NBA approves sale of Nets to Russian tycoon

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Russian tycoon's bid to purchase the New Jersey Nets won approval from the National Basketball Association Tuesday, making him the league's first majority investor from outside North America.

Mikhail Prokhorov, a nickel magnate and one of Russia's richest men, signed a letter of intent in September to acquire and move the team to Brooklyn, but a vote to approve the sale was delayed until a firm date was set for the state of New York to take possession of the arena site.

"We are pleased that the NBA's Board of Governors approved Mikhail Prokhorov's purchase of majority ownership of the Nets," NBA Commissioner David Stern said in a statement.

Under the agreement, Onexim, Prokhorov's investment group, will invest $200 million and make certain contingent funding commitments to buy 45 percent of the arena project and 80 percent of the team.

The Nets, who this season set a record for the worst start to an NBA campaign when they went 0-18, finished with a league-worst 12-70 mark.

U.S. Congressman Bill Pascrell, who represents the eighth congressional district of New Jersey, is a vocal opponent of the sale to Prokhorov and has called for investigations into the Russian's business dealings in Zimbabwe.

Pascrell even asked U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner earlier this year to investigate whether Prokhorov's company is in violation of breaching sanctions imposed on the southern African country.

"I am disappointed in the NBA for holding this vote while questions still remain as to the extent of Mr. Prokhorov's business ties to the brutal regime in Zimbabwe," Pascrell said in a statement.

NBA rules require background checks on a new owner as well as approval by 75 percent of the 30 team owners. Details of the vote were not provided by the league.

The sale of the Nets paves the way for the end of the team's stay in New Jersey after over 30 years in the state, and creates a second team in New York -- home to the Knicks.

(Writing by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Steve Ginsburg)