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Billionaire wants NBA to dominate world sport

New Jersey Nets and the Toronto Raptors
New Jersey Nets, in white, did the double over the Toronto Raptors in London

By Andrew McKenzie
BBC Sport at the 02 Arena, London

Mikhail Prokhorov addressed the world's media at the weekend and explained his plans for world domination.

Coming from a 6ft 8in Russian multi-billionaire currently making waves in New York, it sounds like it could be the opening scene of a future Die Hard movie with Ivan Drago as the villain.

Prokhorov is deadly serious. His aim is not death and destruction, however, but to make basketball the number one sport in the world and his New Jersey Nets the top team in the sport's elite league, the NBA.

The owner of the Nets is someone to be taken seriously. He is the 39th richest person in the world, according to Forbes' latest list, and has more roubles than Roman Abramovich.

It would also be fair to say he welcomes the spotlight more than Chelsea's wealthy but media-shy owner.

So what was his reason for agreeing to give up two Nets home games in mid-season to come to London and take part in the first ever regular-season matches in Europe? "Because I like Harry's Bar," he quipped.

The NBA's transatlantic trailblazer also volunteered a story that illustrates his love for basketball.

Mikhail Prokhorov has more wealth than friend Roman Abramovich
Prokhorov has more wealth than friend Roman Abramovich

"I once had a girlfriend who hated sport," he said. "She asked me: 'Why is basketball better than football?' I replied: 'Because my team, for sure, will have some scores during the match'."

But while Prokhorov was happy to poke fun at football's love of a 0-0 thriller, he also admitted he has spoken to his Premier League counterparts - including his friend Abramovich - to help his globalisation goal.

"Everybody knows Manchester United and Chelsea and they have had a big impact on international sport," he added. "Basketball, for the time being, is sport number two.

"Much has been done but until our posters are on the walls of fans from New York to New Zealand, from Brazil to Beijing, we're not done."

Prokhorov is bankrolling an ambitious-yet-controversial project to take the Nets away from their New Jersey home, across the bay to Brooklyn, with a new name and a state-of-the-art home called the Barclays Center - named after the UK-based bank that also happens to sponsor the Premier League.

The links with football's most lucrative league do not end there. After watching Prokhorov's Nets twice beat the Toronto Raptors at the O2 Arena in London at the weekend, NBA Europe's senior vice president Sophie Goldschmidt explained they have been tapping into how the Premier League has captured the overseas market.

"We very much respect what the Premier League does in the UK and globally it has been a phenomenal success," she told BBC Sport.

"We have been looking and we are not shy of copying. We've had some discussions with the top teams to share some best practices and it was great to see so many footballers at the O2.

"There's a lot of admiration between the two sets of players and some synergies between the owners of Premier League teams and our owners."

Arsenal were well represented at Sunday's thrilling triple-overtime win for the Nets, with Cesc Fabregas, Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri among the famous faces.

Chelsea's Didier Drogba helped tip things off on Friday, while England captain and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand was an ambassador for the Basketball Week project that involved hosting coaching clinics around the country.

The Olympics is going to be a stepping stone to take basketball to the next level

NBA's Sophie Goldschmidt

The NBA actually hosted its first ever overseas regular-season games in Japan back in 1990 and has staged an annual pre-season fixture in London since 2007 - a marked contrast to the Premier League's struggles to introduce its 39th game proposal.

But this year's visit was another step towards turning the dream of a European division - with the English capital high on the list of potential host cities - into a reality.

Staging back-to-back regular-season games, rather than the previous one-off pre-season exhibitions, was, in part, to test how feasible it is to fly players across the Atlantic mid-season and to gauge the UK's appetite for such games - particularly between two of the league's strugglers.

There seemed to be some player fatigue towards the end of Saturday's game, but that could have been as much to do with the three extra periods as it was the jet lag.

There was no doubting the commitment of the fans, with a sell-out 18,689 crowd announced for both nights, although whether that would be translated into consistent support for a season that sees teams play 41 home games is another matter.

The NBA's deputy commissioner Adam Silver admits the aim of a division in Europe remains a work in progress and again stressed it is probably still a decade away from fruition. He suggested it could consist of four teams - with Paris, Hamburg and Berlin also mentioned as possible destinations - playing each other more regularly than their American rivals.

In the meantime, the NBA will concentrate on building on the foundations it has put down in the key markets around the world - with the UK at the top of its list.

Further games in Manchester involving teams from the NBA and the Women's NBA, as well as the US national men's and women's sides, were announced in February, while Goldschmidt suggested GB star Luol Deng, whose Chicago Bulls team played a pre-season game in London in 2009, could return.

"This week has passed all of our expectations," she added. "We'll be reviewing it very carefully and making plans for the future but this encourages us to do even more.

"Chicago had a great experience two years ago when they came over, they are in the middle of a great season and Luol's playing well and injury-free. We hope and expect that we'll bring him and the Bulls back to the UK for an NBA game some time in the future."

More pressing for both Deng and the NBA is Sunday's decision on whether to grant the Great Britain teams host places at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Players, coaches, owners and NBA officials were unanimous in their feeling that it would be foolish not to, if the recent upsurge in interest in the game is to continue.

"The 2012 Olympics is going to be a stepping stone to take basketball to the next level," said Goldschmidt.

But, as she was quick to point out, the only opinion that counts is that of basketball governing body Fiba.



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see also
Nets edge out Raptors in overtime
06 Mar 11 |  Basketball
Nets win first NBA game in London
04 Mar 11 |  Basketball
NBA stars to play in Manchester
28 Feb 11 |  Basketball
Deng inspires Bulls to London win
06 Oct 09 |  Basketball
Deng 'can be UK's Jordan'
07 Oct 09 |  Basketball


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