indeed "geeked" about owning the team. Paul Allen, owner of the Trailblazers and the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, is currently the richest owner in pro sports at about $10 billion. Prokhorov almost certainly has more than that now. If Allen's career is any indicator, the Nets' long time frugality will go out the window come January...assuming all goes well.

Of course, as Nets fans, we know it almost never does.