A just-off-the-presses New York Times sports section story about how the Nets, Bruce Ratner's and Mikhail Prokhorov’s basketball team are traveling to “Moscow on Sunday on their way to China” begins by observing what it dubs an oddity:
The Nets might be an odd choice to be the N.B.A.’s ambassador overseas. With 12 wins last season, they are often a forgotten team even in New Jersey, where they fail to sell out their home games and live in the shadow of the cosmopolitan Knicks.(See: For the Nets, First Brooklyn and Then the World, By Ken Belson and Jonathan Abrams, October 9, 2010.)
Yet the Nets are among the most active teams in courting international companies.
Times and Nets Focus on China and Russia
Though this lead-in to the article speaks in general terms about the Nets as the “N.B.A.’s ambassador overseas” “courting international companies” the article really addresses the Nets activities with respect to just two countries, China and Russia. While the Nets are headed off to both countries, between the two it is apparently China that is getting shorter shrift these days. Near the end of the article we are told that: “The Nets are creating a Russian-language Web site to better reach them, and have replaced a marketing specialist who spoke Mandarin with someone fluent in Russian.” The article also states that “Last year, six Chinese companies, including the electronics giant Haier, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for courtside signs at the Izod Center, where Yi Jianlian played for the Nets” and then notes that Chinese-born Yi “was traded in the off-season, so the Nets are now focused on Russia.”
Shorter shrift maybe, but the Nets are nevertheless going to China and China and Russia are the only two countries the story discusses in terms of the Nets being ambassadors to, as the article’s title suggests: “The World.”
Casting Reasons Aside
Why are the Nets going, as the article reports, to China and Russia? Though the article pronounces it odd that they are going abroad and then spends most of its time tendering possible explanations, it passes up taking a crack at the possible explanations that would seem to be the most logical, but perhaps also the most impertinent to mention.
Norman Oder of Atlantic Yards Report specifically mentions this particular Times sports story (“The Sports section, however, is all over the Nets' trip to China.”) in writing about how the Times has avoided reporting on the scandalous sale of green cards in China by Ratner and Prokhorov to finance their nets arena. (Mr. Oder broke the story of the scandal. For our own commentary linking back to his see: Wednesday, October 6, 2010, Translation: Bruce Ratner Wants To Swindle 498 Chinese Millionaires? and Friday, October 8, 2010, Putting It Together: Who Should Be Selling Green Cards?.)
The sports section may be “all over the Nets' trip to China” except that it isn't reporting that the likely explanation as to why the Nets owners have made it a priority for the Nets to go to China is the EB-5 green cards the owners are selling to the Chinese, something the Times apparently doesn’t want to report about. Also not mentioned is that New York state and local government officials have been expecting to tag along with Ratner to sell the U.S. issued green cards with him in China.
China aside, also not mentioned is what would be the best-guess reason the team is going to Russia: That would be for the purpose of burnishing Mr. Prokhorov’s image there. Burnishing may not really be the right term notwithstanding that Mr. Prokhorov’s image that could use a big-league PR scrub job.
Taibbi on Prokhorov’s Reputation
Investigative reporter Matt Taibbi in a Men's Journal article not yet on the internet for us to link to gives us his view that Prokhorov bought his share of the Nets as a vanity project the purpose being in a manner “totally representative of the Russian oligarch class” to “show the suckers back home how much you’ve podnyalsya, or `risen up.'” Podnyalsya displays are the payoff that apparently makes irrelevant the public stain about how one has gotten their money, a subject about which Taibbi is caustically informative in providing information about Prokhorov as he details events he first covered in the mid-90s.
Prokhorov’s wealth came from the acquisition of “state-controlled Norilsk Nickel, one of the world’s largest metals companies” in what Taibbi describes as an auction that was “shamelessly, hilariously rigged.” with Prokhorov’s bank, Oneximbank, helping to run the auction in which it was itself “declared the winner after bidding $170 million to manage a 38 percent stake in a company then worth $1.2 billion” despite the fact that another firm had “bid twice as much.” Shades of the origin story for Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project! No wonder Prokhorov wanted to buy in! Taibbi reports how it turned out that the “bureaucrat who paved the way” for the deal “accepted $100,000 in the form of a `book deal’ from an obscure Swiss publishing firm with ties to Prokhorov’s bank.” (That’s Prokhorov’s deal being referred to, not Ratner’s Atlantic Yards, though Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz was taking money from Ratner for his performance “charities”.)
Taibbi is also scathingly detailed about the almost incomprehensible pollution and labor layoffs that followed in the wake of Prokhorov’s acquisition of Norilsk, making it clear how in need of burnishing Prokhorov’s reputation was.
Not Exactly Voldemort
Taibbi reports that Prokhorov’s arrest in Lyon, France on the well-reported charges of importing a planeload of prostitutes “was apparently the last straw in Prokhorov’s already sticky relationship” with Vladmir Potanin and that he was consequently forced to cash out and sell his shares in Norilsk to Oleg Deripaska. About Deripaska, another “Russian Bogeyman,” Taibbi tells us that a Russian journalist friend of his refused to say his name “out loud even in the noisiest of bars, for fear the oligarch might hear.” This clear echo of Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort as “he who must not be named” apparently applies only to Deripaska and not Prokhorov- At least for the time being. Nevertheless, when you read the Harry Potter series you are confronted by a world where almost nobody can be trusted, the highest public officials (those who head the Ministry of Magic) are on the wrong side and a sensation-seeking press routinely writes things that are quite untrue. The Harry Potter world sometimes seems ever so much like a thinly veiled metaphor for the world of New York real estate development, its weird indefensible politics, and Atlantic Yards.
Driven to Distraction?
So if the Times doesn’t report on the selling of the EB-5 green cards and the refurbishing fictions of Prokhorov’s reputation as being, respectively, the reasons that the Nets are going to China and Russia, what does the Times report might be the reasons the Nets are traveling to China and Russia?
Here is what they come up with:
• The fact that the Nets are making an effort to court international companies to sign advertising sponsorship deals may signify that they are having trouble attracting sponsors at home. (For instance, it mentions a five-year $2 million a year Stolichnaya vodka deal that Prokhorov helped arrange with the Russian company)
• Basketball is growing faster in popularity overseas than in the United States.
• The NBA’s goal is to grow the interest in basketball throughout the world. (Not just China and Russia.) Adam Silver, the deputy commissioner of the N.B.A., assisted the Ratner/Prokhorov cause by providing a quote for the Times article to this effect.
• More league players are being born overseas.
• The Nets plan to move to Brooklyn, which has a large Russian-born population so this will help build up the Brooklyn fan base. (There may be something to this but it also relates back to the fact that Prokhorov’s image needs scrubbing.)
A Timely Question: If Not Now, Then When?
We have a question for the Times: If, in their estimation, now is not the time to report on the EB-5 green card selling scandal and the dark not-so-secret back stories relating to Prokhorov’s wealth, then when will those things be discussed in the gray lady’s pages? Maybe it is just that the Times reporters, sports reporters and others, are not able to read Chinese. The answer then would be to hire a Chinese translator, which is what Mr. Oder did and the reason he has consequently been able to keep breaking new gripping stories in his series about the EB-5 scandal.
What are New Yorkers left to do when the Time sidelines itself this way? Here's one thing we can tell you: If, as the Times reports, “The Nets are creating a Russian-language Web site” then New Yorkers are all going to have to hope that Mr. Oder opens his wallet up one more time for another translator, a Russian one. If he doesn’t, with the Times asleep, we will probably miss out on some major news stories that matter a great deal to our city’s local politics.