At every step of the way on the Nets journey to Brooklyn, David Stern was there, pushing, guiding, welcoming. Although Bruce Ratner, then Mikhail Prokhorov executed the plan, it was Stern who saw the Nets future in New York.
Starting in 1996, when he subtly engineered a change in territorial rights permitting the Nets to ultimately make the move through 2012 when they opened their Brooklyn arena under the league’s first foreign owner, Stern was there.
Sergey Kushchenko, Prokhorov’s sports advisor and president of the Russian basketball league, summed up what Stern meant to the Nets and the NBA as he recalled his long friendship with the long-time commissioner who died Wednesday.
“David Stern was a executive with a unique instinct and understanding of how basketball should develop, he looked ahead, decades ahead,” Kushchenko said in statement to NetsDaily. Kushchenko would know. He worked with Stern for two decades and their relationship was crucial in getting Prokhorov a place in the NBA and the Nets a place in Brooklyn.
Stern’s first move came 16 years before the Nets opened the doors of Barclays Center. Until 1996, the Knicks controlled the territorial rights to Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. Then, the Nets ownership, known as the Secaucus Seven, saw an opportunity. The Knicks were changing hands and needed the Nets approval, so the team wrung a concession from their rivals: an end to the Knicks’ territorial monopoly in the city.
But as more than one league source noted, Stern was the one behind the idea, wanting to give the New Jersey team more flexibility in the future. It was he who came up with the deal ... looking decades ahead as he did with everything from expansion to TV rights.
Seven years later, Brooklyn developer Bruce Ratner bought the team and announced its move to Brooklyn. His plan rattled along as lawsuit after lawsuit was filed and the economy sputtered. Ratner had Stern’s support but little else.
At the same time, though Stern was working other deals that ultimately got the Brooklyn move done. In the early 2000’s, Stern and Kushchenko, then the President of CSKA Moscow, became friendly, and the initial connections between the NBA and Prokhorov’s team began to take shape.
Both men wanted to bring the NBA to Moscow. Before 2006, only the Hawks had ventured into the former Soviet Union and they had played in Tblisi in Georgia. Now, Russia was a republic of its own, relations between the two countries were good and a game in Moscow beckoned.
“We worked closely on the NBA games in Moscow,” recalled Kushchenko in his statement. “It was a difficult event, which we visited several times, and always felt his support. In 2006, when we finally brought the Clippers to Moscow to play with CSKA and Khimki,
“David himself flew to Moscow. And got into a huge traffic jam on the way from the airport. Then he joked that he flew from New York faster than from Sheremetyevo (Moscow’s international airport) to the city center. But even after such an unpleasant experience, he was in great shape, held a media conference, and spoke well about the match.”
At first glance, the Moscow games didn’t seem to concern the Nets. Ratner was their beleaguered owner but Stern was, as usual, thinking of possibilities. Later in 2006, CSKA and the NBA were supposed to sign a deal that would have been unique in the annals of the NBA.
As ESPN’s Ian Thomsen wrote in 2008, CSKA would put up close to $10 million to serve as host of NBA events in Moscow, including Basketball Without Borders and preseason exhibitions involving NBA teams. NBA and CSKA would grow the 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. There was even the possibility of CSKA joining the league at a later date.
It fell through at the last minute, for political reasons, but the Russian connection had been established. Thomsen quoted Kushchenko as telling Adam Silver, then Stern’s deputy, “Don’t worry. We’ll get that done.”
And in a different way, Kushchenko and Stern did just that. In 2007, Prokhorov, aided by Kushchenko and blessed by Stern, began to look closely at NBA clubs, including the Knicks. Although at that time Ratner’s dream was only a pit in the center of Brooklyn, the prospects for Nets looked more attractive to the Russian billionaire.
Ratner was desperate to find a buyer as team losses reached $30 million annually. Enter Stern once again. The commissioner recommended Ratner to Prokhorov, who he knew from the failed 2006 deal.
“When our group had the idea of buying the NBA team, it was with David that we had our first conversation,” Kushchenko told NetsDaily, “Then this idea seemed wild and very challenging - the American teams did not have foreign owners, but Stern took everything very well, was very open, and in the end laid the foundation for a very cool story.“
The “cool story” was Prokhorov’s purchase of the Nets, an agreement signed in September 2009 and completed eight months later when Ratner had cleared his final legal hurdles. The NBA had its first European owner and the promise of those first meetings between Stern and Kushchenko had borne fruit.
Even though Prokhorov still had to pass a background check, Stern went out of his way in the initial press release announcing the agreement to welcome the Russian oligarch to the NBA.
“We are especially encouraged by Mr. Prokhorov’s commitment to the Nets and the opportunity it presents to continue the growth of basketball in Russia.” Stern said in an echo of what the 2006 deal had hoped to accomplish.
Finally, in November 2012, Barclays opened for basketball and Stern stood smiling in Prokhorov’s suite. Mission accomplished, vision justified.
“He had a tremendous impact on basketball,” said Kushchenko in his statement. “He came to the NBA when it had a lot of problems, and handed over to his followers the most successful sports organization in the world. He will be truly missed.”