By John Torenli
The hard hats were appropriate, considering Brooklyn’s new arena — the state-of-the-art, 18,000-seat Barclays Center — is now “75 percent complete,” but still officially under construction.
Holding his first press conference with the local media in over a year before the $800-million structure’s lower bowl, Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov hardly needed the protection.
Handling a steady flurry of tough questions ranging in subject from the state of his last-place team to the historic move to Brooklyn and what it might ultimately mean for our borough’s basketball fanatics, Prokhorov displayed the deftness and poise of a dead-eyed 3-point specialist.
The Russian billionaire, who placed a distant third behind incumbent Vladimir Putin in his home country’s recently completed presidential elections, continues to preach patience to Nets fans frustrated over the team’s lack of competitiveness the past several seasons.
“The Nets, like the arena, are still under construction,” noted Prokhorov, who took over ownership from Downtown real estate magnate Bruce Ratner two years ago, insisting the Nets were NBA Finals-bound. “We are in the building stage. I keep my prediction of a championship. We will make the Brooklyn Nets a championship team.”
A combined 45-95 under his ownership entering last night’s game against visiting Philadelphia, which Prokhorov intended to attend at Newark’s Prudential Center, the Nets do boast some high-level talent on their roster.
Prokhorov cited rookie MarShon Brooks and recent pick-up Gerald Green as evidence of the team’s progress in uncovering future contributors.
Taking in his first game since launching his presidential bid last year, Prokhorov watched the Nets beat Cleveland, 122-117, on Sunday at The Rock as Green scored a career-high 32 points and Brooks added 14 points and seven rebounds.
After giving coach Avery Johnson and general manager Billy King a nod of approval for the rebuilding job they’ve undertaken, the metal tycoon reiterated his belief that the team will get better with time.
“We need to be really very patient,” Prokhorov insisted. “It’s easy to have a good team and a playoff team, but it’s really difficult to make a championship team. We need to go slow, step-by-step, find the best pieces for the team. We are really on the right way.
“If you look at this season, we have some very good young pieces,” he continued. “We are coming into a very good situation. If it hadn’t been for the crazy injuries this year, we would have been in the playoffs. I’ll do my best and I’m very committed.”
Of course the one player who holds the most sway over the Nets’ immediate future in Brooklyn, soon-to-be-free-agent All-Star point guard Deron Williams, was on Prokhorov’s mind during his visit. He revealed that he had met with Williams on Monday in the hopes of keeping the organization’s showcase attraction here for the November season-opener at Barclays.
“It was a very good discussion,” Prokhorov said. “He really wants to win and I want to win, maybe even more. At this stage, we’re on the same page. I think he wants to win and be part of a great franchise. So we have the same view of this.”
That view may have been dimmed a bit when the Nets lost out on completing a trade-deadline deal for superstar center Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic, a player the organization has coveted since failing to acquire LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony during Prokhorov’s tenure.
“Every owner wants to have a great player,” Prokhorov quickly side-stepped when asked about Howard. “We’ll do our best to find the best players for our team.”
Though he admitted that his presidential run was a learning experience, he didn’t exactly slam the door on returning for another shot at Russia’s top post.
“[There is] not any link with my ownership and my potential political career,” Prokhorov said. “It was just a starting point for my political career. The world is changing, Russia is changing and we are facing a very interesting time. This election was a great testimony. Twenty percent of the Russian people want changes. They really deserve changes. I am very optimistic.”
The eternal optimist in Prokhorov was something that attracted Ratner to their ongoing partnership. The Cleveland native didn’t hide his affection for his comrade while setting Sept. 28 as the “magic date” for the arena’s opening with a concert by hip-hop mogul and minority Nets owner Jay-Z.
“It takes teamwork to do something like this,” said Ratner, who described construction progress as “on schedule” and disclosed that the arena’s roof and facade would be completed later this month.
“Probably, along this long journey, the best thing I ever did was partner up with Mikhail Prokhorov,” he added. “It’s not only because of the economics — that, of course is good — but because Mikhail and his group have been wonderful partners. He’s probably the best partner I’ve had in my life.”
Prokhorov’s customary cheekiness and humor were on full display when he was nudged about losing out on potential big-time free agents like Howard to rival Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban this coming summer.
“Let the best man win,” Prokhorov jibed. “If he wins, I will crush him in the kick-boxing throw-down.”
Though he’ll likely only be here through the week for the NBA’s annual Board of Governors meeting in Manhattan, where the league will formally approve the franchise’s pending move, Prokhorov is hoping for plenty of company in following the Nets once November rolls around. He intimated that he watches 80 percent of his team’s games, whether he is in Moscow or New York, and follows their statistics religiously.
“I hope the majority of Nets fans from New Jersey will join us here. I hope we can unite New Jersey fans, Brooklyn and Manhattan,” he said. “We’ll do our best to have all three of these communities together.”
And what of those who continue to oppose the arena’s construction on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues?
“Nine of 10 Brooklynites are happy with the team moving,” said Prokhorov, citing a recent newspaper poll. “Brooklyn deserves a pro team. There is always going to be skeptical criticism from those (against the arena). It’s not only basketball, it’s great cultural events. The spirit of community is very important. I think even those who are skeptical now will join us.”
Like any tactful public speaker, Prokhorov closed his press conference with a playful poke at himself when asked if he intended to buy property and move into Brooklyn anytime soon.
“I would, but there’s a rich Russian driving up prices so it’s not the best time to buy,” he said with a laugh.