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Posted: Friday September 25, 2009 11:16AM; Updated: Friday September 25, 2009 5:16PM
Alexander Wolff Alexander Wolff >
THE HOOP LIFE

Stern keeps his enemies close

Story Highlights

CSKA Moscow was considered threat to poach stars such as Kobe Bryant

Mikhail Prokhorov gives few interviews but known as fan of basketball

David Stern has history of co-opting threat to NBA before they cause harm

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Now on the verge of joining the NBA, Mikhail Prokhorov won't be bringing Kobe Bryant of LeBron James to Moscow anytime soon.
Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

NBA Commissioner David Stern ought to be tucking into a celebratory bowl of borscht right now at the Russian Tea Room, which is a few blocks from the NBA's offices in Manhattan's Olympic Tower.

Not just because, with Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov's impending purchase of the Nets, a league that had to secure a line of credit for its franchises in the wake of last fall's financial crisis can now count as one of its owners a man more liquid than the Black Sea. When all the world was zigging, this 6-foot-7, 44-year-old passionate pick-up ballplayer zagged, cashing out his stake in Norilsk Nickel just before the meltdown. He added about $10 billion in cash to his net worth when other oligarchs would watch their balance sheets wither.

And not just because, by admitting Russia's richest man to the ranks of NBA owners, Stern has re-planted the league's flag in the world's largest country, which right now features only one NBA representative, Utah forward Andrei Kirilenko.

There's a bigger, better reason. Remember in Beijing, when Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were asked if they'd ever consider playing overseas after their current NBA contracts expire? Both left the door ajar. Bryant went so far as to say, "$40 million a year, and I'm there."

That touched off a scan of the global hoops landscape for any club with the cash to poach either of the NBA's two biggest stars. And that search turned up only one result: CSKA Moscow, with its patron, Mr. Prokhorov.

Now he's safely in the fold.

Stern has always had a knack for co-opting any threat on the NBA's horizon. When the paladins of international sport began to fudge their rules on amateurism, Stern engineered a takeover of USA Basketball, thereby seizing new platforms, like the Olympics, on which to sell his stars overseas. When the American Basketball League surfaced in 1996, ready to take up the cause of women's hoops in the aftermath of the Atlanta Games, Stern trumped it with the WNBA.

Now Stern has taken the richest man in Russia and stashed him on his very own Board of Governors.

Who is Prokhorov? I spent a week in Russia last fall, trying to get a handle on the oligarchs' passion for and interest in sport, and never got an interview with him. That's part of the Prokhorov mystique -- people speak of him, not to him.

But a portrait emerged. In the tradition of Jerry Buss, he enjoys the company of glamorous young women. He has a genuine love for the game; he grew up with the Gomelsky family, whose patriarch, Alexander, was the longtime Russian national team coach. And his spare change has hitherto been poured into the Russian Biathlon Federation.

Hard as it may be to believe, biathlon is a hugely popular televised sport in Russia, sometimes called "the Russian Formula 1." (Yes, the winters are that bleak.)

If Prokhorov's stewardship of the Nets winds up tracking that of England's Chelsea F.C. by fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich, Brooklynites can expect a discreet but attentive owner who'll hop a private jet to check out the team in person.

The natives may grumble about ownership by some "furriner" -- until Prokhorov's rubles help the Nets (the AP has already used "Nyets" in a lede) challenge for a title.

And Russians will watch him tap dance to prove he hasn't forsaken Mother Russia. As a journalist in Moscow told me Friday morning, "Prokhorov is trying to make this seem like a patriotic move by insisting that, as a condition of the deal, the NBA will have to supply 'technologies' to help develop Russian basketball."

In the interim, all hats off to Stern, who has proven again to be a master.

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