- Associated Press - Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ever hear the one about the Russian billionaire who restored sanity _ albeit briefly _ to the NBA?

Surely there must be a punchline there somewhere. We are talking about the New Jersey Nets, after all, as hapless a team as you’ll find anywhere.

On the verge of landing a star, though, the Nets walked away. Mikhail Prokhorov said “Nyet!” to Carmelo Anthony, then uttered some words so unfamiliar in American sports that he might as well have said them in Russian.

“There comes a time when the price is simply too expensive,” Prokhorov said.

Before Commissioner David Stern gets too excited, the price Prokhorov was talking about wasn’t the $65 million contract extension the Nets needed Anthony to sign to make the deal. Prokhorov gladly would have paid that to get a cornerstone player for the next three years to compete in the New York market with the Knicks.

But Anthony is no Kobe Bryant or even LeBron James. A very good player, yes, but the next time he gets a team in the NBA Finals will be his first time.

And the Nets owner wasn’t going to mortgage the future of his franchise by trading half his team and a collection of draft picks in a three-team deal that would have sent Anthony to the Nets along with former Pistons teammates Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton.

Not for a player who seemed so unappreciative of Prokhorov’s efforts to land him that he couldn’t be bothered with talking to the league’s most fascinating owner. (Sorry Mark Cuban, but your act has long since grown old.)

“Maybe he sent me an e-mail but I never use computer, that’s why, maybe, I missed it or maybe carrier pigeon got lost,” Prokhorov said.

That same carrier pigeon must have been missing in action last summer after Prokhorov and part owner Jay-Z had a sit down with James, who never seemed to warm to the idea of some day playing in the new arena going up in Brooklyn. James was so dismissive of the Nets that he suggested last month that the team be on the losing end of contraction in the NBA.

The only Russian to own a major American sports franchise just doesn’t seem to be getting any respect, though Anthony did manage a halfhearted effort to reach out to him after the fact.

“He’s a very interesting man,” Anthony said following a 35-point performance Wednesday night in Denver’s 112-107 win over Oklahoma City. “So, for me to just be in the room with him and just have a conversation with him, I would have loved that.”

The thing is, Anthony only had to say yes to have that conversation. The Nets were so close to making the deal that Prokhorov was planning to fly to Denver on Thursday to talk to the reluctant star, but he didn’t want to waste his time if Anthony wasn’t willing to sign a contract extension.

So Prokhorov pulled the plug in a swift and stunning conclusion to a pursuit that had gone on for months. Equally stunning is that he vowed not to change his mind even though the Nets are in desperate need of a star with drawing power.

Other owners would have left the door open, if only because other owners can’t seem to control themselves when they see a player they really want. But Prokhorov, whom Forbes estimated last year to be worth $13.4 billion, is one oligarch who does things his own way.

Story Continues →