A Russian owner in NBA: Tycoon buying NJ Nets

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Could the New Jersey Nets become the Nyets?

The basketball team once known as the New Jersey Americans is a step closer to being owned by Russia's richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov, who on Wednesday said he has a deal to buy 80 percent of the NBA team and nearly half of a project to build a new arena in Brooklyn.

The proposed blockbuster deal would give the Nets' current principal owner, Bruce Ratner, the needed cash to move forward with the centerpiece of his Atlantic Yards development, which includes plans for retail and residential projects.

It would make Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire and former amateur basketball player, the NBA's first non-North American owner.

It would mean the Nets really do seem headed to Brooklyn, a New York City borough without a major pro sports franchise since baseball's Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1957.

And it would be a sign the NBA is serious about building a worldwide identity. Commissioner David Stern immediately praised the deal, saying it will help the NBA expand its reach and would ensure that the Nets, who play in the aging Izod Center in East Rutherford, will have a state-of-the-art arena.

"Interest in basketball and the NBA is growing rapidly on a global basis, and we are especially encouraged by Mr. Prokhorov's commitment to the Nets and the opportunity it presents to continue the growth of basketball in Russia," Stern said in a statement.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, too, is ready to welcome Prokhorov to the NBA.

"I love it. I think he will bring fresh ideas and viewpoints, and hopefully this will be the start of a trend towards international investors," Cuban said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "Plus, I took Russian in high school, so it will give me a chance to refresh."

Stern has long touted the NBA's international reach, proudly boasting that two-thirds of the players on the medals podium at the Beijing Olympics were NBA players. The league plays preseason games in Europe and China, and its All-Star and NBA finals games have been televised in hundreds of countries.

In going global, Stern could be welcoming quite a globetrotter.

Prokhorov, who is 6-foot-6 and was an avid basketball player in his school days, is a fixture in glitzy European resorts and once was held in France for four days of questioning — but never charged — in a prostitution investigation. Even in Russia, he raises eyebrows for his penchant for private jets and a gorgeous entourage. A 2007 TV commercial for a Russian juice company lampooned him, although it did not name him.

Prokhorov's love of the high life is rivaled by his devotion to basketball. He owns a share of the Russian team CSKA Moscow, and he said on his blog he wants to buy the Nets partly to get access to NBA training methods and help Russian coaches get internships in the league.

Russia has a proud basketball tradition, having won the Euro championship in 2007, and CSKA is a perennial Euroleague power. Yet Andrei Kirilenko, a Utah Jazz forward, is the only Russian currently in the NBA.

It remains to be seen how Prokhorov's jet-setting lifestyle might play with Nets fans, but the NBA will be far more interested in his finances. Prokhorov has been ranked as his country's richest man in the Russian edition of Forbes, with an estimated $9.5 billion — even after shrinking by some $7 billion in the world economic crisis.

He weathered the financial storm by cashing out some lucrative assets before the downturn battered commodity markets.

Another rich Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, is the owner of the British soccer power Chelsea. Uzbekistan-born billionaire Alisher Usmanov owns more than 25 percent of another British soccer team, Arsenal.

AP writers Jim Heintz in Moscow and Karen Mathews in New York contributed to this report.

A baby crocodile swims at the Budapest Zoo. REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh