Our Hero

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

Narcisi says the folks at home get fulfillment from "just being able to talk about him, that they know him.

"In Chicago Heights, he is the hero."

The little series of events has consumed about 90 minutes of Colangelo's time, 90 minutes that lead to insights about his intentions and character. And as Bank One Ballpark opens next week in the face of years of antipathy over its funding, questions about Colangelo's intentions and character remain.

Once and for all, did he orchestrate the entire deal--the bringing of Major League Baseball to Phoenix--and wrest local politicians into line with his vision? Is he personally to blame for the quarter-cent sales tax, imposed without citizen consent, that has caused not only outrage but bloodshed, when county supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who voted to impose the tax, was shot in the patoot?

Despite his fondly remembered roots as a poor boy from Chicago Heights, is the man who gets private tours of the pope's quarters still able to empathize with the guy on the street struggling to make the rent? Does he understand the average taxpayer's resentment of the ballpark tax? Have his stories about his impoverished childhood evolved into a shtick?

Why are local journalists so intimidated by him?
What does power mean to this man, born a Catholic but now a born-again, fundamentalist Protestant? He behaves kindly when confronted with, for instance, a dear old friend or even a middling one with a kid who wants to be a Sun Devil. But does he act out his oft-professed ideals of moral behavior when operating in the world of bad-boy professional sports, where it is impossible to hire entire teams of gifted Boy Scouts?

Are his ethics only convenient?
What is it about Colangelo that has made it possible for him to accomplish so much downtown? Ten years ago, it would have seemed impossible that Bank One Ballpark's massive arch would fly in the downtown skyline, next door to Colangelo's state-of-the-art basketball venue, America West Arena. There had been too many failed attempts to jump-start an area so dissolute that, when Margaret Mullen, now head of the Phoenix Downtown Partnership, first came here as a consultant for downtown in '71, the area consisted of bars and flophouses. As she toured, she was assigned her own police officer because it was considered unsafe for a woman to walk the streets alone. When she entered buildings, the officer confiscated handguns from street people loitering near entrances; when she left, he returned the weapons to their owners, telling Mullen the guns posed no real danger to her: The street people only used them on each other.

The city's core, dead because our cars carried development with them into the seemingly limitless Valley, has been the killing field for many ambitious projects: Square One, planned as retail project for a decade and never built; Estelle's Bistro, a show-stopping restaurant on Monroe Street during the Eighties; hotel deals that withered as developers compared our graveyard to Scottsdale's playground for guests. Fife Symington's Mercado. Developers like Symington and Square One's Julian Blum have been ruined in attempts to bring the city center to life.

Yet there has apparently been no stumbling (or failure) for Colangelo, who is widely credited with single-handedly resuscitating downtown. It isn't true, of course; others have taken risks, perhaps most notably the Rouse Company, whose Arizona Center, planned throughout the late 1980s and finished in 1990, predates the Suns' arena. It even predates the citizen bond initiative that, in 1988, poured $100 million into the building of Will Bruder's spectacular new library, the renovation of Phoenix Art Museum, the Phoenix and Herberger theaters, the refurbishing of the jewel-like Orpheum Theatre, the Phoenix Museum of History and its partner across the courtyard--the concrete monstrosity known as the Arizona Science Center.

Phoenix residents, led by then-mayor Terry Goddard, whose cultural vision for the city has never been matched, had shown their commitment to downtown before Jerry Colangelo's America West Arena came into the picture.

But there is little doubt that much of what has happened since couldn't and wouldn't have without Colangelo.

How has he done it? Who is this guy?
In nearly six hours of interviews with Colangelo, New Times posed these questions and many more. What emerged was the kind of philosophical dialogue in which Colangelo has not engaged in our memory. What also emerged was a telling portrait of an extremely complex man who sincerely wants to do right, who can infinitely rationalize what is right, and whose hair-trigger sensitivity to any form of public criticism is surprising in one who has achieved wealth, exalted position and nearly unqualified respect from his peers.

Here, in his own words and those of his critics and fans, is the Colangelo we have come to know. We acknowledge that behind this man's alternately probing and shielded eyes there is still a man we will never know. We wonder how well he knows himself.

I Did It for You
Test yourself: Are there some parts of Colangelo's early life you haven't already heard?

He was a poor kid from an Italian-American neighborhood in Chicago Heights known as "Hungry Hill."

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