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.

He made his fortune in gold and other metals, and added to it by buying distressed assets at bargain prices. He saw the Nets as one of those bargains when he bought 80 percent of the team and part ownership of the arena under construction in Brooklyn for $200 million last year.

Prokhorov told a Russian financial journal last month that his investment will be worth $700 million when the Nets move into the new arena in 2012, and that he will earn an annual profit of $30 million. He predicted the Nets will be NBA champions by 2015.

Then again, he also predicted the Nets would be in the playoffs this season and they're a miserable 11-31 after breaking a six-game losing streak the same night Prokhorov stopped pursuing Anthony.

Still, there's a lot to like about the billionaire who conducts his news conferences in both Russian and English and wasn't afraid to taunt the Knicks by putting up a giant billboard featuring himself and Jay-Z near Madison Square Garden. He welcomes the media spotlight and isn't afraid to show off his burning desire to win in his American adventure.

Walking away from the Anthony deal couldn't have been easy. Prokhorov surely wants to make a big splash with a big player, and Anthony was the biggest name on the open market.

In a sport where the stars yield way too much power, he struck a rare blow for the guys who pay their salaries.

Keep this up, and there may be a day when the joke is no longer on the Nets.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org