Our Hero

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

It was easy to imagine Colangelo orchestrating everything behind the scenes--from Rimsza's wan reasoning to the willingness of corporate honchos to foot the bill instead. Colangelo, often called the most powerful man in Arizona, can raise money from Phoenix business leaders with a phone call. And his influence with the council, particularly in matters pertaining to downtown, is legendary.

"Jerry is the primary arbiter of what goes on downtown," says former mayor Terry Goddard. "Jerry personally decides."

It was Goddard who negotiated with Colangelo to assure that America West Arena would be built downtown when the Suns' president was considering other sites.

Colangelo says he didn't oversee the shuttle arrangements, though, aside from rubbing the council's collective face in the imminent parking crisis. "I was responsible for raising the issue at this late point because they didn't face up to the reality that something had to be done now rather than later," he says. "This is not a baseball shuttle. If they [the city] wanted the structure downtown, there was a responsibility to make sure people could get in and out of downtown, not just on the nights of baseball games but for all of the downtown projects."

He does not add that, if the ballpark weren't opening, there would be no parking crisis.

The informal interviewing over at Bank One Ballpark, everyone adjourns for Honey Bear's barbecue served on paper plates. Colangelo sits at a tableful of reporters who refer to him as "Jer" with frantic familiarity. If it's possible to scrape and bow while sitting down, this assemblage knows how. At one point, KFYI's Paul Hanson asks a real question, though. In the wake of headlines hyping Michael Jordan's intention to retire at the end of this season because of his conflicts with Chicago Bulls management, Hanson asks: "Any chance Michael Jordan will wear a Suns uniform next year, Jer?" Colangelo shoots him a silent glance that is merely inscrutable.

"I'm sorry, Jer," Hanson says.
Dave Burns from KNIX rushes to explain that the question was asked only because of a recent column in the Arizona Republic by Dan Bickley, a recent Chicago transplant. Burns nervously cites each point in Bickley's column that had suggested Jordan was ripe for the picking, particularly by the Phoenix Suns. He looks to Colangelo hopefully, as though for a sign that Hanson has been forgiven. Colangelo glances sideways at Burns.

When lunch is over, Colangelo rises to make a short speech about the stadium and to field more questions. About the controversial stadium, he says mainly that it is likely to make Diamondbacks revenues the third or fourth highest in the major leagues this first year. (More recent projections rank the Diamondbacks fifth or sixth.) This is good news for the Diamondbacks' owners, who will be able to pay off debts and see a return on their investments quickly. It also is, not incidentally, good news for fans, since abundant revenues beget the kind of significant player salaries--such as the $34 million Colangelo is paying for shortstop Jay Bell--that can make the Diamondbacks competitive within a few years.

Colangelo also says that the financing of the stadium should stand as a model for other cities around the country.

To most reporters in most cities where such an inciting deal involving taxpayer dollars has gone down, these would be fighting words.

Here is a representative sampling of the questions posed by reporters after Colangelo's speech:

"What temperature are you aiming for in the ballpark?"
"When will the retractable roof be open or closed?"
"Will you ever let it rain on the grass?"

"Now that the fire alarm has stopped, could you repeat your philosophy about keeping the roof open?"

The press conference completed, Colangelo leans against the railing of the stadium concourse with the one reporter who remains behind. They gaze down into the new green heart of Phoenix baseball. The much-anticipated techno-grass had been reverently laid only a few days before, and the fledgling ballfield is a jewel beneath a canopy of pale sun.

Someone comes up behind Colangelo, a stubby man with a nose like a boxer's. He is Frank Narcisi, just in from the airport. Narcisi is one of Colangelo's childhood friends from his old neighborhood in Chicago Heights. He recently retired as the janitor of Bloom Township High School, which both he and Colangelo attended and where Colangelo was a basketball and baseball star. Narcisi and his wife have long come to Phoenix every year, and Colangelo has always paid their way--airfare, hotels, rental cars, the works. The men embrace.

Later, Narcisi says, "We have stayed at all the best places--the Phoenician, the Hyatt Regency." Why does Colangelo do it? "He is very generous with us [from the old neighborhood]. He does not forget us. He comes back as often as he can, and when he comes, he is one of the guys. Here he is the head of a big corporation. There he is one of the guys and he gets treated the same--no better, no worse. And he loves it. He loves it."

Well, maybe he's not treated quite the same. The street where he used to live is now named after him. The school gym where he played basketball bears his name, too. This year he will ride in the local Fourth of July parade.

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