Last Wednesday afternoon, James Dolan rose from his stool on a makeshift stage in the bowels of Madison Square Garden and shuffled to the podium to introduce Carmelo Anthony, the unstoppable small forward for whom the Knicks had just dealt half of their starting lineup to anoint as the team’s latest savior.
“While we have always respected Carmelo as a player, when we met the other night–I enjoyed that meeting, liked him a lot–it was clear he wanted to come to our city and play for our franchise,” Mr. Dolan said.
The emphasis was his.
After monopolizing the five boroughs for the past five decades, Mr. Dolan’s Knicks are suddenly on the defensive.
Crowding the city’s basketball spotlight is an outsize Russian billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov, who, in May of last year, purchased the lowly New Jersey Nets–the vagabond stepchild now bound for Brooklyn–and declared, in all his Bond-villain blandness, that he would “turn Knicks fans into Nets fans.”
As Mr. Anthony dangled from Denver and the Knicks demurred on sealing a deal, Mr. Prokhorov made a last-minute, over-the-top offer that included the Nets’ best player, its top prospect and four first-round draft picks, all in the hopes of denying the Knicks their biggest swap since Bernard King in the early 1980s, and luring the Brooklyn-born Mr. Anthony back home.
Mr. Dolan, in turn, went all in, throwing in a package of young talent that seemed to belie the patient, piece-by-piece approach that had dragged the franchise back to respectability under his resident basketball guru, general manager Donnie Walsh.
“The Nets are trying to hang in the ball game, that’s why we had to give up so much,” said Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who sat in the front row alongside other Knicks legends during Mr. Anthony’s introductory press conference.
“There’s clearly a rivalry going,” said Robert Boland, a professor of sports management at N.Y.U., who said the greatest threat to any franchise is losing the exclusivity of its market. “It seems that Prokhorov is not going to let this thing go without a battle. He’s going to fight in the streets for this one.”
He already has, actually.
Shortly after buying the team, Mr. Prokhorov plastered a 225-foot billboard of himself and co-owner Jay-Z–under the headline “The Blueprint for Greatness”–in plain view of the Knicks’ offices at 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, and rented his own office space at Aby Rosen’s Seagram Building in midtown.
In October, Mr. Dolan returned the volleys with a massive billboard of star forward Amar’e Stoudemire–under the banner “BROOKLYN REPRESENT”–just a few blocks from the Nets’ nascent arena at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Yards.
The budding rivalry stands to be one of the more colorful conflicts in the annals of New York sports.
Mr. Dolan is squat, with a big belly and a bush of brown hair above a face straight out of a Thomas Nast cartoon; he grew up on Long Island, where he now lives with his wife and children, and is a proud teetotaling 12-stepper.
Mr. Prokhorov is a slender 6-foot-8, with a physique carefully refined by twice-daily workouts, who calls his 21,500-square-foot mansion on the outskirts of Moscow his “bachelor pad,” and in 2007 was detained for 88 hours in France for allegedly flying in Russian prostitutes. He frequents Moscow’s clubs but claims never to have consumed more than a single sip of vodka.
Mr. Dolan nixed his dreams of being a rock star while a student at SUNY-New Paltz, but still toils in a blues band, J.D. and the Straight Shot, and was an avid sailor and competitive yachter before giving up the sport a few years ago.
Mr. Prokhorov did an obligatory stint in the Soviet Army as a youth, and still enjoys shooting AK-47s; he eschews yachting for a 300-pound jet ski.
Mr. Dolan mostly shuns the media, running what has been characterized in the past as a draconian press operation that closely monitors nearly every word uttered by Garden employees and bounds departing ones with strict nondisclosure agreements.
Mr. Prokhorov claims to have funded an opposition newspaper in the mining town he controlled–just to keep a healthy dose of dissent–and, at times, he might be too revealing for his own good. Last year, he showed off his favorite Kalashnikov to 60 Minutes, and before an interview last month, he challenged a reporter to match him in the eye-hand exercises of Tescao, a Tibetan martial art.
(A Knicks spokesman said Mr. Dolan and other Garden officials were unavailable for comment. Mr. Prokhorov was heli-skiing in British Columbia; a spokesperson said he was unavailable to speak.)
Mr. Dolan was groomed from a young age to take over his father’s Cablevision empire, selling subscriptions and decamping to Cleveland to start a sports radio station, all while preparing to succeed his father as CEO.
Mr. Prokhorov was reared in a small apartment in Soviet Russia, and his first business venture involved stone-washing jeans to sell during perestroika, followed by a rise through the ranks of post-Soviet banking before coming to dominate the Russian mining market.
They share at least one common trait: Both want to rule New York’s basketball market.