The NBA's tagline is "Amazing things happen." Right now the most amazing thing happening is that David Stern and the rest of the NBA are acting like their angel investor Mikhail Prokhorov is some sort of a noble gentleman with a spotless reputation.
It's easy to sympathize with the NBA. Just over a month ago, Stern announced that the league stands to lose $400 million this season. Prokhorov's arrival must seem like a hallucinogenic godsend. He's offering $200 million to buy the majority of the New Jersey Nets along with 45% of the the controversial Atlantic Yards' basketball arena.
Prokhorov would become the first non-North American owner of an NBA team, a precedent which perhaps justifies taking a closer look before shaking on the deal.
With an estimated worth of $13 billion, Prokhorov is currently the richest man in Russia. But there are nice ways to get a billion dollars and there are not nice ways to get a billion dollars. One classic not so nice way is you deal with people nobody else will deal with. Like, for instance, Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe.
According to an article in the New York Post, Mikhail Prokhorov's Renaissance Capital investment bank has interests in the Zimbabwean stock exchange, banks, a cellphone company, mining and a swanky, private big-game reserve.
One could argue that if Prokhorov wants to profit by doing business with Mugabe, well, that's his business. Unless he wants to do business here in the United States. where it happens to be illegal. The United States slapped sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2003. In 2008, sanctions were further strengthened by that old softie on human rights, President George W. Bush.
So, Mugabe must be pretty bad. But how bad?
Last year, Mugabe was rated the worst dictator in the world by Parade magazine (not exactly a left leaning bleeding heart publication.) His government denies voters their rights, brutalizes the opposition, censors the press, abuses women, inducts children into the army, and criminalizes homosexuality. His regime has a record of torturing students, journalists, even Americans. His country is recognized as one of the global leaders in the trafficking of human lives for forced labor and sexual exploitation. His nation is a place where human rights activists disappear forever.
Shorter answer: Mugabe is very bad.
New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell is now asking the sorts of questions the NBA should have asked during their "background check" of Prokhorov last fall (I wonder what sort of questions you ask a man who wants to give you 200 million dollars?) According to the Post, Pascrell is requesting the Treasury Department investigate Prokhorov's many investments in Zimbabwe.
Ironically, one of the reasons the U.S. government finally cracked down on Mugabe was because of his regime's habit of "government backed land grabs." It seems the Russian oligarch might actually find this kind of behavior attractive, since the Atlantic Yards project he's investing in here is the worst government backed land grab to hit New York since they buried Robert Moses.
Anyone interested in human rights (that would be the left side of the room) or property rights (that would be the right side) should email Congressman Pascrell's office and let him know you support his attempts to enforce the law. While you're at it, email David Stern and ask him to put off approval of Prokhorov's deal until these questions are comprehensively answered. And don't feel bad about the Nets losing their new owner. They're used to losing.