(Photo credit: Matt Rodigheri)
By Vinnie Rotondaro
On Wednesday I met with Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the recently minted owner of the New Jersey Nets, at the Clover Club, a bar in Carroll Gardens. Prokhorov is the first-ever foreign owner of an NBA team. He never drinks. “Maybe a glass of red wine sometimes,” he said, “with dinner.” So we sipped cups of English Breakfast tea instead. Below is our conversation, which has been edited down for the sake of brevity, and clarity.
Mr. Prokhorov, I want to get a better sense of who you are and where you come from.
(Prokhorov fools as if the question is out of line. He pretends to get up and leave)
(We huff and smile)
Where were you born?
I was born in Moscow.
What was your home like? Was it an apartment? A house?
It was a very small flat. For more than 30 years, maybe 35 years, I lived in 500 square feet. It was very small.
You, your mother, your father and your sister?
What was your mother’s name?
What was she like?
She was a chemistry engineer and she was very good at it. And I was very far from that. If we needed something repaired at home, my mother, she was the best.
And your father?
My father [Dmitri Prokhorov] he was one of the key bosses in the Soviet Sports Committee at the time of the Red Machine—the sports red machine. And he was in charge of international relations for the sports committee with other countries.
I’ve read that he traveled quite a bit.
My father traveled a lot. Maybe six or eight times a year because it was part of his job. I was lucky. He was very Western minded. He pushed me a lot to make my own decisions.
Did he ever travel to the States?
My father traveled a lot here.
I don’t know. Maybe.
Did he ever tell you anything about America? Or did he ever bring you back anything from America?
You need to understand that the Soviet Union was a very specific country. We lived in a very deep contradiction. In public we supported the communist Soviet ideology. But in the kitchen we listened to the Voice of America. And we read a lot of books…a lot of things that were completely prohibited. And this was our life.
Was that the culture of your family, or…?
No, it was not the culture of the family. It was very specific to socialist society. For example, my grandmother, she was a great scientist. But for many years she kept her suitcase near the door because a lot of her colleagues in the Stalin times, they were rounded up and sent to the Gulag. And she was sure she could have followed them. Can you imagine the fear in the society?
I want to move on to Brooklyn. Is this your first time in Brooklyn?
When were you here?
The first time was maybe 15 years ago. We were in Brighton Beach, and we tasted the local food. It was great fun because we tasted the Soviet cuisine. Like the Soviet cuisine of the 70s. And even at that time it was quite a problem to find such quality of food and such taste in Russia. Now it’s completely vanished.
What brought you there?
A lot of people from the Soviet Union came to visit Brighton Beach. You can’t even imagine. When the Berlin Wall was broken, all these people with a great fear in their hearts, they feel liberty and democracy inside them. And can you imagine coming to America? “Look, there is a Brighton Beach. You need to visit. It’s very special.” A lot of people came who had relatives there. “You need to visit this restaurant. You need to visit that restaurant.” It was very popular in the 90s to visit Brighton Beach.
Do you plan to live, or buy property, in Brooklyn?
I haven’t decided yet. Will I buy property in the future or not? (Shrugs) My first priority now is to build a championship team. And I’m very concentrated on my goal. First I need to spend a few months to invite all the best free agents. We need a new coach, etcetera. Afterwards it will be high time to make a decision about the property. But not now.
Have you read about Brooklyn?
Yes. I know a lot of celebrity people come from Brooklyn. Like Neil Diamond, like Jay-Z of course, like Barbra Streisand, like Robert De Niro (Who was actually born in Manhattan). And some infamous heroes, like Al Capone.
So you’ve put effort into figuring out the history.
I keep an eye out.
Is that part of business for you or is that pure interest?
Any places you want to eat?
Frankly speaking, one of the passions of my life, I like good food.
Brooklyn’s a great place then.
I’m a slave of my stomach.
Do you like pizza?
It depends on the pizza. If it’s great, I like it.
What’s good pizza for you?
OK. Next time I come we will have a pizza together.
Ha. I’ll take you up on that. What’s your plan to win Brooklyn over? How are you going to sell this arena and the team?
I think Brooklyn is a really unique and exciting place. It was the place for many years where nations were mixed from all over the world. Now we have another circle. I’m talking about globalization. It’s practically the same, but on another level. To have the first truly global team, it will be in Brooklyn.
Do you think Brooklynites are going to be attracted to that aspect of it?
I hope so.
You hope so?
I think it’s very natural, from what I hear, for Brooklyn. It’s very natural for the people. Because it’s practically their fortune (as in their destiny). But on another level. It’s their personal fortunes. They came to Brooklyn from different countries many, many years ago. Now the world is changing. But they saw this. They moved from the other countries. And now we have a global world. There are no borders.
You really think that?
There is a local culture and global culture. And in between, something will mix…Maybe the best from local culture and the best from global culture.
So that’s a hunch that you have: that there’s something in between you can work with in terms of winning the borough over.
Yes. But you need to have a backbone. And for the future, the backbone is Brooklyn.
Before it was a small global world. [Immigrants] came to the United States, to live in Brooklyn. And as far as I know, more than 30 million people have passed through Brooklyn, and now they live all around the United States. It’s the same with the Nets fan base. We are creating this franchise with fans all over the world. We need all our fans from New Jersey to Brooklyn, to Moscow to Europe to China. Brooklyn is a home for everyone from everywhere. And this is a part of the global world.
A lot of Brooklynites are excited about this. They want a professional team. They think back to the days of the Dodgers. But other Brooklynites don’t like this. How aware were you of this when you were thinking about the project?
I know that nobody likes changes. I am very conservative with my social activity. I’m very flexible in my office and my businesses. But very stubborn in my social life. I think as soon the team comes, it will be a really fascinating story.
But how much attention did you pay to the resistance? Locals fought it for years. Whole groups formed against it.
I understand their concerns. But I think Bruce [Ratner] did a great job to reach a good agreement with the tenants—
I’m just asking how much it was on your radar.
My priority is the team. And I’m a minority shareholder in the arena. (Prokhorov has a 45 percent interest in the Barclay’s Center.)
I understand that. Many of these questions should be directed at Bruce Ratner, and not you. But people want to know, because you were big part of the project coming through in the end.
I’m a minority shareholder in the arena. But my personal opinion is that it will add a lot to the community. Its offers affordable housing, new jobs, excellent opportunities for the small and middle-sized businesses.
There’s definitely a debate. For example, the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. completely revitalized Chinatown. Chinatown was kind of a dump. And then the arena came in and the neighborhood was completely transformed. Still, some people still don’t like the idea of there being a downtown, Manhattan-esque part of Brooklyn.
It’s best to keep a balance. On the one hand we need to change, but on the other hand we need to protect local culture. Local heritage. We need to be in between. That’s my goal.
Some of your critics, especially those who fought against the project, brought up the issue of Zimbabwe and sanctions busting. (In April, news reports surfaced that an investment bank Prokhorov owns, Renaissance Capital, may be doing business in Zimbabwe, which the United States has issued sanctions against.) Can you comment on that?
Yeah, sure. I think all these allegations have no basis in reality. Renaissance Capital has a light presence in Zimbabwe. Just a couple of people for stock market research.
So it’s just research?
Yes, exactly. And if you look through the rules, these sanctions refer to some individuals and some companies. And they are saying that you can’t do business with these particular individuals and these particular companies. For example, a lot of companies like Coca Cola, BP, Shell—they’re doing business there. We have no branches there, no offices, just a group of people looking at the local stock exchange.
Ultimately, is this about producing a winner? Do you think if you win, the borough’s going to be behind you?
I have only one place. It’s first place.
(Later, Prokhorov said: “But it’s normal. It’s natural. Some people are for the project and some people are against it. We’re human beings. We have the right to make mistakes. We’re allowed to have personal opinions.”)
Are you going to try to do anything to incorporate Brooklyn into the Barclay’s Center. For example, serve Brooklyn beers or serve food from Brooklyn, as opposed to McDonalds?
I think first I need to know Brooklyn better. It’s very important to know small details.
So you need to put more thought into it. But it’s something you’re considering?
For sure. But we have 26 months before the construction’s finished.
There was an editorial in the New York Daily News in which the writer argued that you should move to Brooklyn, because that would show that your serious about Brooklyn and not just about the team and the investment. He also mentioned this idea of bringing Brooklyn into the arena, so that it’s not out of place with the community—so that it champions Brooklyn and puts it on a pedestal. What do you think about that?
Don’t tempt me.
Ha. Don’t tempt you? What do you mean by that?
I need time. When you know the situation better, you have a professional opinion. I am a newcomer. I need to be really black and white. My passion is to develop the local community.
Have you ever encountered a situation where your success hinges in large part on the public’s support?
It’s an interesting question. I am a specialist for difficulties. I like to manage risk. It’s more difficult. And sometimes I’m good when most people don’t want to touch the problem.
Can you give a specific example?
When I was CEO of Norilsk Nickel, there was a very strong local community (at the site of the nickel and palladium mine in the northernmost reaches of Siberia). Very strong. The people there lived in a crazy condition. It’s very tough nature. It’s far north, not far from the polar center. They have three months of polar night and three months of polar day. It’s crazy. I don’t know what is worse, dark all the time or light all the time. The people had a special sense of respect for their community. And I had to explain to them that, “Look, we’re a great local Russian company. But we need another strategy. We need to compete globally, not only here. We need to spend money to be all over the world. We need to buy from different countries. We need to invest in other regions of Russia.” At first the majority of the people were completely against it.
Why? Because were cuts involved?
Because they said, “You use our money. We create the value.” It took me five years to change their minds. Fifty percent of the population was shareholders in the company. And when I came, the market price for Norilsk Nickel was $2.5 billion. When I sold the company, it was $60 billion. Can you imagine these people? They are the shareholders, and they got a 25-time rise in their shares.
So that’s how you convinced them?
It was a part of it.
How else did you convince them, in terms of communication?
It would take us maybe a few days of discussion.
Better for a book maybe. But what was the most important thing you did to change their mentality?
I needed the trust of the majority.
And how did you get it?
For example, I trained specially for three weeks. I asked my people to create me a room. A miner room. And I trained myself in order to work with them for eight hours.
Down in the mines?
You were down in the mines?
Yes. Once. I trained for three of four hours every day for three weeks. And afterwards I was a part of their miner brigade. My goal was to reach their requirement…They were absolutely shocked. They said, “You are a man, we will follow you.”
Back to basketball. You say you want to turn Knicks fans into Nets fans. Seriously?
You think you can pull that off, honestly? That’s a big thing to say.