In a room full of sports-beat reporters, most of them men in or near their 40s, a young female reporter sitting up front asked a Russian billionaire, who was there to talk about a basketball team he had just purchased, about his dining preferences. What were some of his favorite New York restaurants, she wanted to know?
“This is very close to busket-bol,” the Russian billionaire said. (There was laughter.) “Unfortunately, when I am in New York only maximum for two, three days, my working day is full of bizness meeting. Maybe you could recommend me some places I vizeet next time. O.K.?”
“Um, I like Elaine’s,” replied the reporter, who earlier identified herself as being with the New York Post.
“Next time I’m in New York, it is the first place I vizeet,” he said. (More laughter.)
“But, like, what are some of your favorite places to go in New York?” she persisted.
Prokhorov sits down with Jay-Z: ‘I am really looking forward to hanging out with him.’
“In two years, I know what is my favorite place in New York: It is the Nets.”
Mikhail Dmitrievitch Prokhorov walked into the news conference at the Four Seasons in midtown on Wednesday, May 19, looking at first a little startled by the 15 video cameras and 50-plus reporters, and then, realizing he was onstage, fought the delighted smirk that began to spread across his face. The 44-year-old entrepreneur of precious metals (reported net worth: $17.8 billion) moves with a swagger that, dictated by his 6-foot-8 frame, forces his arms to swing and shoulders to cave in order to keep balance. He sat down at a miked table, smoothed his dark blue tie under the oversize gray suit and placed his hands firmly on the table.
Mr. Prokhorov was in town for 48 hours that, if spent properly and efficiently, would warm the press and thereby the public to the mysterious Russian who just a week prior to his visit was approved as the principal owner of the Brooklyn-bound New Jersey Nets. There was also, perhaps, some misinformation out there. In March, 60 Minutes aired a segment in which Mr. Prokhorov showed off his Kalashnikov rifles, his bars of solid gold and his dancing nightclub girls to an overwhelmed Steve Kroft.
“He is a macho man in Russia, and that is how macho men show off,” said Janna Bullock, the prominent, Russian-born Manhattan real estate developer. Ms. Bullock and Mr. Prokhorov belong to the same social clubs back in Mocow. “No one told him how to behave, that America is not as aggressive, not as sexual. But it is very endearing, actually. It’s like a child showing off his toys.”
So here was his chance-his time to show New Yorkers he is not a gangster, but the son of Tamara, a chemical engineer, and Dmitriy, a Soviet Sports Committee boss; a skilled biznessman who could make a losing sports franchise profitable; a man who was interested in busket-bol, not world domination. “Americans, I come in peace,” he joked that day.
To help him with all of these things, he brought along his publicity consultant, Ellen Pinchuk, who works for a Russian PR firm called Mikhailov & Partners; among its many impressive clients are Gazprom, the Maliy Theatre and BMW Group Russia. Less than a year ago, Ms. Pinchuk, who has film “crew” credits on Russian-themed movies like The Saint and Rasputin, was a Moscow-based journalist who wrote for Bloomberg News.
During the press conference, Ms. Pinchuk pursed her lips and picked at her fingers each time her client was asked tough questions: his business dealings in Zimbabwe; the team’s unfortunate record (12-70); will it continue to bleed money ($42.2 million in the recent fiscal year)? By the end, her water glass was empty. Mr. Prokhorov, however, performed expertly, answering each question with a joke and giving the sort of show that kept the reporters busy taking notes. When asked about the team’s global image, for instance, he replied, “If I tell you, I will have to kill you.” When the conference ended, his water glass was as full as when he first sat down.
“I think it let people know that this guy was very much enjoying the experience of being the source of curiosity and intrigue,” New York Times‘ sports reporter Howard Beck to The Observer. “It was like a Hollywood entrance.”
MR. PROKHOROV’S TOUR began the previous day with lunch with Jay-Z at the 40/40 Club; the rap mogul and part owner of the Nets has expressed interest in a more prominent role with the team. “Despite the fact that I am very far from rap music, we have a lot in common,” Mr. Prokhorov would say later. “We are both self-made, and I am really looking forward to hanging out with him.”
At 3 p.m., he joined Bruce Ratner at the Barclays Center in midtown to review mock-ups of the Brooklyn Nets arena; in the evening he traveled to Secaucus for the NBA lottery draw; and in the morning he left his midtown hotel for Gracie Mansion, where he joined Jay-Z and Mayor Bloomberg for breakfast. “My goal was to make him a committed fan of the Nets,” Mr. Prokhorov said later when The Observer asked about their conversation.
The 8 a.m. breakfast was followed by a 10 a.m. brunch with Nets beat reporters and then all reporters at 11:45, and the mandatory interview-for anyone entering the New York sports world-with WFAN’s Mike Francesa. At 4 p.m., he joined Mr. Ratner and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz in the Atlantic Center mall in Brooklyn, overlooking the stadium construction site that would become his “favorite place in New York.” “I asked him just one important thing, that he bring a winning team to Brooklyn,” Mr. Markowitz said. “He looked me in the eye and said he would try his best and was confident he could do so-which sounds to me like the Brooklyn attitude right there!”
Next came an unexpected afternoon meeting with a 28-year-old Brooklyn resident named Vinnie Rotondaro. Vinnie had just graduated from Columbia J-school, with five bylines at a blog called the Brooklyn Ink. “Basically, in my mind, it was a good opportunity,” said Vinnie. “I didn’t know exactly what they were thinking. … They’re like, ‘We’re passing up The Journal, The Times and ESPN,’ and all that stuff. And I was like, ‘Man, what is this all about?’ I’m not even that well established, obviously.”
At the Clover Club in Carroll Gardens, Vinnie and Mr. Prokhorov drank tea and talked for about 40 minutes. Why was Vinnie chosen when all other press requests were denied? “Mikhail is a well-known blogger in Russia,” a spokesperson for Mr. Prokhorov said, referring to the billionaire’s active LiveJournal. (He does not use a computer and writes out his entries by hand.) Also: Mr. Prokhorov wanted to support a young Brooklyn journalist.
It was, in other words, another brilliant, premeditated publicity move that neatly tied up Mr. Prokhorov’s two-day charm offensive.
“I think he was just an oligarch before, and now he is Mikhail Prokhorov,” said NBA commissioner David Stern, referring to the difference from that 60 Minutes interview to now. “I teased him about the line that he didn’t know where his yacht was, and his machine gun collection, but I think we now know him a little bit better.”
There was still one last stop to make before his departure: the River Café in Brooklyn for a dinner with Mr. Ratner, Nets CEO Brett Yormark and top executives from Ratner Enterprises as well as Mr. Prokhorov’s Onexim Group. In the private dining room, the party of about 16 enjoyed a dinner of royal white sturgeon caviar, Hudson Valley foi gras, filets of almond-crusted red snapper and racks of lamb. An observer said that Mr. Prokhorov and Mr. Ratner sat next to each other and made each other laugh the entire time. It was a night when rain had been predicted but never came. Out on the restaurant’s terrace, Mr. Prokhorov asked to have his picture taken with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. Then, apologizing to the group, Mr. Prokhorov rushed off in his car bound for the airport and boarded a 9 p.m. flight back to Moscow.