NBA U: Lessons learned – An open letter from Mikhail Prokhorov

Soon I will be marking the sixth year of my ownership of the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. Just last month, I made the decision to give the club a fresh start with a new general manager and head coach. I wanted to share with you the lessons I have learned so far as the first foreign owner of an NBA franchise.

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Lesson 1: Some Things Money Can’t Buy
In 2012, the Nets relocated from New Jersey to a sparkling new arena in the heart of Brooklyn, and we wanted to make that move as splashy and fun as possible. So we went with the idea that no money was to be spared. Get high-value star players, whatever it takes. Bet on the quick win and throw everything we’ve got at it.

This got us to the playoffs three years consecutively, but not far enough. And, as the person who signed the checks, let me tell you, it cost a boatload. We had been told that you can’t buy a championship. Truer words were never spoken.

Lesson 2: Strategy Beats Opportunity
The problem for the Nets has been lack of concept. Instead of being opportunistic, working all the angles and trades, we must have a strategy about the team’s identity. Do we want to be choosy and wait for a star player to build around, maybe sacrificing a season to get him? Do we want to focus on the power of the whole by choosing young players with specific talents to work together? Will we choose mettle, commitment and heart over pure stats? Are we offense-based or defense-based? What are the core capabilities we will focus on to win in the long term? These are the questions that must be answered before any other decisions are made, and these are the questions at the top of the agenda for the new management team.

Lesson 3: Culture Trumps Talent
Getting everyone pulling in the same direction, working toward a single goal is not easy. I’ve seen over these years that personalities can strongly affect results. There can be differences of vision and opinion, and everyone should be heard, but, once we have a strategy, we all need to work together to fulfill it and put our individual issues behind us. It also means we need to have the courage to say, “We’ll not go for that player because, as much as he’s talented, he doesn’t fit into the culture we are building.” It takes guts to say “no” as much as it does to say “yes.”

Lesson 4: Brooklyn Means Business
Not everyone is made to play in Brooklyn. That’s one of the very important things we’ve learned. The fans are rightfully demanding, the market is high pressure and the media is doing their job and paying attention. We need coaches and players who reflect this, who are tough, and have a winning attitude with total commitment. This means we look for a team of people with a real passion to be here, and we don’t pull teeth trying to convince them. It’s an honor to play for Brooklyn. Period.

Lesson 5: Losing and Winning Go Hand in Hand
The irony of the whole thing is that, while we were finding our way, we hit a lot of success. Barclays Center, which was built amid a lot of controversy, has shown the ability of a first-class entertainment complex to positively impact a neighborhood, good for families and surrounding businesses. The addition of the New York Islanders means that Brooklyn now has two professional sports teams to get behind. Today we’re opening the Hospital for Special Surgery Training Center, a state-of-the-art practice facility in Brooklyn, which will further enhance the community. For three seasons, we made the playoffs and gave fans some fine moments. And, for me as an entrepreneur, the team has been a stellar investment. We must not stop with this, though. The final goal has always been and will always remain a championship.

Lesson 6: The Best Things in Life Are Free
And let’s not forget the fun – of rooting win or lose; of pulling off an upset; the hope of a new season; the friendship of new colleagues in the tremendous village of basketball lovers known as the NBA. Who can forget walking down a street in Moscow and seeing someone in a Nets jersey? These experiences continue to make it all worth it. It’s just a game, and, at the same time, so much more.

Lesson 7: Howdy, Stranger
If I had any concerns about being a “stranger in a strange land,” these six years have shown me that all anyone cares about in the U.S. is your commitment, not your passport, your accent or your home address. America, I said six years ago, I come in peace, and I’m still here in peace!

Lesson 8: To Err Is Human
It’s okay to admit mistakes, as long as you never admit defeat! At the Brooklyn Nets, we are now poised to refocus our efforts on disciplined analysis and planning. Our fans in Brooklyn and beyond deserve a team worthy of their time and devotion, and we’re going to give them one. Lessons learned.

Mikhail Prokhorov

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