by Lang Whitaker

He made his $14 billion fortune in metals and alloys. He once got in trouble for showing up at a ski resort with so many beautiful women that even the French police got suspicious. When he was featured on “60 Minutes,” he brandished machine guns and sipped fine wines.

He is the most interesting man in the world, and his name is Mikhail Prokhorov. And now he now owns the New Jersey Nets.

A few hours ago at the Four Seasons hotel in Midtown Manhattan, Prokhorov had his first official press conference as owner of the Nets. There were well over 100 media members assembled, a mind-blowing number considering this was a press conference for a team that finished 49(!) games behind Cleveland this season.

prokhorov1The 6-8 Prokhorov ambled into the room a few minutes before noon, all angles, wearing a gray suit and royal blue tie. He walks like an athlete, his head slightly bowed, his limbs moving creakily, as though he has a disassociated ligament still dangling loose inside his ankle or knee. His buzz cut gave him a resemblance to Anthony Perkins. Prokhorov took a seat in front of the room at a table before a step-and-repeat banner with the Nets logo and the team’s latest marketing phrase, “It’s All New.” Perhaps it is, though the words “New Jersey” weren’t on any of the signage.

“For me,” Prokhorov began, deadpan, “is great pleasure. I am owner of team with the best record in the NBA.” The media chuckled at his joke, and Prokhorov looked around in faux disbelief. “Was I misinformed?” For the next 45 minutes, Prokhorov handled everything thrown at him. He spoke slowly and assuredly, his hands flapping up from the table whenever he talked.

Prokhorov grew up watching the NBA as a teenager in Russia on “video tape recorder,” and he was a big fan of Larry Bird. Once he had the ends, he wanted to own an NBA team because “the NBA is great competition.” And as the first foreign NBA owner, from the US’s former Cold War partner, no less, Prokhorov noted the seismic shift in geopolitical relations over the last few decades with a wink: “I say to Americans, I come in peace.”

Regarding the Nets, Prokhorov said he expects the team to make the Playoffs next season, and he believes they will be a championship team in between one and five seasons. He was circumspect about the Nets finishing just third in the Draft lottery — “Lottery, it’s random” — and flashed his knowledge of NBA history, however unrealistic, when he said, “Few years ago, player drafted third. He did pretty good in his career. His name, Michael Jordan.”

Prokhorov seemed to honestly feel the Nets weren’t far from being contenders. He wants to keep Rod Thorn, let Kiki Vandeweghe walk, hire a coach — he said they have several candidates and he wants to talk to a few Russian coaches, too — and then get involved in free agency, where he felt “pretty sure I can convince the best of the best the Nets is where they need to be.”

“Add team spirit,” Prokhorov, well, added. “Little bit luck, little bit money, we go straight to top.”

Whenever he seemed unsure of what to say, he repeatedly riffed on the theme of “I need to have a few secrets.” It was funny the first time, puzzling by the tenth instance. When a local TV sports anchor asked about how much involvement he planned to have with the front office, Prokhorov grinned and said, “If I tell you I will have to kill you.”

While his English wasn’t perfect and his comedic chops could use honing, you have to give him a lot of credit for coming out and facing the media and at least giving this press conference a shot. As the NBA has run headlong into globalization the last few years, I’ve interviewed several athletes (Yao Ming, Nene) who’d been in the US for a while but still preferred to use an interpreter for interviews, just to be safe. Prokhorov handled himself well, even if some of his vocabulary was a little strange, like when he described himself and Jay-Z as “soulmates.”

Overall, it was a breezy session. The expectations are so low right now, Prokhorov doesn’t have to do much to make the Nets at least sound like winners. He has a clear passion for basketball and winning, and he’s definitely got the money to pour into this withering franchise to rescue it from creeping insignificance. (Although, when asked if he’d be willing to lose money if he won a title, Prokhorov said, “Your question is not very optimistic. I like more to earn money than lose money.”)

If nothing else, Prokhorov has already brought a dash of positive energy. I’ve written several times how, in my mind, the worst thing an NBA team can become is irrelevant, and after going to the Finals consecutively in ‘02 and ‘03, that’s exactly what the Nets had become. Almost overnight, the Nets are now a global franchise that has interest in multiple bases — there were reporters at the press conference today representing outlets in Manhattan, Newark, Brooklyn and Russia.

All of a sudden, the Nets matter. And the most interesting man in the world wants to keep it that way.

“There is only one way to go,” he said, “ and that is up.”