The black curtain parted, a ripple of surprised "ahhs" and clapping began, and all of a sudden, to the shock of even Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce when they turned their heads and looked to their left on the dais, there he was -- Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, just in from Moscow on his private jet "for a few hours" to make a cameo appearance at their introductory news conference that signified yet another promise kept by the Russian oligarch.
Just three years into his ownership of the team, and just one season into the franchise's relocation to Brooklyn, Prokhorov showed up to declare the Nets are closer to the promise he made to win a championship than ever. And he smiled when reminded how he's raising some hackles around the NBA by laughing off how the Nets' offseason overhaul pushed them more than $80 million beyond the league's luxury tax, or -- more recently -- the carping that the one just-obtained player who couldn't make it Thursday, Andrei Kirilenko, signed with the Nets under dubious circumstances.
That was a charge Prokhorov calmly denied just before moving on to tweak New York Knicks owner James Dolan.
Over what? Stealing the city's back pages and watercooler talk, what else? And winning the offseason. And celebrating the rollout of a team that looks better than the Knicks just 24 hours after an ESPN report surfaced that the Lakers are "targeting" Carmelo Anthony and/or LeBron James when both superstars can opt out of their current deals and become free agents next summer. Compared to the roster the Nets now have stacked up, the Knicks' roster looks weaker after Melo.
"I want to congratulate James Dolan," Prokhorov said with a small smile, when asked about him. "He is watching us for the time being."
Garnett, Pierce and Jason Terry, acquired in a blockbuster trade with Boston, all seemed genuinely stunned when Prokhorov appeared.
But you didn't really think Prokhorov would miss this, did you?
Thursday's news conference was carried live in the New York area, and on a national feed, and even in places as far away as China and (of course) Russia. And Prokhorov, who didn't attend as many Nets games last season as he had in previous years, seemed as immune to whatever jet lag he might've been feeling from the 4,700-mile flight from Moscow as he is criticism.
When asked about a Yahoo! Sports report that anonymous rival NBA executives suspect him of offering rule-breaking added inducements to entice Kirilenko, a fellow Russian, to come off the $8 million-or-so annual salary demands he was making of other teams and sign a $3.1 million salary from the Nets, Prokhorov stressed several times that he lives by "all NBA rules."
He attributed Kirilenko's decision to wanting to align himself with a winner, which, according to Prokhorov, "is only natural."
It was a rare serious moment in an otherwise freewheeling performance by Prokhorov. When the billionaire was asked yet another question about all the money he's laying out, he deadpanned, "I just hope the check doesn't bounce." When reminded of his promise to get married if the Nets hadn't made good on his boast of winning a title in five years, he noted, "I still have two years left."
He even showed off his knowledge of American movies by comparing new coach Jason Kidd to the "Maverick" character in "Top Gun," the 1986 Tom Cruise movie.
"This film arrived in Russia just one week ago, so I want to refresh your memory," Prokhorov cracked with an impish smirk, drawing laughs.
Prokhorov also turned serious when he was asked if he's happy with how the Nets are put together now. All of a sudden, he sounded as if he was channeling all of the ambition of the last bombastic owner that New York had and still misses -- George Steinbrenner -- without the Steinbrenner-esque anger. At least, not yet.
"I will [only] be proud when we win the championship," Prokhorov said. "I am not a man of procedure. I am a man of results."
There was something about his deep voice that made it sound almost ominous.
"For me there is only one place: First place."
After Kidd -- who has never formally coached a game at any level, remember -- was told that Prokhorov had not only predicted he'd be a "superstar" coach, but then compared him to the "Top Gun" character, Kidd also noted the movie was a long time ago. Then he joked: "Did Maverick make it through the whole movie?"
But that's a question for tomorrow.
Right here, right now, the new Nets weren't shy about saying they already feel like they rule the city. Forget the Knicks.
"We're going to kick butt and take names. ... There's something in the air here that says the Brooklyn Nets will be the NBA champions next year," Jason Terry predicted during a radio interview.
"We understand what it takes to win," Pierce said at the news conference.
Garnett said: "This is like a mirror image" of the situation the Celtics were in when he, Ray Allen and Pierce were put together, and soon won the 2007-08 title with the Celtics.
But it's funny how that goes, too. For long stretches last season, the talk about Garnett, 37, was more about his age and injuries and need to have his minutes restricted. Pierce, 35, clutch as he still is, was seen as slowing down a half-step, too. The shouts were "Break up the Celts!" even before Doc Rivers left.
But now that Garnett and Pierce have made this headline-grabbing relocation to the Nets, it's as if the both of them have been put in a time machine. And it's easy to see why. What Garnett and Pierce will add is exactly what the Nets' room-temperature stars, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, glaringly lacked so often last season. Leadership. Intensity. Some much-needed toughness and exacting standards night in, night out. And that's just the short list of what Garnett and Pierce, especially, can bring.
"In the NBA, spending money is important, but you don't win a championship only spending money," Prokhorov said. "The most important thing is you have to put the pieces together."
The Nets have the pieces. Prokhorov has done his part.
Now let's see what his new, hired Top Guns deliver.