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Prokhorov Serious About Using Nets To Improve Russian Hoops

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Mikhail Prokhorov appeared this weekend on one of Russian television's most popular programs, something called, "Spotlight Paris Hilton". (Like we said, he is the most interesting man in the world.)

He joked about how, perhaps, Russia might solve its Olympic problems by buying Greece...the country. "I suggest we buy Greece," Prokhorov said. Acquiring the home of the Olympic flame would be a marketing opportunity for Russian gas giant Gazprom, which could then use the flame as its trademark!

He laughed when one of the hosts suggested Russia's Minister of Sport pay heed to Prokhorov's model for Russian sports, noting the Nets prospective owner's great success with another type of model.

But Prokhorov's appearance, which showed off his considerable charm, had a serious side. He is trying to sell a plan to revive his country's sports program following the debacle at the Vancouver Olympics. The Russian team won three gold medals, two of which came in the biathlon. As president of the Russian Biathlon Union, Prokhorov has escaped a lot of the criticism reserved for other Olympic officials.  

What does any of this have to do with the Nets? Perhaps a lot. Prokhorov is not just talking about improving  Russia's chances in the Winter Olympics.  He wants to revamp the entire Russian sports system...including basketball. 

Forgotten in recent discussions of Prokhorov is his stated rationale for buying an American sports franchise instead of another Russian club. He claims he's buying the Nets so Russian basketball managers, coaches and players can borrow what's best about the NBA and bring it home.

At the time he made those comments back in September, they were seen as just a sop to Russian public opinion and "pseudo-patriots" who might oppose the deal.

Not anymore. Prokhorov's willingness to slam the Russian sports system following Vancouver shows he is indeed serious about using international technology and sports techniques to improve the Motherland's performance   across the board.  The NBA certainly seems to be taking him seriously. The league announced during All-Star weekend that it's planning to open an office in Moscow and work with Prokhorov on improving Russian basketball through NBA exchanges.  Heidi Ueberroth, president of NBA International, said the league wants to develop the game at a "grassroots level."  She noted the NBA has already sent Scottie Pippen to Russia to conduct youth basketball camps, the same Scottie Pippen who Prokhorov has enlisted on to help his hoops initiatives.

The appearance on "Spotlight: Paris Hilton" (really, that's the show's name) is part of his overall agenda. He is campaigning hard on his blog, in Russian newspapers, and on television to revamp the sports system, using the same justification and the same model he's said he wants to use with the Nets: borrowing the best from western and other systems.

Just as he took grief from Russian politicians when he agreed to buy the Nets, he's taking some now from the sports establishment.

Two weeks ago, he slammed the Russian Ministry of Sport for its lack of training, poor equipment and in general the lack of an "up-to-date sports system".  That brought a response from the embattled minister. In interviews last week, Vasili Mutko warned sports fans not to succumb to Prokhorov's influence. Don't be swayed by his charm, he added. He's just a young president of the biathlon federation, noting, I have the documents laying out his proposal on my desk. .

Mutko's response isn't working. Prokhorov's comments have gained widespread approval as Russians plan for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, a Russian resort city. The failures in Vancouver have led to fears that the country will be embarrassed on their home turf in four years.

How might this play out after he buys the Nets?

Here's what he promised back in September: Russia will receive an "equal place in the elite world of basketball"; it will get "access to all the modern technologies and training techniques with the ability to use them in Russia"; leading Russian coaches and managers "will be placed in the NBA" and will get its "best students in the training camps for the NBA".  Presumably, that means players.

Is that likely to happen all at once? Doubtful. Should we expect some Russian presence on the Nets next the front office, on the coaching staff or even on the court itself?

Don't be surprised, said one Nets insider. "It has to happen."