Our Hero

The most powerful man in Phoenix explains why he's just a regular guy

Jerry Colangelo's secretary is out, and so he answers her phone, even though he's on the way to a press conference and a little late.

"Bob Longhi!" he cries.
Longhi, it turns out, is the owner of a restaurant on Maui that Colangelo frequents. Longhi is not one of Colangelo's dearest friends, but Colangelo is unhurriedly behaving as though he is.

Apparently, Longhi wants Colangelo to grease the chute through which a child--his own or a friend's--might slide into Arizona State University.

"Well, send me information on him so that I'll know what I'm looking at," Colangelo says. "I've just given them a lot of money out there, plus I'm establishing an MBA program in sports management." (This arsenal of leverage seems unnecessary--ASU accepts nearly everyone and is reluctant to expel students no matter what they do--but Colangelo is nonetheless willing to help for the asking.)

"Oh, Italy was beautiful!" he tells Longhi. "I'll tell you about it later; I've got a great story for you: The McDyess trade was made in the pope's private quarters."

The teaser conjures up some peculiar images until Colangelo later explains the particulars about how Antonio McDyess, the Suns' new star forward, wound up in Phoenix.

"Bryan Colangelo, general manager, had been working that deal for some time with the Denver Nuggets," he remembers. "I took my wife and sister-in-law on a trip to Italy. I had a world cell portable phone with great reception. It was easy to make calls. I didn't know there was such a thing before. I was on the phone with Bryan quite a lot because of the potential transaction. The night before we were in the pope's quarters in the Vatican, we were in a beautiful resort, and I was on the phone every hour until 3:30 in the morning--with Bryan, with Denver.

"The next morning, we drove into Rome, and through a contact had arranged for a private tour in the pope's private quarters, which was quite an experience. They are gorgeous: the history, the beautiful architecture, the gifts that have been given over the years.

"But I had to turn off the cell phone because I was told to. At the exact time that I was in the pope's private quarters, the deal was going down."

Don't you hate it when that happens?
Colangelo is asked, Was the pope there?
"No, he was out of town." As though that was the only thing that had stood between Colangelo and a new best friend.

And maybe that's even true, at least metaphorically. Because outside of Phoenix--although not all the way to Vatican City, perhaps--Colangelo is widely acknowledged as one of the most powerful and savvy sports executives alive. He is a man to know. His colleagues and admirers are unconcerned with the squeals of local taxpayers, many of whom perceive that Colangelo finagled them out of $238 million in taxes that they did not want to spend on a baseball stadium. No, a person who understands and appreciates Colangelo's accomplishments also knows that, in this new age of stadium-driven sports, there's not a gleaming new stadium anywhere in America, or one under construction, that wasn't, in some fashion, slammed down the throats of unwilling commoners who paid for it.

"It would not surprise me if, in order to get a stadium built, he has done whatever he had to do, short of breaking into people's houses and robbing them," says Jack McCallum, veteran writer for Sports Illustrated who covered the National Basketball Association from '85 through '93. "But he is a major, major player nationally. If [NBA Commissioner] David Stern trusts five guys, Jerry Colangelo is one of them. Stern likes to form committees, and he taps Colangelo for committee after committee after committee. He is part of setting policy in the NBA."

Although avowals of Colangelo's position in inner circles are echoed by other national reporters and sports figures--two of whom postulate that Colangelo might succeed David Stern--Stern himself is more circumspect. "I appreciate his vision and am always willing to listen to Jerry's perspective on issues regarding the NBA," he says in a written response to New Times.

Colangelo has finished up with Bob Longhi and is ambling along to his press conference in Bank One Ballpark, a few hundred yards from his expansive office in America West Arena. He enters a room filled with sports writers with mini-recorders, in their jeans and khakis, their golf shirts and sweaters. The guys crowd around Colangelo, shoving their machines into his face, while he answers their questions and advances his own agenda.

He calls upon local politicians to begin dealing with the downtown parking problem 50,000 Diamondbacks fans will create. "We would hope the city and the Valley is going to address transportation problems," he says. "If you want the activities here, then the City of Phoenix has to hold up its end."

It should have surprised no one when, exactly one month later, it was announced that the city would fork over $124,000 to deliver fans to Diamondbacks games from far-flung parking sites. Mayor Skip Rimsza explained this sudden generosity by saying that the city would realize a "windfall" of ballpark-driven sales taxes and that the city should "put some of it back" into the Diamondbacks' needs. Within days, the chatter of public protest prompted a revised plan under which major corporations will be tapped to pay for shuttle-service costs not covered by the modest fees charged to riders.

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