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Did Team Prokhorov Once Want an NBA Franchise in Moscow?

New Jersey Nets
New Jersey Nets

When the NBA announced it was going to open a Russian office--and word got out that the Nets will hold an open practice in Moscow, Prokhorov advisor Sergey Kushchenko told Russian media that the NBA has long wanted to do business in Russia, even before Mikhail Prokhorov bought the Nets.

He would know. Kushchenko is the man who tried to put the earlier deal together. It's an interesting bit of NBA history, one that indicates that the Nets were Prokhorov's Plan "B". Plan "A" was making CSKA Moscow a global brand and maybe even an NBA franchise!

Kushchenko is Prokhorov's most important advisor on sports.  He runs the Russian Biathlon Union which Prokhorov heads.  Prior to that he ran CSKA Moscow, winning two Euroleague titles for Prokhorov, then leaving shortly after the boss was forced to give up control in 2008.  Although he has no official role on the Nets, his influence is strong.

Back in 2006, CSKA was at the top of its game.  Kushchenko had assembled a super team, one with a payroll close to that of an NBA team. It wasn't an exaggeration to suggest CSKA was the 31st best team in the world.

The ambitions were sky-high.  He had tried the previous summer to pry Andrei Kirilenko out of his deal with the Jazz. AK-47 had become a national hero after leading Russia's national team to a shocking victory over Spain and Pau Gasol in the 2005 FIBA European championships. Prokhorov had the money. He was then worth an even more astronomical $19.5 billion.

Ian Thomsen wrote about it, in fact, in an April 28, 2008 article for Sports Illsutrated, entitled "Russian Revolution".  It was essentially a profile of Kushchenko and included details of how he and Prokhorov saw the future of the NBA. 

"In 2006 Kushchenko was rewarded with a promotion to the presidency of all of CSKA and its 41 sports, which is a far more political position than simply managing the daily affairs of the basketball club.

"At All-Star weekend in New Orleans, he was welcomed by the NBA  to finalize their long-sought partnership. The agreement appeared to be in place: CSKA would put up close to $10 million to serve as host of NBA events in Moscow, including the charitable youth event Basketball Without Borders and preseason exhibitions involving NBA teams. NBA and CSKA officials would work side by side in Moscow, enabling the Americans to grow their league in Russia  while providing CSKA with expertise in transforming basketball into a market-based business. CSKA games would be broadcast in the U.S. on NBA TV.

"Left unsaid was the eventual possibility that CSKA might become an NBA franchise during the league's planned expansion to Europe over the decades ahead.

"The meetings in New Orleans were expected to be a formality—sign the papers, shake hands, bring in Stern for group photographs—but Kushchenko unexpectedly revealed that he was unable to agree to the terms. He also was unable to explain why. He grabbed the arm of NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver and whispered, 'Don't worry. We'll get that done'."

And of course, four years later they did. Fifteen months ago, an investment banker who had first recommended the Knicks to Prokhorov called now to recommend the Nets. A Moscow dinner with Bruce Ratner followed and the rest is history.  The NBA, having worked with Kushchenko and Prokhorov in 2006, needed no introduction. From the first announcement, David Stern and Adam Silver, who had worked with the CSKA in 2006, let it be known they were on board.

"Russia remains an important market for the NBA," Silver had told Thomsen after the first attempt had fallen through. "We are encouraged by the discussions we've had with Sergey and his colleagues. We remain hopeful that we're going to work out a long-term deal with him."

Why didn't it work then and why did it now?  Thomsen hinted the problem in 2006 was political. 

"Was [Kushchenko] unable to persuade the politicians to run the sport as a business?" he wrote. "Were they, in spite of their reliance on foreign basketball talent, unwilling to form a partnership with the Americans?"  Bottom line, wrote Thomsen. is that "Russia, for all of the promise of its new frontier, is still mired in its old ways."

There were no such political issues with the the purchase of the Nets, maybe because it's Russians calling the shots now.  Times had changed dramatically.  A year ago this week, after Prokhorov announced he was buying the team, he asked Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to speak with U.S. President Barack Obama about the planned  purchase when the two met at a United Nations reception in New York.  Medvedev even had his press secretary mention the discussion in her briefing with Russian media. 

When Prokhorov met with President Obama during a U.S.-Russia summit in Washington this summer, he provided souvenir Nets jerseys to both Presidents, with their names stitched on the back...Medvedev's was #3 (the third Russian president) and Obama's #44. 

Indeed, the idea of a Russian team in the NBA was far-fetched. The NBA might expand to Europe but not anytime soon and one big reason, other than travel, is the lack of NBA-ready arenas. The best arena in Moscow seats only 13,000 for basketball.  Only two European facilities, the O2 arenas in London and Berlin, are viewed as NBA-ready.  An NBA league in China seems like a better bet. The NBA teamed with AEG to work with China on arena development.  The Nets, in fact, will open China's newest arena in Guangzhou on October 16.  Like the Wukesong arena in Beijing where the Nets play three days earlier, it is built to NBA standards.

Whatever the reason the NBA-Russia deal didn't work out in 2006, it seems to have worked out in the end for all parties. Prokhorov has an NBA franchise.  The NBA has a partner in Russia. Kushchenko no doubt will play a role, officially or unofficially, with both.  If there were political issues, they're resolved.   Nets fans have a new owner and are generally happy.  Now, if he tries to rename the Nets CSKA Brooklyn.