At first blush, it appears that nearly every neighborhood in Brooklyn wears its cultural identity on its sleeve. But there just seems to be a little extra “oomph” behind being a Russian American native to Brooklyn. The Brighton Beach neighborhood in South Brooklyn proudly calls itself “Little Odessa,” and a walk down Brighton Beach Avenue could easily be mistaken for a stroll through Moscow – if the Kremlin had a beachfront property a stone’s throw from Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel. At the end of the month, more than 125,000 people will visit this stretch of Brooklyn for Brighton Beach’s annual “Jubilee” festival, which celebrates the area’s diversity and cultural.
But it’s more than just Brighton Beach that carries a Russian influence. According to a 2009 survey, about 3.9 percent of all Brooklyn residents feature Russian ancestry. When looking at the borough’s European lineage, only the Italians (of Brooklyn “fugghedabauit” fame) have a larger population (6.1 percent).
So what happens when you bring a brand new basketball team into Brooklyn, with arguably one of the world’s most famous Russians as its owner? How do you say “if you build it, they will come” in Russian?
Steven Popel lives in Staten Island, but his heart remains true to Brooklyn, the Nets, and the team’s owner, Mikhail Prokhorov. Popel’s parents immigrated to the United States from Lithuiana back when the country was a part of the USSR. He spoke Russian in his house, was exposed to Russian culture, attended Lincoln High School in Brighton Beach, and currently works with bilingual Russian-speaking elementary school students.
Popel wasn’t always a Nets fan. When he started following basketball in the 1990s, the New York Knicks were at their peak, making the NBA Finals in 1994, and sporting insanely popular players like Patrick Ewing and John Starks (while the Nets were toiling with disgruntled cry babies like Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson). But as empires are wont to do, the Knicks collapsed, a man named Dolan and his lieutenant Isaiah drove the team into the ground, and the Nets shockingly built a competent team around the flash of Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin. However, as most Nets fans will note, the Kidd/Martin-era did not end happily. But fortunately for Popel and a group of his old high school friends, an even bigger star entered the picture: a Russian billionaire “oligarch” who at one point or another ran the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium, Russian’s largest producer of gold, and a major corporation named Onexim. Enter the Prokhorov.
“I went out and bought season tickets the day Prokhorov bought the team,” Popel said. “My parents watch Russian television, so when I heard he was buying the team, they were familiar with him. Then when I saw him on that 60 Minutes interview, I’ve loved him ever since.”
The 60 Minutes segment is unquestionably the defining moment of Prokhorov’s tenure as an NBA owner, moreso than “Carmela,” “the Yi player” and apparently this week, referring to a certain Knicks owner as a “little man.” But there have been some other curiosities with Prokhorov, most notably, his bid to unseat Vladimir Putin as president of Russia last year. It made some raise questions about what Prokhorov’s true priorities may be (if he won the election, he would most certainly had given up his stake in the Nets), and it’s given legitimacy to the idea that despite being a wave-hopping, AK-47 carrying, club hopping, billionaire playboy, Prokhorov is first and foremost a Russian who happens to own an American property in the Brooklyn Nets.
“We are proud Russian speaking Americans, not Russian Federation citizens, so we don’t feel any special connections to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov,” said Ari Kagan, a Russian American journalist and politician who currently lives in Brooklyn and is a Russian community liason for the New York City comptroller’s office.
That’s not to say Kagan and others he speaks with aren’t excited about the Nets – “we are happy the New Jersey Nets moved to Brooklyn because we love Brooklyn and New York” – but from his perspective, an owner who “we like more than we like Russian President Vladimir Putin who is clearly not a friend of the United States” – is not necessarily a draw for everyone sipping their cherry varenya to make their way to the Barclays Center.
Still, Popel and his “clique” remain exuberant. Being a Russian in Brooklyn is already a source of tremendous pride. So it would only make sense that a personality as big as Prokhorov would find his way to the hearts of at least some of the population.
“Russians stick together,” Popel said. “We develop our groups and our cliques and even if we’re spread out across different places, we stick together.”
That includes a Staten Island resident by Little Odessa.