Brooklyn Boro

Nets owner Prokhorov selling high to Tsai

The Alibaba founder is expected to assume control earlier than expected.

August 15, 2019 JT Torenli
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The summer acquisitions of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have made the Brooklyn Nets one of the most attractive and valuable franchises in the NBA, entering the upcoming 2019-20 season.

The sudden boost in profile and valuation has apparently prompted billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov to sell high — as in the highest price tag ever for an American pro sports franchise.

Prokhorov, who has helmed the Downtown-based team since 2010, is reportedly on the verge of selling his controlling interest in the club to Alibaba co-founder and executive vice president Joseph Tsai, who purchased a 49 percent stake in the Nets back in 2017.

As first reported by the New York Post this week, Tsai, who was expected to buy out Prokhorov by 2021 at the earliest after his initial $1 billion investment, will move into the ownership seat a couple of campaigns early, paying a whopping $2.35 billion for the Nets.

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That figure tops the recent $2.2 billion purchase prices for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and the NBA’s Houston Rockets, and does not include the rights to Barclays Center, which Prokhorov will continue to own for the time being.

Neither the Nets nor Tsai had commented on the reported deal as of press time.

The deal, which is expected to be completed as early as this week, will end the Prokhorov era in Brooklyn, one that certainly had its share of memorable moments.

Prokhorov came into this fair borough crowing about his “Blueprint for Greatness” and taking this town over from the archrival New York Knicks in 2012, two years after he’d bought out Barclays developer and former Nets owner Bruce Ratner.

He even staked his bachelorhood on it, claiming he’d give up his single status if the Nets did not deliver Brooklyn’s first major pro sports championship since 1955 to its fans within the first five years of his ownership.

In a bid to back up his boast, Prokhorov allowed then-general manager Billy King to author one of the worst trades in NBA history during the summer of 2013, swapping out a slew of future first-round picks for Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

That move, designed to make the Nets the city’s top team and perhaps even a serious Eastern Conference contender, flopped miserably, resulting in one playoff series win and a five-year span where the team failed to play anything resembling winning basketball.

Though he reneged on his marriage bet, Prokhorov appeared to learn a lesson from the quick-fix bid. He changed his approach significantly during the past several seasons, practicing patience over pomp.

By hiring Sean Marks as his general manager just over three years ago, and allowing the former San Antonio player, assistant coach and executive to bring aboard player-development guru Kenny Atkinson, Prokhorov set in motion what has turned out to be a very successful rebuilding program here in Brooklyn.

The Nets went from the league’s worst team in Atkinson’s first year at the helm to going 42-40 and reaching the playoffs for the first time in four seasons in 2018-19.

That turnaround, which was nurtured and encouraged by ownership, made Brooklyn a free-agent destination of choice this summer, as evidenced by the stunning acquisitions of Durant, a two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP, and Irving, who hit the game-winning shot for Cleveland in the 2016 Finals.

So just when Prokhorov appears to be in a position to fulfill his championship dreams as an owner, he is instead acting as a successful and forward-thinking business man.

He is selling the team when its valuation is at its peak while holding on to the rights to the Barclays Center, which will eventually be sold separately — two very shrewd moves for a soon-to-be-former owner who made a very bad decision six years ago but hired the right people to help dig the franchise out of that hole.

“Sean and Kenny have built tremendous infrastructure, whether it’s within the coaching staff, medical team, physical training — you name it. And the culture has changed significantly,” Prokhorov said during the Nets’ participation in the Las Vegas Summer League last month.

“We’re now more about our own step-by-step achievements than what others are doing that could distract us.”

Already the owner of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai could be the new man in charge of the Brooklyn Nets two years earlier than expected. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Tsai, an admitted NBA junkie and billionaire in his own right, will be the one to inherit this bourgeoning franchise, albeit for the highest price ever paid for one here in the U.S.

Already the owner of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, 55-year-old Tsai will be the one to hoist the trophy if Durant and Irving eventually lead the Nets to their first-ever NBA title.

But Prokhorov’s fingerprints will have to be somewhere on that hardware after turning the Brooklyn Nets from afterthoughts on the NBA circuit to a team worth watching and paying for.

Correction (2:15 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly named Kevin Garnett as the player the Nets acquired this summer. It was Kevin Durant. The Eagle apologizes to Kevin Durant and Nets fans everywhere for the error. 

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