The Vault, 6:40 p.m. Past the hive of offices, the team facilities, the glass walls of the courtside club; through the din, through the doors, through the entry, to a discreet, dark hush.
The room is oddly shaped, its walls akimbo. There are no windows. Short metallic curtains, glinting in the low light, hang from the ceiling in geometric arrangements; cocktail tables hold neat clusters of white roses. Pendant light fixtures, bronze polyhedrons with intricate cutouts, cast lacelike shadows on the gray and pale gold walls. A bar occupies one corner, with a bartender who looks a little bored. Barclays Center has 11 of these “ultra-luxurious suites,” touted by the arena’s website as its “most exclusive destination.” (Jay Z, who “inspired” the Vault, owns one.) One of these suites will cost you a little more than half a million dollars for the season, though this particular one would cost a billion, maybe two. There are rumors that its owner is looking for an out.
In the Vault on this night, November 3, is a woman who represents the owner’s interests. Her name is Irina Pavlova. She is diminutive, but with a strikingly vibrant presence, not unlike a bird. She wears a black ribbed skirt and a black fitted jacket that frames the bright plumage of a blazing yellow shirt. Her buoyant blonde hair is burnished by the low brass light; her nails are painted jet black. Perched on a leather couch in a corner of the room, as if ready to take flight, she speaks softly but intently in Russian to a man in a gray suit; it is Sergei Kushchenko, a legendary Russian basketball executive and one of Mikhail Prokhorov’s closest allies.
It is nearly game time. Pavlova stands up, smooths her skirt, takes her leave. She glances at her phone, its screen crammed with texts: so-and-so needs an extra ticket, so-and-so doesn’t know where to go, so-and-so wants an escort, and can’t Pavlova come herself? Pavlova is president of Onexim Sports and Entertainment Holding and is the official conduit between the Nets business management, the NBA, and ownership. She is on the board of directors of the Nets and of Brooklyn Arena LLC, the company that runs Barclays Center, and she represents the team on the league’s Board of Governors, the council of all NBA teams’ owners. On some days, her attention is preoccupied by spreadsheets, contracts, statements, meetings, phone calls, emails. She has to think about issuing bonds for the new practice facility, or digital marketing initiatives, or how to balance Prokhorov’s majority interest in the Nets with his minority interest in the arena when the circus, quite literally, comes to town. This day, though, is different; tonight is the Brooklyn Nets home opener. It is, she likes to say, a huge party, one with 18,000 guests. As it happens, one of them is the owner of the chairman’s Vault. Mikhail Prokhorov is in the house. He has made the long trip from Moscow for a rare visit to the Brooklyn Nets, along with 30 or so guests — advisers, associates, friends, his Jet Ski instructor. He is somewhere in the arena at that moment, making his presence felt.
Pavlova strides out of the suite, plunging into the rush of the crowd. She walks fast, the red soles of her black Louboutin stilettos flashing. Everywhere there is the sharp air of anticipation, the distant thump of music, the buzz of voices, some close, some directed at her. Irina! Her attention is given freely — to security guards, colleagues, gawking fans; to people speaking Russian, English, Brooklynese. She has a voice that can travel far, a smile that can travel farther. A few people she passes require something a little extra — a soft touch of the forearm, kisses on the cheeks, a little melody in her lilting Russian voice. Even then, she only seems to stop — in reality, she barely slows. This is her charm, this is what people usually first mention when they talk about her — her extraordinary, almost genius ability for making people feel the full force of her attention. “Some people have this talent: They can talk to you for 30 seconds and then disappear, but still make you feel really good,” says her friend and former Nets colleague Milton Lee. “She has that.”
She would make a perfect hostess. It seems almost cruel to say so; she is one of the top executives of the Brooklyn Nets, one of the highest-ranking women in all of professional sports; she is entrusted with the authority of one of the world’s more powerful men. She is hardly a woman who just throws parties. Were she a man, it would be hard to imagine her fielding texts asking her to escort rich businessmen from the gift shop to their seats. But there it is; one cannot help but feel it. And one senses that if she could, she would buy the flowers herself. She has never hidden the fact that she is a woman. She seems to embrace it. She uses her smile; she banters; she dresses to flatter her figure. She has experienced, of course, sneering comments and quick dismissals, and she knows that the golf course can turn business into a boys’ club. But she claims her gender isn’t a disadvantage — not even in the boardroom. “Actually, I find that when there are few women in the room with men, they actually listen to what you have to say,” she says. “Because it’s kind of more unusual, and I am never shy about voicing my opinions when I have them.” (It is true; she is direct — this is usually the second thing, after her unusual ability to connect with people, that people mention about her.) Besides, it is impossible to watch her command the hall at Barclays and not see that while this may be like a party, a night of wine and small talk and even sports, this is really business.
She spots a familiar figure, Dmitry Razumov, and finally comes to a halt. Pavlova and Razumov greet each other with an easy intimacy. They have known each other for more than a quarter-century, since they were teenagers, back when Russia was the Soviet Union, back when — they sometimes remind each other — there was only one decent pizza place in Moscow. How quickly things changed. Razumov was 26 when he became the deputy CEO of mergers and acquisitions at Norilsk Nickel, which was Russia’s largest nickel and palladium producer, in 2001, the same year Prokhorov took over management of the company. Still not yet 40, he is now CEO of Onexim, Prokhorov’s investment fund, which has interests in mining, media, real estate, financial services, tech, and more. He is also the chairman of the Brooklyn Nets and one of its most influential decision-makers. While Pavlova is Prokhorov’s representative in business operations, Razumov is his proxy in basketball operations, which makes him general manager Billy King’s chief point of contact. Razumov was involved in the Nets’ biggest deals — Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett — and sits in on every draft. He was instrumental in bringing in Jason Kidd as the Nets’ coach last season, and in negotiating the compensation they received when Kidd forced his way out and left for the Bucks. Now, despite the long trip from Moscow, Razumov appears fresh, his beard trim, his hair styled and gelled. He wears a blazer made of leather so thin, so soft, that it almost begged to be touched. He and Pavlova walk a ways together before Razumov disappears into an office and Pavlova continues down the hall. The energy is starting to build, the stands are filling, the players are warming up, the time is passing. There is still much to do. But first, she makes her way into the media room — to Mikhail Prokhorov.
He stands at the far end of the room, surrounded by reporters, an impressive promontory rising out of the sea of small voice recorders thrust in his direction. His appearance — the boxy sports jacket; the open shirt collar; the loose, generic medium-wash jeans; the dark, hooded, unreadable eyes; the rough-hewn, pale face; the military-style crop of the hair, sharpening to a prow at the crown — suggests both effortful casualness and effortless control. Since buying the Nets in 2010, he has made an effort to be liked, or at least to be entertaining. Certainly, he is hard to ignore — a 6-foot-8 Russian billionaire who was shown on 60 Minutes with a machine gun and a bevy of models. While buying the team, he took lessons in how to make eye contact, and, according to The New York Times Magazine, studied tapes of the interview between Katie Couric and Sarah Palin for lessons in what not to do. When he first came to the United States, he invited Americans to call him “Mike.” (Pavlova addresses him by his patronymic, Mikhail Dmitrievich, a sign of respect. When referring to him in English, she calls him “Michael” — Mike, she says with a laugh, “is too much.”) He has an American PR person help him prepare what to say to the press. Addressing reporters, his expression is not unfriendly; he seems to be enjoying himself.
A large man with a tiny Nets pin attached to the lapel of his suit sees Pavlova slip in and shoots her a look. He hands her a phone. On the screen is a tweet quoting what Prokhorov had said just moments earlier. Asked about Kidd’s departure only weeks after leading the Nets to the second round of the playoffs, leaving a trail of recriminations — a fiasco involving what appeared to the public as a failed palace coup — Prokhorov was ready with a quip. “I think there is a nice proverb in English,” Prokhorov had just said. “Don’t let the door hit you where the good lord has split you.” Pavlova reads the tweet and returns the half-amused, half-weary look back.
When the press conference is over, though, she greets Prokhorov with a smile. In the elevator on the way up to his box, she chides him in a friendly way for stirring the pot; he smiles and shrugs it off. His provocative words will be all over the Internet within hours, but there is no time to think about it now. After a quick visit to his box — kisses, exclamations, everything in Russian — she hurries down to the court. There are pecks on the cheek and a clutch of the shoulders for a row of WAGs; more hellos, more greetings, and a stop by the Nets’ bench, where Lionel Hollins, the team’s new head coach, stands waiting for the warm-ups to end. Hollins is dapper in a navy suit with a barely discernible, pale checked pattern; a bright tangerine, polka-dotted tie; and a pocket square to match. She has come down to see him; she wants to wish him good luck.
Hollins asks her whether Prokhorov wants to come to the locker room to say a few words to the team. She cheerfully, gently tells him no. It’s not Prokhorov’s way. Later, she would tell me that, to her knowledge, Prokhorov has never been in the locker room. He does not interact much with the players. “I understand,” Pavlova adds. It could be harder for him to consider players as business assets if he’d met their families, if he knew they’ve just bought a house.
Tonight she will be in the owner’s suite with Prokhorov, high above the court. Earlier this morning, she had told me that he likes to watch from up high in order to take the whole game in view. “He looks at the ball movement and strategy and positioning and all that,” she explained, which is doubtlessly true. He is not there to be Mark Cuban, to be a fan. But he also likes to keep his distance.
“He’ll be in his box,” Pavlova tells Hollins. Prokhorov has not yet met Hollins — his fourth coach in his four years of owning the team — in person. They turn around and look up, to the row of suites, to the place where the Nets’ owner is visible — watching, waiting, a little bit apart. Pavlova points him out.
David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
As for herself, she likes being down on the court. For most home games, she’ll sit right by the scorer’s table, where she can hear the yelling on the court, can feel the vibrations of the floor. She likes the fluidity, the physicality, the incredible energy, the competitiveness; she calls herself one of the Nets’ biggest fans. She bounces and groans and screams until she’s hoarse; she says Brookie Brookie Brookie under her breath when Brook Lopez has the ball in the post; she worries over KG’s moods. For Halloween, three days earlier, she dressed up as a Brooklynette.
Dmitry Razumov was the one who told her about the job. It was 2009; she was unemployed, having left a position at Google, and living in Moscow. They were having dinner, old friends catching up, at a restaurant called Aist — Russian for “The Stork.” He started talking about “this amazing deal,” she recalls, he was working on with Prokhorov. Prokhorov had been pushed out of his commodities holdings by his partner at just the right moment, before the global recession (there’s a story; it involves a few nights in a French jail and some suspected prostitutes). He was flush with cash and hunting for distressed assets. He had one in mind: the worst team in the NBA. They were going to build a new arena in Brooklyn, Razumov told Pavlova, move the team from New Jersey, attract “all these free agents,” and turn the team around.
“We’re going to need someone in New York to help run it,” Razumov said. Pavlova told him that she’d be happy to put him in touch with some people she knew there. “No,” he responded. “I was actually thinking of you.”
She was shocked. She had no experience in sports management, and she knew nothing about basketball. But Razumov reassured her that the job wouldn’t require running the team. She would be involved only on the business side, and she could figure the business out, because she had good experience and she was smart. As it happened, she was about to go on a trip to New York for a little shopping and to visit some friends. Razumov suggested that while she was there, she meet Onexim’s Christophe Charlier, who was negotiating the deal on Prokhorov’s behalf. Pavlova expected to speak with Charlier for five minutes and do little more than shake his hand. Instead, she found herself in a seven-hour meeting with the NBA, “like 15 men around the table talking about valuations and bonds and all that stuff.” She sat in on meetings for four days. By the time she met with Prokhorov back in Russia, she knew she wanted the job.
When she walked into his office, she thought she was walking into an interview. Instead, Prokhorov’s first words to her were, “My general director, my CEO” — Razumov — “tells me that I need to get to know you better.” At that point, the end of 2009, the deal wasn’t yet done. The agreement to buy an 80 percent stake in the Nets and a 45 percent stake in the new arena from developer Bruce Ratner was contingent on the upcoming sale of bonds for the arena’s construction. It was already November, close to Thanksgiving, and the sale had to happen before the end of the year. Pavlova asked Prokhorov what would happen if it fell through. “Well,” he answered, “if it’s not this deal, then it will be another deal.”
The bond sale was completed before Christmas, and Pavlova started splitting her time between Moscow and New York. She started studying real estate, sports management, NBA governance. She downloaded books on her Kindle, looked up “basketball” on Wikipedia, and started clicking through terms, one leading to another. Pick-and-roll defense. Swingman. She still had never seen a basketball game live.
On May 12, 2010, the deal closed. Prokhorov agreed to pay around $200 million in cash, to assume $160.5 million of the team’s existing debt, and to pay about $60 million to cover the team’s losses during its final two years in New Jersey. Suddenly, Pavlova was in a unique position — the representative of the NBA’s only foreign owner. She wasn’t quite a member of the world’s most exclusive club, but she had a claim — a seat on the NBA’s Board of Governors. She is one of three women who attend the meetings representing their teams. Overnight, she became one of the most powerful women in professional sports.
Pavlova calls herself a fatalist, only half-joking or maybe not at all. The probable outcome is improbability; change is what she knows. “Whenever I interviewed for jobs,” she tells me, “they asked me, how do I deal with change? I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Look where I am from!’”
Pavlova was actually born in New York. Her father worked as a Soviet translator at the United Nations, only a mile or so from where she lives now. She moved to Moscow when she was still a baby. Then, when Pavlova was 10, after a brief stint in Geneva, her family came to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where her father was a diplomat at the Soviet embassy. It was the early ’80s, the height of the Cold War. She had glimpses of American life from trips to the pool or television, which taught her perfectly idiomatic English. She was, she says, a little like the woman in the movie Splash, the mermaid who becomes human and learns English from watching television. “She just speaks commercials. I was kind of like that. I spoke commercials.” Sometimes she yearned to go to an American school instead of a Soviet one, where the rules were strict and the curriculum rigid; in Russia, all children across the country even wore the same uniform. But she had her friends, she had her life, and the life was happy enough. It was in the United States, but it was Russian, and it was what she knew.
She found the feeling of freedom when she returned to Moscow. Her family moved back in 1985, when she was 15. No one had money; those who lived in a two-bedroom apartment considered themselves lucky, because there were people with less. What she and her friends had was the metro and the bus, a sense of the city’s vastness — and they had each other. “You just kind of learn, really, to rely on each other,” Pavlova remembers. “The friendships are much closer than they usually are here or they are now for kids growing up in Russia.” They were starting to date, to explore; they were on the cusp of adulthood. And as they grew, the country also came to the cusp of something new, some unimaginable change. Pavlova was in college in Moscow when Communism fell.
She majored in Spanish, working as a translator on the side and after graduation. Jobs weren’t easy to come by, and she began to find it boring; she was frustrated at having to translate exactly what was said, no matter how stupid, and feeling limited by her skills. Her father had been a translator and then a diplomat, but her world had suddenly become bigger than his had been. There were new opportunities. A Russian could travel; she could go to Amsterdam just to see the tulips. She could get a job in the United States. One of Pavlova’s clients worked with Prudential and told her that their analyst program was looking for a couple of Eastern Europeans. He suggested she apply.
Prudential took her to London and then to Hoboken. She worked in Newark, only a block or so from where the Nets would play for two seasons. On the train to the airport when the analyst program was over, she swore to herself that she would never set foot in Newark again — a vow she’d remember when she rode the same train in the other direction in 2010. Not for nothing is she a fatalist.
Pavlova had assumed she’d return to Moscow when the analyst program was over. But on summer visits back to her home city, she noticed how it was changing. “Moscow was so scary,” she tells me. “Crime was out of control, people were getting killed for a pair of sneakers and a leather jacket. And I just thought, I am never coming back here.”
Instead, she went to Stanford for business school, witnessed the rise of Silicon Valley firsthand, and fell in love with California. She didn’t want to leave when business school was over, and so she stayed. After a year and a half in Los Angeles, she moved to San Francisco to work at a start-up. It was the late ’90s, and it seemed the thing to do. The start-up failed, so she went to another; that failed, too. She landed in finance and consulting.
In the summer of 2004, though, while visiting friends and family back in Russia, she noticed that the atmosphere in Moscow had changed again. In place of fear, there was hope; instead of despair, hope. When she was with her Russian friends, she felt a warmth, a spontaneous kinship, an openness that she found nowhere else. There were parties, clubs, new businesses. Moscow was fun again. She gave herself a year to leave San Francisco, sold her car, and moved back to Russia in 2005. Soon after that, Pavlova heard about the possibility of working at Google, which at the time had no office in Russia. When Google hired her as the head of its strategic partnerships in Russia, she became Google’s first employee in Moscow.
It wasn’t an easy job, or an entirely happy one. She found Google’s corporate structure bureaucratic; every decision had to be routed through London and often all the way to Mountain View. She was startled to encounter pervasive and persistent mistrust about doing business in Russia. “We were fighting a lot of battles just convincing people, ‘You hired us for a reason and we know how things are done here, or at least we can find out,’” she says. The country manager, who had come from Russia’s version of Amazon, sometimes brought the country manager of Apple onto conference calls so that he would have backup when he explained how the Russian system worked. In 2008, she left. If not this, then something else.
The office of Onexim Sports and Entertainment, Prokhorov’s company, floats 26 floors above the east side of Manhattan’s midtown. It is calm and pristine, an oasis of wood, white, and muted color; even the smell has the rich warmth of a forest. There is a large painting of a pale lion on the wall, and exquisitely simple Scandinavian-style chairs, and a conference table with a gorgeous scar of natural imperfection. The décor is Razumov’s doing, Pavlova said; he takes a serious interest in interior design and collecting art. The part of the office that Pavlova herself is most proud of is the top-of-the-line coffee machine, which, she confides, cost more than her first car. In the reception area, where Pavlova’s assistant, Elaine Sedelnikova, sits, the only personal touch is a small, cheerful lineup of five unnested Russian dolls, a gift that Pavlova picked up for Sedelnikova on a trip back home. “I never thought about them until I left home,” Sedelnikova says almost sheepishly, looking at their brightly colored, lacquered receding shapes.
When Pavlova came to New York, at the start of 2010, she had no office, no assistant, no apartment — only a laptop and stacks of paperwork, as she made sure that the money hit the right accounts, the right wires. The New Jersey Nets finished the 2009-10 season 12-70, their worst record in franchise history; their attendance ranked last in the league; their jersey sales were worse than anemic; their new arena was a massive hole in the dirt of downtown Brooklyn. The plan was for the arena to open at the start of the 2012 season. That gave Prokhorov’s people only two years to move, rebuild, and rebrand the team, and only two years to build a billion-dollar home. (“I have some friends that take longer to remodel their apartments,” Pavlova jokes.) But it also gave them two years to figure out what they were doing. New Jersey was “a training ground,” says Nets CEO Brett Yormark. “Once we were in Brooklyn, we had only one chance to do it right.”
Everything was new. Not only did Pavlova have to try to master the sports business, the entertainment business, the real estate business — and to figure out how to translate the Russian side to the Americans and the American side to the Russians — she also had to navigate the strange, insular, sui generis world of the NBA. She had to learn merchandising rules, TV rights, the tense dynamics between small-market teams and big ones. At one of her first Board of Governors meetings, the subject was revenue sharing, which surprised her. “The first postulate of Communism is, ‘From everyone according to their abilities and to everyone according to their needs.’ I grew up with this,” she told the room full of powerful and wealthy men. She laughs at the memory. “I remember David Stern saying, like, ‘Really? How is it working?’” She shook her head. “You think you’re in this birthplace of capitalism, and you end up being the biggest capitalist in the room.”
Pavlova sat in on meetings, sought mentors, asked questions, and tried to sort out the critical issues — which weren’t always obvious. Take the arena that was under construction. Prokhorov’s team was arriving in the middle of a process that had weathered a global recession, loud and persistent protests from local activists, and spiraling costs. What’s more, their occupancy was an unusual arrangement; most teams have a pure tenant-landlord relationship or full control. Pavlova quickly saw the difficulty in this case: Prokhorov owned only 45 percent of the arena, and what was good for the Nets wasn’t always what was most beneficial for the building — or for Ratner, who remained the stadium’s majority owner. The Nets weren’t in a position to simply make demands and impose their will. “That was something she focused on right away, in the first couple of meetings,” David Carlock, a real estate development adviser who worked with Prokhorov’s team, told me. Once the team figured out the Nets’ needs, Carlock said, “Irina took the lead. She reached out through back channels to key point people on [Ratner’s real estate management firm] Forest City in a way that I really couldn’t. No one told her to do that. She started building relationships in the context of that discussion.”
Her social acumen was turning out to be as crucial as her CFA. “All that stuff I slept through in business school — culture, building relationships — that is the important stuff,” Pavlova says. She connects with people quickly, in spite of — or because of — her penchant for honesty. “Americans tend to be very polite and say things they think people want to hear. It’s part of our social culture,” says Adam Violich, one of Pavlova’s friends from business school. “When you meet people at a place like Stanford, which is very collegial, you get a lot of B.S. Irina doesn’t do that. She’s the most straightforward person I’ve ever met.”
Her vivid, unapologetic personality goes some way toward making up for the distance of the owner she represents. He wants to be amusing, to be memorable, but he is also remote, and nearly 5,000 miles away. She is always there, at games, at All-Star Weekends, at every meeting where it might help to have his presence felt. She is Russian — there is never any forgetting it; she has the accent, the style — but she has a way of connecting with everyone regardless of their background. She also has a way of holding her own ground. Sometimes this comes out in surprising ways — as in her dealing with Nets fans on social media. She is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the team. Trolls and the Nets’ critics can set her off, especially if she thinks they’re being unfair or wrong. Sometimes she’s pulled into Twitter fights. She used to respond to negative comments on Nets Daily, an SBNation fan site, so compulsively that she asked the administrators to deactivate her account. When they told her it was impossible, she asked them to block her so that she couldn’t post.
“I find her to be very direct,” the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, told me, “sometimes so much so that— ” He cut himself off. “With a smile on her face, she doesn’t pull punches. She can be sarcastic too. There’s never a doubt where she stands, and therefore where the Nets stand.” Silver and Pavlova share a sense of humor, and he praises her intelligence. But there’s more than that. “She’s often been a very helpful sounding board for me,” he said, and she’ll call him to volunteer her opinion and the Nets’ position on something she’s read. There are no sacred cows for her. “She calls it straight.”
Her friend B. Andrew Torrey, an interior designer whom she met in an elevator on the way to a party at the violinist Joshua Bell’s apartment, once visited Barclays Center with her while it was still under construction. “She, of course, was in a Chanel jacket, fabulous hair, looked incredible head to toe. She had these big glamorous sunglasses on. She looked like a movie star,” he said. The man at the booth gave her one glance and brushed her off. “She literally went full Russian,” Torrey remembered. “Her voice dropped, her accent came out, and I think the guy’s hair on the back of his neck went up. He jumped up. It was very respectful, but there was no mistaking the authority in her voice. The guy ran to find the foreman.”
When the Nets’ marketing and ticket sales teams meet, they ask themselves a question: What story can we tell? Pavlova’s job, on one level, is very simple: translate that narrative for ownership and make sure that it serves the owner’s interests.
At first, the story was about an arrival, an image: black and silver, a sculpture of an arena, Beyoncé and Jay Z. HELLO BROOKLYN — the posters papered the town. The marketing campaign was aggressive, unapologetic — and to a large extent, it worked. In the Nets’ first year in Brooklyn, sales of team merchandise went from 31st — behind the defunct SuperSonics — to fourth, and ticket revenue went from 27th in the league to sixth.
The story back then wasn’t about winning, but it was about a desire to win. Prokhorov did not buy this team with the intention of being patient. He promised a championship within five years, or else he, notoriously a bachelor, would get married. Pavlova always laughs when she’s reminded of his vow. She responds with a smile and some common sense. “It’s like, what did people expect a new owner to say? ‘Well, maybe we’ll get a championship, I don’t know, in 20 years.’ Or, ‘Ehhhh, we’re not really going to compete for a championship, we’re just going to have fun!’” she told me. “He put a stake in the ground. Obviously we’ll try to get there. Whether we do or not is a different story.”
His vow may have been rhetorical, a fun little bit of bravado in front of the press, but it was reflected in his front office’s moves. The Nets were either going to win soon or not at all. They traded for stars on the downswing of their careers and gutted their first-round draft picks for the rest of the decade in the process. They got Deron Williams for the young prospect Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, a 2011 unprotected first-rounder, and a 2011 protected first-rounder; they got Joe Johnson, two years into a $123.7 million contract, for a swap that included Houston’s 2013 first-rounder, Brooklyn’s 2017 second-rounder, and Atlanta’s right to swap first-rounders in 2014 and 2015. In Prokhorov’s terms, a desire to win meant a desire to win immediately, and that meant a willingness to spend. He had billions of dollars, and his general manager, Billy King, was using them.
In 2013, the end of the team’s first year in Brooklyn, the team lost a seven-game series to the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Then last year, the Nets turned around a terrible start under Kidd and surged into the postseason, beating the Raptors in the first round, taking Game 7 on the road. But the public high after making the second round — which carried into the announcement of a new practice facility, a project that Pavlova was particularly involved in — crashed with the astounding news of Kidd’s decision to bolt. The coach, who had become increasingly concerned about the GM’s approach, had tried to maneuver for a position above King and, when that failed, jumped to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Pavlova had liked Kidd. She’s quick to say that his leaving for the Bucks “worked out the best for everyone,” but she was more privately unhappy with the manner of his departure and the vitriolic aftermath, including how Brooklyn fans promised to treat Kidd when he returned to Barclays as an opponent — perhaps following Prokhorov’s own lead when he made that parting shot at the home opener. She was, as ever, direct in her defense; she spoke for herself. “My 2 cents… Jason Kidd has earned his place in the Nets’ history by becoming a franchise player and taking the team to the NBA Finals – twice!” Pavlova wrote in a tweet. “Nothing will ever change that or the retired #5 jersey that rightfully hangs from the rafters at Barclays Center. As a rookie coach, Jason took the Nets to the 2nd round of the playoffs – for the first time since 2007 when he was a Net himself. Badmouthing our former franchise player and Head Coach does not help the current team one iota. Time to get behind Coach Hollins, channel support into a positive stream, and move on.”
The Kidd disaster was followed swiftly by a Grantland report that the Nets’ basketball side had lost $144 million in salaries and luxury taxes — which was $131 million more than any other NBA team once the luxury tax distribution and revenue sharing were taken into account. The Nets were the most expensive team in history. Suddenly, Kidd’s rift with King looked a little different given the context, and a second-round result in the playoffs looked ominously more like failure than success. (Razumov did not respond to an interview request.) “I think we are all learning, and I think that Michael is learning as well, how the league works and whether it makes sense to spend money and how much money. So I think it’s a learning process,” Pavlova cautioned, sitting in her conference room on the morning of the home opener. “I mean, for me personally, just knowing how much money we spent last year, yeah, I would’ve loved to see more than second round of the playoffs. And I am sure Michael felt the same way.”
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But none of this is in Pavlova’s purview. She attends almost every game, but with a fan’s interest; she studies the score sheets after every quarter, but, she says, only to educate herself. She is not involved in discussions about players or how the team is run. “It’s not my arena of expertise,” she says carefully when I ask about management moves.
And it is true. She is not a talent evaluator; she has been watching basketball for only a handful of years. She is still learning. She wouldn’t know a clear-path violation, she says, if she were staring at it as it happened. This was the promise that Razumov had made to her: It didn’t matter that she knew nothing about basketball, because she would not be involved with basketball. He would handle the basketball side; she would take the business. “Every organization is pretty much the same,” she said. “You always have a product team and a sales team. So at Google, it was always the engineers who were coding and developing the product, and then the rest of us are the sales team. Here, basketball ops are the product managers. They put the product on the floor and we have to sell it. The better the product, the easier it is to sell it. You can apply that to anything — widgets, cement, chairs, it’s not that much different. Only I think with basketball it’s more exciting because it’s easier to understand.” (When she first started working with the Nets, Milton Lee — whose titles have ranged from vice-president of Onexim Sports and Entertainment to GM of the Nets’ former D-League team — had even explained how the sport worked in a language she could speak by using financial analogies: Players had stocks, and so on.)
But it turns out the business of a basketball team is basketball. What story can we tell? The story couldn’t be about Jay Z and strobe lights and jerseys, or about ultra-luxury suites for some and accessible game-day tickets for others, forever. It had to be about the team on the floor. And the team on the floor was injured, expensive, and stocked with players who were widely considered too old or unlikable. Merchandise sales fell out of the top 10 for the first time since moving to New York. The slogan HELLO BROOKLYN became WE ARE BROOKLYN — but what did that even mean? The Nets had managed to massively increase ticket sales, but they were still having trouble building a passionate, dedicated fan base. Sometimes seats that had been sold were empty; sometimes it could seem like the crowd was more interested in the food options than in the team on the floor. Pavlova has been part of the effort to try to increase fan loyalty and engagement, running up to the nosebleed seats with a pair of courtside tickets, or arranging for the Brooklyn Brigade, the Nets’ fan club, to take over Prokhorov’s suite for a night. But the public version of the Nets’ story was overwhelming any narrative the Nets could offer, and after Kidd’s departure and the spending report, there was an increasing perception that the organization was in trouble.
What’s happening on the basketball side, then, does and doesn’t affect how Pavlova can represent Prokhorov. She is quick to say there is not a wall but a “net” between the business and the basketball operations. “And I think if business just had its way, there would be nothing … But we also need for them to have their space and to know that it is their sacred home that we’re not going to invade. So I think there is a lot of back-and-forth. When you’re not playing well, it’s definitely tougher.”
“You have a basketball operations world and a business operations world,” says Carlock, who works closely with Pavlova on the real estate aspects of the job. “In some organizations there are different laws of physics in each place, and they are not engaged or connected. She has definitely been a proponent of integration.”
Pavlova is relentlessly positive about the Nets, and she is careful to disclaim any interest in getting involved in basketball decisions. She knows her role. But her role is a little peculiar, and sometimes her frustration shows. No one seems to question that she is a powerful figure, but she is empowered only so far. She is present; she can do what Prokhorov can’t. But, of course, she can’t do what he can. The decisions about the direction of the organization are not hers to make, and she is not trying to make them. She builds and maintains relationships, she is a strong presence in meetings, she is a crucial conduit between the Nets and the league, she advocates for what she believes in, and she tries to instill a certain kind of organizational culture, but it isn’t easy.
“I would like to have the same culture from top to bottom,” Pavlova told me. “That’s one thing that I slept through in business school — those kind of soft classes on organizational behavior and HR management. Now, 20 years out of business school, whatever it is, you realize that the most difficult part of business is actually managing people and creating that culture that everyone buys into so that you all feel like you’re a part of the same team. We talked about the wall between business and basketball. I said we have a net. But we sometimes still don’t feel like we’re in the same boat, especially when the team isn’t playing well. That is when frictions arise. Not even frictions but … ” her voice trailed off.
“Separations,” I suggested.
“Yeah. It just doesn’t feel like we are all together sometimes. I think that’s something that both [CEO Brett Yormark] and I are really keen to work on. It’s not something that you can have a recipe for, right? So, it’s hard.”
There is a sense that her negotiating style is at odds with management’s approach on the basketball side. Silver remembers the first time he had to negotiate with Pavlova. The Nets and the NBA events team were cohosting a clinic and other activities in Moscow. It was part of the Nets’ drive to establish a presence in Russia — something that was proving more frustrating, partly because of NBA rules and regulations, than they’d hoped — and part of the NBA’s ongoing push to become a more global game. The NBA sent the Nets a proposed budget. “We’d built an oligarch premium in all their expenses,” Silver recalled, his voice impish — asking for a little something extra from the Nets, considering their owner’s great wealth.
Almost immediately, Pavlova called from Moscow, where it was 2 a.m. She told Silver she was ready to go over the budget, line by line. “I thought she was joking,” he told me, but she said, “No, let’s go over it now.” He told her he needed to discuss it with his team. “I’ll wait,” she responded.
He told her it would take two hours. It would be 4 a.m. in Moscow. “I’ll wait,” she repeated.
“It was a successful negotiation from the Nets’ standpoint,” he said, laughing. “She wanted to talk about everything from the car services charges, to the room service rates at the hotel, to the setup at the press conference they were doing. She made it clear that it was her job to represent Prokhorov in every aspect of the dealing, and that as rich as Prokhorov is, they were counting rubles.”
I said that it was no secret that the basketball side of the team approached things differently. Silver was careful but pointed in his response. “That’s not how Irina, in my sense, would run the business,” he told me, “but she doesn’t claim to be running basketball operations.”
Six weeks after the start of the season, the Nets made public what everyone already knew, which is that the whole team was on the trading block. Not that it would help — the team was struggling with injuries, carried some of the most untradable contracts, and had already given up valuable draft picks. When I asked Pavlova about the rumors, she cut me off, in a weary tone — one that seemed at once politic and honestly frustrated. “I learn about it from reading the news. To be honest, I try not to get involved in that. I don’t want to know.”
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The Nets are about to cohost All-Star Weekend along with the Knicks. Their winning bid is meant to signal a success story: a new arena, a new city, a new team. But another narrative is dominant in the run-up to the event — the question of whether, or, more likely, when, Prokhorov will sell. All summer and fall, after the enormous sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, there were persistent rumors that Prokhorov was willing to sell. There were reports that he was looking to combine assets with an outside group, most notably Guggenheim Partners, which owns the Los Angeles Dodgers. At his press conference on opening night, Prokhorov told reporters that he was planning on maintaining control of the team but was open to listening to offers. The rumors began to vary almost daily: He’d sell the whole team and the stadium, or just the team, or just part, or not at all. In early January, it was reported that he had retained an outside firm to help him in negotiations and to seek a proper valuation.
Pavlova says, almost sternly, that she knows no more of what’s happening than anyone else. Whatever information she does or doesn’t have, she stays quiet about. But Prokhorov’s openness to selling makes sense. It has been a rough year for him, as it has for any Russian businessman. He is still one of the richest men in the world, but with the turmoil in Ukraine, the Russian currency crisis, and a tailspin in the commodities market, he lost more than $2 billion in 2014. In 48 hours in December alone, he lost more than $400 million. Big-market NBA teams, meanwhile, are commanding more than a billion dollars. What Razumov told Pavlova at the restaurant in Moscow all those years ago was right — it was a sweet investment. Prokhorov stands to make a lot of money. Even this season, the Nets are ranked sixth in the NBA in gate receipts and fourth in total merchandise sales. But it’s also hard not to shake the sense that there is an implicit admission there that this hasn’t quite worked out the way Prokhorov had imagined. The Nets yet again have the most expensive payroll in the league, and their record stands at 19-28, on the outside of the playoffs looking in. The team went winless at home in January. Instead of the promise of marriage if the Nets didn’t win a championship in five years, Prokhorov’s concession might be to bow out.
One of the biggest stories about the team so far this year was actually tragic. A fan who went by the name Jeffrey Gamblero — a Nets super-fan well known at Barclays Center for wearing neon shirts underneath a Nets jersey and for his attention-grabbing dance moves — was forcibly carried out of Madison Square Garden during a Knicks game in early December after refusing the guards’ orders for him to leave and removing his prosthetic leg in a kind of protest. Gamblero had missed only a handful of games at Barclays, and he was a regular and rousing presence on the Jumbotron. Last season, Brett Yormark, the CEO, had even flown Gamblero to London on the team plane for a game against the Hawks. “I think he’s a great representation of what Brooklyn means to us and the fandom we’re looking for from all Brooklynites,” Yormark told the New York Times in a profile about Gamblero. “I’m hoping we can find more Jeffreys.” Pavlova, who had spotted the flash of fluorescence and pointed him out earlier in the game, saw Gamblero carried out and followed him, working her way through layers of security and trying to assess what had happened. “I’m Irina Pavlova with the Brooklyn Nets,” she said to MSG’s security on the phone, her words dropping further into the back of her throat, her Russian accent getting a touch thicker. “Yes, I work for the owner of the Nets. I-R-I-N-A P-A-V-L-O-V-A. You can Google me.” By the time Pavlova reached Gamblero in security in the depths of the stadium, where he sat in a wheelchair, holding his prosthetic leg in his hand, he was crying — the kind of crying one rarely hears, the kind of crying one hopes never to hear, a thin, keening howl. Pavlova spoke to him gently, in a voice that made my own pulse calm down. She told him he would be OK; she tried to make him laugh. “No one ever said it was easy to be a Nets fan.”
But as it happens, he wasn’t, and wouldn’t be, OK — whatever the specific effects of that incident were. Weeks later, he jumped out of a window and died the following day. On December 16, the team came on to the floor for warm-ups before a game against the Miami Heat wearing black T-shirts with BROOKLYN and no. 44 — the number Gamblero always wore — in neon. “Before we score a single point tonight … ” Pavlova tweeted.
More than one of the tributes written to Gamblero after his death pointed out how striking it was to see the Nets, for once, with a coherent identity — to see them unified.
Before that Knicks game in early December, Pavlova had a drink with Gabe Polsky, the director of Red Army, a documentary about the Soviet hockey team in the 1970s and ’80s. It was the greatest hockey team the world had ever known, a team so in sync that, as one of its defensemen put it, “We felt each other in our cells.” They played selflessly, as a single organism, graceful, flexible, beautiful, and unconquerable. The movie tells the story not only of the team’s success, but of its culture — freedom on the ice, tyranny off it. The players lived together on a compound in tiny quarters for 11 months a year.
“That would bring the guys together,” Pavlova joked when she mentioned the movie to me. But there was something rueful about the way she said it, and when she laughed afterward.
For herself, though, perhaps there is more to life. Her own has taken many unusual turns… Her life has taken many unusual turns; some things have worked out, some not. There is a restlessness to her, even as she seems to live in the moment. She projects a kind of freedom. She is unmarried, has scores of friends. She takes dance lessons, likes to travel, spent Thanksgiving in Las Vegas (a little blackjack, a lot of spa). She is a storyteller. A Nets fan. A fatalist.
Some Monday nights you can find her at the Russian restaurant Mari Vanna, near Gramercy Park. It, too, is a kind of vault; it takes a key to get in. There are crystal chandeliers, old armories, faded photographs, Russian pop, borscht and vodka, beautiful women, toasts, dancing. It’s a little jewel box of a room, glimmering late into the night.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Billy King declined an interview request.