Villain-off: Prokhorov, Dolan and the end of a basketball monopoly

Prokhorov's billboard. (Marianne O'Leary via flickr)
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Josh Curtis

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At 6’8” with a vampire’s hairline, New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is the very picture of a James Bond villain, with all the money and steely ambition to match.

At the relatively tender age of 45, Prokhorov is arguably the richest man in all of professional sports, his $13.4 billion net worth rivaling that of Portland Trailblazers owner and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. That kind of precocity is not to be taken lightly in any case, but it’s what Prokhorov said at his introductory press conference in May that ought to strike fear in the heart of James Dolan, the asocial Cablevision scion (and frontman of JD & The Straight Shot, and maybe-aspiring Yankees-acquirer) who, unfortunately for the Knicks, owns them. Rather than discuss the details of his blueprint for resurrecting the Nets, Prokhorov addressed his plan macrocosmically, declaring, “We will turn Knicks fans into Nets fans.”

Prokhorov really believes it and, lest anyone think otherwise, his vision is no fantasy. He has the will and the ability to see it through as he eyes the Nets’ pending move to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards for the 2012-2013 season. In fact, his campaign has already started.

Two weeks ago, while the Knicks were waiting with clammy hands for The Decision, the Nets unveiled a mammoth, 225’ X 95’ billboard depicting none other than Prokhorov himself standing alongside Nets minority owner and New York hip-hop legend Jay-Z. Above their heads read, “The blueprint for greatness.” But this was different from billboards past. It wasn’t commissioned to preside over a Holiday Inn on some gray New Jersey highway in the middle of nowhere. Instead, it was tacked up at the corner of 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, a stone’s throw from Madison Square Garden. Nets CEO Brett Yormark has said that the location was a coincidence. It wasn’t. It was a gauntlet thrown down in earnest by a man who has every intention of making good on his threat to dethrone the Knicks.

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And after a decade of futility, it just might be possible. In 2008, not 30 days into the NBA season, the Knicks packed up their top two scorers, Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford, and sent them off in trade for Al Harrington, Tim Thomas, and Cuttino Mobley. Even value it was not. And yet the move was received warmly, for in dispensing with Randolph and Crawford, the Knicks had achieved their primary objective, which clearly had little to do with winning that year or the next. It was all to do with clearing precious salary-cap space in drooling anticipation the chance to reel in one or more of the top three free-agent prizes that were set to come available in the summer of 2010: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. To get them, they would bite the bullet for two years and then leverage the New York Knicks brand to outpace their rival suitors and instantaneously catapult themselves back to relevance.

In the end, the Knicks didn’t get LeBron. Or Wade. Or even Bosh. And if reports are to be believed, they weren’t very close, either. Of course, they did sign Amar’e Stoudemire, but that is no justification for letting Randolph go for a pittance two years ago or for placing so many eggs in the LeBron basket.

In the end, the Knicks’ failure to land any of the big three free agents is less important for what it says about the merits of their organizational game plan back in 2008 than for what it reveals about what the Knicks have become. If nothing else, their inability to attract the marquee free agents indicates that today’s Knicks have nowhere near the brand cachet that they had naively supposed. What they had has gone by the wayside, washed away by losing campaigns and managerial incompetence.

Of course, it’s no secret that the Knicks have been bad for a while. But few seem to appreciate just how bad. Amazingly, the Knicks have now endured more consecutive losing seasons than any major New York-area sports franchise in the last 50 years. More than the Jets. More than the Mets. More than the Nets. More than the Islanders. More than everyone. Nine in a row. A decade has been flushed down the toilet. This is epic stuff.

And what the Knicks have begun to learn this off-season—and will doubtless continue to learn—is that being so bad for so long isn’t just depressing; it’s dangerous. It costs you players, yes, but more importantly, as Prokhorov knows, it costs you fans.

Take, for example, the plight of the New York Jets. Just six months ago, they were 30 minutes from the Super Bowl. As it stands now, with training camp three weeks away, they own the best defense in football, a captivating head coach, a formidable core of young talent and a brand-new stadium. But for all their national visibility and ever-growing prominence, the Jets can’t seem to sell out their own stadium. Meanwhile, the Giants have sold nearly all the "personal seat licences" they made available ahead of their move to the new place—meaning that a critical mass of their fans were willing to pay lots of money for the right to continue to be season-ticket holders, but in a new venue—even though their seating plan included PSLs for both stadium decks, whereas the Jets confined their ambitions to the lower bowl. In short, the Giants have sold both decks while the Jets haven’t managed to sell one. Such are the wages of prolonged mediocrity.

If that erosion isn’t yet obvious in the case of the Knicks, it’s because, unlike the Jets—and every other major New York sports franchise—the Knicks haven’t had in-state competition since 1977. For almost 33 years, they have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the sporting affections of New York City in a way that no other New York team has. But that will end as soon as 2012, when the Nets plan to set up shop in the city’s most populous borough—and when the value of the Knicks’ brand may be at or near its all-time nadir.

By that time, Prokhorov expects to be riding high. "If everything goes as planned, I expect to be in the playoffs next season . . .and championship in one year minimum and maximum in five years,” he told Nets season-ticket holders in May.

Maybe there’s no need to worry. Maybe he's exactly as crazy as he seems.

Jim Dolan had better hope so.