Future NJ Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov avoids questions about basketball, bemoans fate of Russian biathlon team
Andrew Mills/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger caught up with a mostly silent Mikhail Prokhorov at the biathlon competition in Whistler on Tuesday.
WHISTLER, British Columbia — All the shouting and shooting and sliding were over, and Mikhail Prokhorov was visibly displeased by the results of some sporting event that we won’t even try to explain.
You could see it on his famously grim visage, which he had downshifted from stony to icy, and this wasn’t exactly the best time to raise trivial pursuits such as his new basketball toy in New Jersey.
Basically, if they handed out awards for Best Glower, this guy would be on the medal stand.
“I hoped to get good results here. For the time being, we are not very lucky,” the oligarch said in careful but inexpert English, after his women failed to medal in the 10-kilometer pursuit.
The future Nets owner is also the president of the Russian Biathlon Union, so we played along.
He knew we couldn’t care less, even when we replied:
“Sorry to hear that. How’d your best lady do?’’
“The best was number five.”
Actually, the best was sixth — a woman named Anne Boulygina. Svetlana Sleptsova — which sounds like a Mel Brooks creation, but is actually the Russians’ top skier/shooter — was 18th.
So this made it a bad morning for Mikky. He wanted a medal. Some wrote that he demanded a medal. In one interview, the author inferred that heads would roll on the coaching staff if the team didn’t repeat its recent success it had in a competition in Slovenia.
“In our (best) discipline, the relay, we should sure will get a medal,” Prokhorov predicted.
By now, you can tell that we hadn’t a clue how to break the ice with a billionaire. Language was an issue — our fault, we too often talk in idioms. So we had a cordial but mostly pointless discussion for 15 minutes, standing just off this course carved into the middle of the Coast Mountains, because as soon as he heard our name and affiliation, up went the preconditions:
“No basketball. I cannot comment. The lawyers told me I cannot speak,” he said. “As soon as deal is ... closed, I have summit.”
Even a guy with $18 billion has to listen to his lawyers.
And the lawyers have undoubtedly told him that official approval by the NBA Board of Governors is still weeks away.
Sure, that’s probably all it was.
We know this much: The wholly inscrutable 44-year-old doesn’t strike you as a guy embarrassed to be associated with the 4-48 Nets, because he has an air of success — and superiority — in most things he does.
Or maybe we’ll learn he’s just another plutocrat well-practiced in tautologies, such as, “Because we love U.S. press so much, we need to keep silent for them until the deal is closed.”
Or maybe he’s typically languid under the terrible burden of improvised forethought.
Or maybe it’s none of that.
Either way, he’s hard to read, and for now, the guy Fortune Magazine calls the “wildest child of the oligarch set” wants it that way.
Most people — especially in first encounters — take the measure of each other, study facial details, stay alert to nuance, and look for hidden messages — verbal or otherwise. Not Prokhorov. He looks like he was assembled by a drill team and when he looks at you, he might as well be staring at some spot a thousand yards behind your eye sockets, because you’re probably not worthy of his attention.
So how was your meeting with Rod Thorn on Monday?
“I don’t know,” he lied, fully aware that Thorn was already on his way home from Whistler, with generally positive feelings about their first summit. “No comment, please.”
You told a Russian publication that you were surprised by how smoothly the transfer process went ...
“You are too professional. Too professional. Please, listen to me. No comments about basketball. I’m sorry.”
How about we start a new sport — basketball and shooting, starring Gilbert Arenas?
Can we discuss the NBA in general?
“No. I am newcomer. I need time.”
You might be newcomer, but there are expectations for you to have an enormous, profound impact — on your team, on the league at large. You must be aware of that?
“We will see,” he said, smiling for the first time. “Maybe. I cannot discuss those things. As soon as the deal is ...”
You can guess the rest. Basically, this was chucking pebbles at Stone Mountain.
So what subject isn’t off limits here?
“Biathlon,” he said. “Do you have any interest in biathlon?”
Only if so ordered by Dick Cheney after a six-martini lunch. We have an aversion to guns, and as for that white stuff covering every square inch of this place, just walking across a wet lawn makes us seasick.
“It is one of the most popular sports in Russia,” he said. “I have a strong team. I am on the strategy side and the finance side. ...”
We won’t knock his fun. They say this sport, a combination of cross-country skiing and target-shooting, takes a tough constitution — strong heart, strong engine — and then you have to literally turn your heart off when you get to the shooting range.
It’s a novel sport in North America, at best. Exciting? Heck, no. But it packed the joint with Europeans Tuesday. The 6-7 Mikky himself doesn’t participate in it.
“Kick-boxing, freestyle jet skiing, windsurfing, acrobatics and trampoline — those are my sports,” he said, as if reading from a list.
How about basketball?
“I have no practice for more than 20 years,” he said. “A long time.”
That video you see online — the one of you doing a back flip on a jet ski. Is that really you?
He nodded without moving his head. We’re not sure how he did that.
“Yes. It’s all practice.”
It’s also risky. Do you take a lot of risks?
“I don’t mind some.”
So are you eager to get started on this NBA business?
“I feel,” he said, pausing for three seconds, “quite adequate.”
That’s a modest self-appraisal, we suggested.
“Adequate,” he repeated. “I try to follow the group.”
Another smile, this time wider. He knew it gave away the only lie he looked comfortable telling.