Our Hero

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

A theme heard around town is that, if he's so all-fired focused on team character, Colangelo should not have allowed any of these hotshots to continue to play.

It's a fairly silly point. Colangelo is a businessman playing in the big leagues, literally, where the inflated salaries of star employees can easily translate into feelings that the rules are for underlings. Whatever efforts he puts into recruiting men of good character--and he refers to careful background checks that turn up such red flags as emotional problems, drug use and illegitimate children--he is also personally competitive and in the business of trying to win championships. Sometimes his best chances lie with the slicksters, as was the case with Charles Barkley.

(Not that he ever has won a championship. The Suns have twice gone to the NBA Finals, in '76 and '93, but never all the way. Says Sports Illustrated's Verducci, "There is this national reputation that Jerry Colangelo is the man with the magic touch. But he has never won a championship." Is he overrated? "In terms of the sports business, no," Verducci says. "In terms of what he has done for downtown Phoenix, it is definitely an A-plus. But if you are just a sports fan and your bottom line is wins and losses, the answer is yes.")

Colangelo refuses to discuss his reasons for retaining players who've disgraced themselves personally, saying, "We are not going far down this road, because I know things you don't know."

The exception is that he wants to talk about Charles Barkley, perhaps the most beloved Sun ever to play in the Valley.

"The fact is that when Charles Barkley came here, I felt we offered him a wonderful opportunity to change his m.o., his reputation. He was excited to get out of Philadelphia and get a new start. And I very specifically talked about: This could be a great experience for him, he could retire from here.

"And I asked him to lead in a positive way, not a negative way. And the fact is, Charles is Charles. Most people looked the other way when a lot of things happened here. It was only a matter of time before he wore out his welcome. He chose to leave on his own terms."

He continues, "There is leadership on the court and off the court, and leadership off the court was just as important to us. It always has been and it always will be.

"I do believe professional athletes are role models." He is referring to Barkley's infamous statements, including a national commercial, wherein he reminded parents that he isn't a role model and they should raise their own kids. "Young people look up to professional athletes, so there is a responsibility to the public. If somebody is not able to accept that, they should not be an athlete. They should go pump gas or work in an office.

"I would never say a negative word about Charles Barkley in terms of his ability to perform. Ninety-nine out of 100 he went out there and got it done. His lifestyle off the court was something I was very disappointed in because it was a reflection on our organization.

"He wore out his welcome."
When Barkley was traded to the Houston Rockets, the departure was played in the press as though Barkley, yearning for a championship he felt would not be won here, forced the trade. Colangelo is now implying that Barkley found a good situation for himself when he realized Suns management was ready to trade him.

Colangelo's spin on the story could be interpreted as sour grapes over his star's departure. Conversely, Barkley's behavior at the time of leave-taking could have been a matter of personal face-saving that management allowed to go on.

We will probably never know the full story. But if Colangelo's intention had anything to do with gaining more stable players with the Barkley trade, he made a poor deal. The four players received from the Rockets for Barkley included Sam Cassell, a talented but well-known flake, and Robert Horry, a brooding underachiever who would eventually make ESPN's SportsCenter for throwing in the towel--directly in Danny Ainge's face. Both Cassell and Horry were soon traded. One of the other two former Rockets, Chucky Brown, has moved on. Only power forward Mark Bryant remains with the Suns.

(A spokesman for the Houston Rockets tells New Times that Barkley refuses phone interviews and could not respond to Colangelo's statements. A written request to the Rockets, attached to a copy of Colangelo's comments, elicited no response.)

None of this explains why Colangelo kept Barkley on long after the Suns president understood Barkley's dark side. Neither should the point need explaining: Any good manager will give a thousand chances to a player of Barkley's ability.

As for other tarnished players, all of them are gone except for KJ, against whom nothing was ever proved and who is now part owner of the Suns. A knowledgeable insider of the sports industry says that Johnson regards Colangelo as a father figure. He also says, "I think he [Johnson] does a lot of good within the community and it was viewed as a one-time thing. I also think [management] looked at what he didn't do [which was have intercourse with the teenager who accused him], compared to what some athletes do. I mean, teenage girls just throw themselves at him." He adds, "For years there were gay rumors about him, and in one way the story actually helped his image."

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