The Oligarch and the All-Star
What do Scottie Pippen, the NBA All-Star, and Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian oligarch, have in common? Today, in one of sports' oddest match-ups, they both found themselves playing on the same basketball team in Moscow. And the Muscovites loved it. So did I. Talk about surprises.
I've have been in Moscow about a week. The other day a contact handed me a VIP pass for the Sunday basketball game at Moscow State University. "You should go," he said. "Prokhorov will be there."
Prokhorov is the oligarch credited with turning Norilsk from a clapped out collection of nickel assets into the world's biggest nickel company (in a case of brilliant timing, he sold his 25 per cent Norilsk stake to Oleg Deripaska's aluminum giant Rusal in the spring, just before the crash). He's also the chairman of Polyus Gold, Russia's top gold producer, and an international party boy. A year ago he was taken in custody in France in connection with a prostitution-ring investigation. He was released without charges. So I went, thinking I would hunt him down and ask him a few questions (about the nickel and gold, that is).
The university basketball stadium was fairly small, but still I couldn't spot him. After a while I gave up and decided to enjoy the game between the university teams. The place was a zoo. The fans were wild with enthusiasm, the music was loud and thumping and the cheerleaders in fishnet stockings performed like pole dancers without the poles.
The place became even louder during the intermission, when an exceedingly tall, lanky black man strolled to centre court. I thought: He looks familiar. Like really familiar. There was the silver earring. Not Scottie Pippen. Sure enough, it was him. The former Chicago Bull who was named an NBA All Star seven times, and who (with Michael Jordan and other genius players) led the Bulls to six NBA championships, was 5 metres in front of me, wearing a black and orange jersey and ready to play. The celebrity game was about to begin.
Joining him was a Russian of the same height – Prokhorov. Not knowing Russia well (and speaking no more than 5 words of Russian) I didn't recognize the names of the other celeb players. What a strange bunch. They ranged from their early 30s to their 60s. A couple of them seemed as wide as Pippen was tall. They played amazingly well for men who are past their prime and probably spend half their waking hours smoking.
Pippen, of course, could have single-handedly demolished the opposing team. But he chose not to dominate the play and charmed the audience by smiling all the time. At one point, evidently sensing the crowd yearned for a flash of the old NBA razzle dazzle, he grabbed the ball, powered down the court in a flash and performed a crowd-pleasing slam-dunk.
Not many smiles from Prokhorov, but the billionaire did not play badly. He nailed about half of his foul shots and dribbled well, though avoided competing with Pippen's slam dunk. I later found out he loves to play basketball and supports CSKA Moscow, the Moscow sports club that is often referred to as the "Red Army" team for its past association with the Soviet army.
At the end of the game, Prokhorov disappeared and Pippen got mobbed on the court. I wanted to ask him how he ended up playing a celebrity game in Moscow but couldn't get close to the man. Turns out he was just on a tour that started in Finland to support European basketball.
He did make news in Moscow, though. I found a video clip of an interview he did a day or two before the game. The Russian journalist asked Pippen, who is 43 and stopped playing pro ball five years ago, whether basketball was in his future. "I do have some interest in getting back into the game and coaching the Chicago Bulls, to some degree," he said.
As for Prokhorov, there's no secret what he'll do. Unloading his investment in Norilsk at the top of the market has probably made him the richest and most liquid oligarch in the land. He'll use it to buy assets on the cheap from his fallen colleagues. That'll make him smile.