After playing 35 years in New Jersey, the Nets franchise moved back to their former home in New York State, relocating to Brooklyn in 2012. Talk of relocating the franchise began in 2003 when Bruce Ratner bought the team and announced that he planned to build an arena at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic in Brooklyn, the centerpiece of a $6 billion, 22-acre project known at Atlantic Yards.
But the idea really took shape in May of 2010 when Mikhail Prokhorov acquired control of the team and 45 percent of the yet unbuilt arena. Prokhorov’s access to huge reserves of capital pushed things forward. One of his first moves was hiring Irina Pavlova, a fellow Musovite as president of his Onexim Sports and Entertainment and his representative in New York.
Pavlova was an ideal choice. She had been born in New York where her father was a interpreter at the United Nations. Later, she lived in Washington after her father got a job at the Soviet embassy In Washington. And unlike her Russian bosses, she had been educated in the U.S., earning an MBA at Stanford. She had worked both in the U.S. and Russia where where she was Google’s first employee in its Moscow office.
From the time she joined to the team in 2010 till she left in 2017, Pavlova was on hand for everything from the initial rebranding of the team, the building of Barclays and perhaps her two biggest achievements, husbanding the HSS Training Center to running the recruiting process that led to the hiring of Sean Marks. She even hosted Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge at a game that featured Jay-Z , Beyonce’ and LeBron James. She now lives in London.
In the interview, she offers new insights on some of the biggest events in Brooklyn Nets history, including how Jason Kidd warned her about the Nets aging roster after the Celtics trade and who was supposed to fill that empty space on the famous Blueprint for Greatness billboard.
When it came to rebranding the franchise, Pavlova absorbed as much Nets history as she could, but while absorbing the legacy of the Nets franchise, the group wanted to bring a new brand as well as a winning team to a state and city that was (and still is) much need of winning basketball.
“The initial thought when Mikhail brought the team was that we were going to create this new brand and a winning team,” Pavlova said.
“I learned how far we have fallen from the highs of the Jason Kidd era,” Pavlova said. “Just dealing with the frustration of all the fans that obviously were expecting the best from their team but were not getting it. Just keeping my finger on the pulse of the sentiment of the fans and how frustrated everyone was. That put fire under our feet.”
Pavlova recalled Prokhorov’s goal of turning New York Knicks fans into Nets fans.
“I remember when Mikhail said we are going to turn Knicks fans into Nets fans, that definitely did not happen on a mass scale that we were hoping for but also I think that’s right and the way it should be. Fans should not be easily swayed to become fans of another team so that is totally fine.”
When the move was made official and the Net were now Brooklyn’s team, it was time for change.
Pavlova explained how despite moving into North America’s biggest sports market , the team decided it wouldn’t take pages out of the Knicks playbook.
“When it came to rebranding, the Knicks were nowhere in the conversation and why would they be?” Pavlova asked. “Sorry if i offend some Knicks fans but I do not think there is much in their branding that we would have wanted to borrow. That definitely did not come into the equation.”
When the time came to change the colors from red, white, and blue to black and white, there were problems.
Initially, the NBA did not want the team to wear black uniforms, having turned down a number of teams, but Jay-Z, who owned less than one percent of the franchise, played a huge role in finalizing the new colors. Pavlova recalled the endless amounts of work it took to design the uniforms.
“Now, looking at the end result, how well it turned out, and how well it was received, it seems like such a no-brainer but it was so much work,” Pavlova said. “From choosing the colors, the logo, and the font, they were just all endless iterations. Even the black-and-white uniform, the league wasn’t happy with black uniforms and turned a few teams down. That is where Jay-Z came in as a big asset and really helped us along.”
Despite changing the colors and establishing a new logo, Pavlova said changing the team name was not a strong option. Ownership valued the long team history.
“The reason for keeping ‘Nets’ in the name was because of the long team history and how much they have under their belt.”
Aside from the visual changes, then there was the Barclays Center. Pavlova credits the arena’s workforce for displaying great character and being polite. That was a huge takeaway for her when it came to Brooklyn rebranding.
“Everything was new. The arena was just fantastic and I think Brett [Yormark] did an amazing job bringing in the best organizations training the employees. I still hear that Barclays has the best training staff, they are the nicest, most polite, and care about the fans. That is what got us there.”
The Opening of the Barclays Center
Going as far back to the announcement of the Nets’ new arena in Brooklyn, the venue was a source of controversy, debate, and everything else since its conception.
Pavlova recalled breaking ground when the site had an old building and a pile of dirt, surrounded by a huge number of protestors with a heavy police presence.
“There were still protests on the streets,” Pavlova said. “I hope it is now over and people realize what the Barclays Center really added to the neighborhood that made it better. Then, there were still protests, a building in the middle of the arena which could not be demolished until the eminent domain process went through. It was hectic. Lot of police around and a pile of dirt. It is kind of weird looking at those pictures when there was just nothing there. Two and a half years later, there is this gigantic structure.
“Mayor Bloomberg was there, Jay-Z was there, a lot of people were there, and it was just stressful. There was a lot of uncertainty at that point.”
After nine long years of court dates, delays, and a number of other obstacles, Barclays Center officially opened on September 28, 2012 (Yormark’s birthday!) in style.
Jay-Z opened the arena, performing nine consecutive shows, featuring Big Daddy Kane, Fabolous, Beyonce, and many others.
Hurricane Sandy delayed the Nets home opener to November 3, 2012 and a matchup against the Toronto Raptors. The home opener was supposed to have been a marquee game against their new cross-town rival, the Knicks.
Pavlova does not remember too much about the concerts and the Nets home opener but she wasn’t thinking like a fan, instead making sure everything was ready to go.
“That was heartbreaking,” Pavlova said about Hurricane Sandy. “To be honest, I do not really remember much of the first Jay-Z concert and I do not remember much about the first game.”
“The arena was still being finished like three hours before the first Jay-Z concert. There were still a lot of open items at the time. There was a lot of stress running around making sure everything was working, painted, the concessions were fine, no huge lines for the bathroom, so I was looking at it more as an operator rather than a fan.”
“I remember being very stressed out about Hurricane Sandy and if we were going to play at all.”
The Blueprint for Greatness
The Blueprint for Greatness, the billboard that stood 22 stories high and took up 21,375 square feet across from Madison Garden, featured a mural Prokhorov and Jay-Z. The intention was to put the city — and the Knicks— on notice of what is coming.
Pavlova explained how the initial plan for the Blueprint for Greatness was for John Wall to join Prokhorov and Jay-Z on the billboard, but that plan ended in May, the month before the sign went up when the Nets didn’t get the overall No. 1 pick in the Draft Lottery.
“I found out later that apparently the Nets brought that wall and the original plan was for us to draft John Wall,” Pavlova said. “That was going to be the wall for John Wall. When that did not happen, we had the wall and that is how the Blueprint for Greatness came about but it was not the original plan.”
Instead, the Nets ended up with the third pick, selecting Derrick Favors.
The Infamous 2013 Celtics-Nets Trade
It was the trade that will go down as one of the most notorious trades in NBA history. On Draft Night 2013, the Nets decided to put all the chips in with hopes of bringing a title to Brooklyn. The Nets acquired Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White from the Boston Celtics. In exchange, Brooklyn sent out Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans and their unprotected first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. In addition, the Celtics also received the right to swap first-rounders with the Nets in 2017.
Pavlova recalls the day she found out about the trade, which initially was viewed as the day the franchise would change forever. She was excited … until she found out about what the cost was.
“I remember when I first heard about it,” Pavlova said. “Two huge names and I was very excited for half an hour. Then I started talking to other people and hearing about the cost to the team that the deal was coming with. As you know, I am not a basketball person. I am a business person. It was obvious it was a lot of money and a lot we were giving up in draft picks.”
Pavlova explained how she was not in the same boat as ownership when the trade was finalized.
“I also, to be honest, I was probably not in the same boat with the ownership at that point. I found out later, they thought they could win the championship that year. I never thought that because I have been around the team long enough to kind of feel what was not right. It just did not feel like it was gelling right. I thought it would be great if it worked out but I was not super optimistic.”
She believed then the team could not win it all with that roster and told a story about Jason Kidd, who was then head coach, lowered her expectations telling her about the struggles of coaching an old roster. On Opening Night, Pierce was 35, KG 37 and Terry was 36 and coming off knee surgery. Andrei Kirilenko was 32.
“I definitely thought we couldn’t win a championship,” Pavlova said. “With that team, it did not feel like a team. It felt like a bunch of guys. To be honest, it was Jason Kidd who set my expectations because when he saw the roster he had to coach, he said ‘we are old. Who are we going to play? We are so old.’ He was right. There was not a good balance on that team at that point and it was not a team that was going to win a championship for sure.”
“But listen, it was a fun year. Sorry it did not work out but looking at where we are now, who won that trade right?”
Pavlova traveled with the team to training camp, which was held at Duke University and told the story about her experiences being around the team.
“That year with KG, Paul, and Jason on the team, I went with them to training camp for the first two days. We had training camp at Duke that year and usually I did not travel with the team that was for the basketball staff, business people, and it was very segregated.
“This time, our first night after practice, we were in the hotel lobby. Everyone is hanging out together. KG and Paul cracking jokes, fans coming up to them for autographs, and everyone was there together as a team. That was the first time it felt like family like ‘oh I really want to be a part of that because I really enjoy hanging with these people.’
“The next day when I left, I told Jason and I said ‘listen thank you. I never had this feeling before.’ Then Jason said that it is the only way you win. It has to feel like family. It was interesting to me that instinctively, and he has been on winning teams, he knew what it was supposed to feel like. It is supposed to feel like family so when we talk about culture, family, and feeling of trust with the people you work with, it is all a part of the equation. It was interesting hearing it from him.”
Despite the play on the hardwood not being what was expected, that is — a championship, Pavlova was pleased with the financial success. As time went on and the wins weren’t quite there, she explained the frustration of season ticket holders at the time. In the end, she called it a “mixed blessing.”
“It was exciting,” Pavlova said. “Again, when the team performs well, it is easier to sell tickets and sponsorships when you have that going for you.
“Also, initially, when we opened Barclays, the season ticket holders committed to three years. We were all optimistic that our second year was going to go great and go up from there. At the end of the third year, we had a lot of disappointed season ticket holders that did not want to renew. It was a mixed blessing.”
Hiring Sean Marks
After Lionel Hollins was fired and Billy King “reassigned,” Pavlova as given the job of finding the next GM. Working with four other Nets executives and a consultant, she set up the the hiring process.
“I think in a way, the hiring process was unique,” Pavlova said. “From what I heard, no one has done that before in basketball where there were five of us around a table interviewing each candidate. A lot of people have their doubts that it is an effective way to do it but from my perspective, going through a lot of rounds of interviews for every job that I ever had, I think if a person has to meet with five interviewers in one day, the questions are going to be repetitive and so will the answers. By the time you get to the fifth person, when they ask you why are you the right person for the job, you are not going to put your best foot forward because you are going to be tired of answering the same thing many times.”
“By having a roundtable discussion, it just brought out the personalities,” Pavlova said. “We had all of our candidates write out their plan for the Nets before the actual interview. You can tell a lot by how people approach, how they think, and how much thought was put into it. I thought it was a great experience. I’ve also heard after us, other NBA teams have the same scenario and same structure.”
Marks remains a friend. She thinks he will have a lot of challenges going forward.
“I think Sean has a very tough job ahead of him,” Pavlova said. “It is not about finding the right coach but I think everyone agreed the team had an amazing culture with DLO now two years ago. You can see how much fun those guys had playing together, they’re all friends, all hanging out, and it was a really fun year.”
“Sean’s challenge is that he needs to keep upgrading the talent while trying to preserve the culture,” Pavlova said. “It is give-and-take. We had a great team with a great culture but was not championship caliber level. Every time you bring in someone new into the team or lose someone who was a piece to your culture and walks out the door, it is really tough.
“Those people who think GM’ing is easy, look at preserving that right balance. You say no to two high caliber because they might not fit the culture one-hundred percent? You can not say no to that type of talent. Your challenge is to indoctrinate them and have them try to adjust to the team culture that you created before. I can see why it can be a challenge because these are guys with preset notions. It is challenging but I would not say the culture is gone. It is a slightly different culture but values are still there.”
Could the Nets win it all?
“I think that championship is the goal but I do not think it is going to happen next season,” Pavlova said. “I think it is going to take a while for them to jell and build into the championship team they need to be. There might be some more changes on the way. I am sure Sean is thinking of it nonstop.”
“I think the hardest challenge is going to be finding the next coach,” Pavlova said. “I do not know the coaching field well at all but I think it is a big challenge for Sean. Again, you will need to balance personalities and star power with someone who can hold their own and be great at strategy to win games. That is the state of the Nets.”
Her Legacy — the HSS Training Center
In addition to her role in the hiring of Marks, Pavlova was given another big job around the same time: finding a site for the Nets new training facility, choosing the architect and getting the facility built. It’s now viewed as among the best, if not the best, practice facility in the NBA.
“I am still so proud of that thing,” Pavlova said. “That is my legacy. Every time I see pictures of KD and Kyrie with the background and the big windows, it just warms my heart. I think we did a great job and I am very proud of that.
“I think honestly, and its common sense, to live close to where you work and that is what we were aiming for. People laughed at us saying, ‘it is not important,’ but I think this year, with all the press explaining how important it is for the players, they value their nap time, free time, and do not want to sit in the car no matter if they are driving themselves or with someone else is driving them. It is just not an ideal scenario.”
Back to the Future
Like many, Pavlova has seen and heard speculation about the Nets attempt to revive their roots across the Hudson River in the state they played 35 years in.
As mentioned, keeping the Nets name was always importance at least for Pavlova, who always wanted to keep a strong fanbase in New Jersey. She loves the idea of the Nets looking into strengthening their roots.
“I am really happy, under Joe Tsai, the Nets are making that push.
“I have seen a lot of comments recently about the New Jersey thing and how the team is making a new push for embracing New Jersey fans. I think it is a great idea and frankly when we were talking about rebranding the team, the name of the team was a big deal. There were a lot of options there.”
When asked what plans she would like to see, she said she’d want to hear from the fans, especially the ones in New Jersey.
“I would have to go on NetsDaily and read all the comments,” Pavlova said about New Jersey Nets ideas. “I think having viewing parties in New Jersey is already great. The challenge there is it is hard for fans there to get to Brooklyn for a 7:30 game. There is nothing we can do about it but viewing parties and maybe even going to retro jerseys as well. Fans miss those times and those colors in Jersey.”
Pavlova believes the New Jersey legacy should be more in the limelight … especially in the Barclays Center rafters. She believes all the banners from the Jason Kidd era and before should be in red, white, and blue rather than black and white.
“I do not think it is right to have black and white banners,” Pavlova said. “I think they should go back to red, white, and blue, the way they were before. Once Brooklyn starts winning more, then we will have more black and white jerseys up there but the ones up there should be New Jersey colors. It is right to honor history with the old colors.”