Mikhail Prokhorov discusses title hopes

LONDON -- Mikhail Prokhorov hardly has been a high-profile personality on the American -- or even New York -- sporting landscape since buying the New Jersey Nets in September 2009, but events in London this weekend suggested that might be about to change.

Those events also suggested that is not a bad thing.

The 45-year-old, 6-foot-8 Russian billionaire won over a media audience Friday, hours before his team beat the Toronto Raptors 116-103 at London's O2 Arena, the first-ever NBA regular-season game played on European soil.

In near-perfect English, he exchanged jokes about soccer and fellow Russian Roman Abramovich, who owns defending Premier League champion Chelsea.

Prokhorov explained his rationale behind investing the better of $250 million in buying the Nets and helping finance their move to a new arena in Brooklyn. And he offered a lighthearted look into his much-talked about private life when asked why he preferred basketball to soccer.

"A few years ago, I had a girlfriend and she really hated sport," Prokhorov said, grinning. "I spent some time in front of the TV [watching] sport and she asked me, why is basketball better than football [soccer]? I was a little shocked by the question but my reply is, look, I think basketball is better than football because my team, for sure, will have some scores during the match."

In a conversation with ESPNNewYork.com later, Prokhorov was a little more forthcoming with his explanation for buying into a franchise that, in terms of historical success, hardly can be described as one of North America's standout sporting institutions.

"I was the owner of a basketball team [CSKA Moscow] for more than 12 years," he said. "With the Moscow club, we had the top record eight years, we went to the Euroleague final four and had two wins. Unfortunately, in Russia, basketball is not a business, it's a charity.

"If you have the most money, you can compete. In the NBA, money is important, but it is not enough. You have got to be very smart. In the process of selecting players in the NBA, as soon as you make one mistake, you are out [of title contention] for five or six years because of the salaries."

And there is the rub. Despite Prokhorov's wealth, salary-cap restrictions prevent him from spending the vast amounts of money that the owners of soccer clubs frequently invest in their quest for success.

Abramovich, one place below Prokhorov on the list of Russia's richest men with a fortune of $11.2 billion, spent $113 million in January alone to buy the rights to two players. The Abu Dhabi royal family has spent a reported $1.6 billion in buying and investing in Manchester City, a middling English Premier League team that has not won a trophy in 35 years.

If Prokhorov is frustrated by his financial muscle being shackled in such a way, he does not let it show. "I think Roman has done a great job," he said. "Especially for the football population. He has built an important bridge between British people and Russian people. It is a different kind of sport in the NBA, different rules, it is no problem."

Building a bridge between, in his case, New Jersey and the rest of the world clearly remains Prokhorov's burning goal, along with that of winning an NBA title. The news conference in London even gave him an opportunity to trot out a neat marketing slogan that underlines his ambition.

"I think much has been done," Prokhorov of the Nets' development in his 18 months in charge. "But until our posters are on the walls of the fans from New York to New Zealand, from Brazil to Beijing, we're not done."

And when he is done? Perhaps, asked one English reporter, the opportunity to buy a soccer team and finally unleash his billions of dollars would appeal?

Said Prokhorov: "As soon as I win the NBA championship, the title, I am at your disposal, OK?"