Celtics’ Stephen Pagliuca nearly had controlling Nets stake

Former Nets star Kyrie Irving playing in the NBA Finals has had some Brooklyn fans playing a wistful game of “What if?”

But as the series reaches Game 3 Wednesday in Dallas, Irving isn’t the only local product who could’ve changed the trajectory of several teams, Brooklyn included.

Celtics minority owner Stephen Pagliuca was nearly the controlling owner of the Nets, a seismic move that could’ve impacted both Brooklyn and Boston.

Stephen Pagliuca was almost in control of the Nets in a complicated ownership structure with Joe Tsai. AFP via Getty Images

Pagliuca — born in New York and raised in New Jersey — almost teamed up with Joe Tsai to buy the Nets from Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov in 2017.

“I was honored to be contacted by the Nets in 2017 to look at the club,” Pagliuca told The Post on Tuesday, “but decided after a review that my heart was with the Celtics and subsequently invested more capital in the Celtics franchise and also in the Italian Serie A soccer team Atalanta.” 

Back in 2017 Prokhorov was being pressured to sell off the team by Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In a complicated bid structure, Pagliuca — who has been a Celtics minority owner for over 20 years — would have been the Nets controlling owner, though Tsai was actually putting up more of the money.

But Tsai eventually opted against it.

He just bid for the Nets on his own, while Pagliuca bought Serie A’s Atalanta and upped his stake in the Celtics, currently up 2-0 in the NBA Finals.

Joe Tsai opted to take over the Nets rather than share ownership with Pagliuca. AP

“I am thrilled that Atalanta just won the Europa [League] championship for the first time in their history and will play in the Champions League next year,” Pagliuca told The Post. “I am also fortunate that the Celtics are playing for the NBA championship this week and that I am just as passionate about the team as I was 21 years ago when we purchased the team.”

In the end, Tsai took minority control from Prokhorov in 2017 and majority control two years later. It’s been a roller coaster ever since.

But Pagliuca was almost riding it. Or to some extent directing it.

Celtics co-owners Wyc Grousbeck, left, and Stephen Pagliuca talk before addressing season ticket holders during an NBA basketball draft party in 2012. AP

A second source (who was close to the sale process) told The Post he heard from knowledgeable sources that Pagliuca was looking to buy the team.

“Pags is pretty well respected, generally, around the league,” the source said.

“I remember being surprised to hear Pagliuca was bidding.”

It’s impossible to know for sure how things would’ve worked out differently with Pagliuca in control.

Brooklyn’s Big 3 of Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden turned out to be ill-fated with injuries to Irving and Harden short-circuiting a title run in ’21.

Irving forcing his way out led to Durant’s trade request and the end of the Big 3.

What is certain is it would have been a major decision on the part of the 69-year-old Pagliuca, who would have sold his stake in the Celtics to buy the Nets.

Born in the city and raised in Bernards Township, N.J., Pagliuca graduated from Ridge High School before attending Duke, where he played freshman basketball.

Pagliuca bought into the Celtics back in 2002.

He enjoyed the fruits of a Big 3 that actually closed the deal, with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen getting him a championship ring in 2008 after their very first season together.

Unlike the Nets, Boston’s internal strife didn’t come until years after they’d already won.

And by the time the Celtics fleeced Nets GM Billy King in the 2013 deal that their current NBA finalists are built on, it was Pagliuca that represented the Celtics on the dais at the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery.

Perhaps looking to spread his ownership wings, Pagliuca bought an additional 8 percent stake in the Celtics in 2020, bid for Premier League giant Chelsea in 2022 and eventually bought Atalanta that same year.

Now, he’s still a minority owner of a Celtics team leading the Finals. Tsai has control of a Nets franchise looking for minority investment, with Julia Koch moving toward a stake.

And Nets fans have just one more thing to look at these Finals and wonder ‘What if?’

Leave a Comment