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Did Vladimir Putin pressure Mikhail Prokhorov to sell the Brooklyn Nets?

Contact The Author When Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov sold the Brooklyn Nets more than two years ago, he gave up ownership of the NBA franchise partly because of pressure from Vladimir Putin, The Post has learned. Events that led Prokhorov’s 2019 sale of the Nets and Barclays Center to Chinese billionaire Joe Tsai stretch back five years earlier, according to sources close to the situation. At the time, the US and European Union had begun to apply sanctions on Russia for taking over Crimea. But as tensions between the US and Russia over Crimea grew, Putin in 2016 also began pressuring Prokhorov to sell the Nets, according to sources. That’s because Putin, especially during times of political turmoil, will test the loyalty of oligarchs with assets in the West to show they won’t get too close to the US or Europe, according to one source close to the situation. “Putin strongly suggested he sell the Nets,” the source said. And if Prokhorov refused, he risked losing his considerable assets in Russia. “You couldn’t be pro-Russian and own an NBA team,” another source who knows Prokhorov said. A spokesman for Prokhorov on Tuesday denied that Putin had pushed for the Nets sale. “Mikhail had said for years before Joe Tsai appeared that he was open for discussion about the Nets. He was not pressured by anyone to sell, unless you mean the ‘pressure’ of the attractive offer he received for the team and the arena at the time.” The Nets declined to comment. Asked by a reporter in 2015 why he only attended a few Nets games a year, Prokhorov’s response was vague, but at least clear that the Western sanctions — despite being far lighter than what Russian oligarchs are facing now — were a problem. “Sanctions were imposed, and these sanctions, they have created some opportunities and some challenges for businessmen in Russia,” Prokhorov said. “And I needed to be … handling and managing my business and my assets, so it was very busy.” As the pressure mounted, Prokhorov in August 2017 sold Tsai a 49% stake in the Nets for $1 billion. The following year, the US Treasury Department turned up the heat by issuing a list of Kremlin-friendly Russian tycoons who have flourished under Putin. Prokhorov was on the list. Prokhorov sold full ownership of the Nets to Tsai in September 2019 for $2.35 billion, the most ever paid for a sports team. Prokhorov sold the Barclays Center to Tsai for an additional $1 billion. Insiders say the NBA was relieved. That’s because the league likewise had been concerned that tougher sanctions against Russian oligarchs could force it into an awkward spot for having approved Prokhorov as an owner, sources said. The 6-foot-8, Moscow-born metals tycoon — who bought the Nets in 2010 and promised he would make them NBA champs — didn’t seem to much enjoy owning the team, the source said, and is no longer seen courtside at NBA games. “He’s never in the US,” the source said, adding that Prokhorov, whose net worth is estimated at $11.8 billion by Forbes, is not a US citizen. “He’s mostly in France.” If Prokhorov hadn’t done the deal, insiders say, he may have landed in a similar spot as fellow Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who last week said he was handing over stewardship of his Chelsea FC soccer club in the UK to trustees. Abramovich may have to decide soon whether he is loyal to Putin, who will likely demand that Abramovich support him publicly or simply sell his team, according to the source. Accordingly, Abramovich faces the danger not only of being forced to sell Chelsea FC, but also seeing the proceeds frozen by the British government. “I don’t see how he can balance that in the long term. This is not a situation where you can straddle both sides,” the source said. “Roman still has massive assets in Russia.”

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