Our Hero

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

His grandfather was a janitor.
He won't talk about his father, saying only that there was "a lot of bad feeling." A Colangelo intimate says that, during his adolescence, he literally threw his father down the stairs and banned him from the house to protect his mother from physical abuse.

"The good news is this," says Colangelo, who likes to put a positive spin on things. "After all those years of hurt and some bitterness and disappointment, there was a reconciliation [between his parents] before my mother died last May. And it took place in this office."

Colangelo says he arranged it himself.
His work ethic evolved early. Young Colangelo caddied and delivered newspapers twice a day, beginning at age 9 or 10. At 5:30 a.m., his grandfather provided a wake-up call by hitting exposed water pipes; when Colangelo stumbled downstairs, his grandfather greeted him with a fresh cup of coffee, "and sometimes just a spot of whiskey, to keep me warm," Colangelo says. The night his grandfather died, a ball game was scheduled. "I went out and pitched a no-hitter, crying, because I was doing it for him," Colangelo says.

He was a natural leader and athlete. It was the latter that shaped his life most immediately: By high school graduation, he'd received 66 college scholarship offers for basketball and seven for baseball. He ended up shooting hoops for the University of Illinois. He was team captain by his senior year and was eventually inducted into the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame.

The rest--his brief stint working for the Chicago Bulls organization; his arrival in Phoenix in 1967 as general manager of a new, colorless NBA franchise, the Phoenix Suns; his cobbling together of a group to purchase the Suns in 1987; their rise to near-glory; the acquisition of the Diamondbacks--is also well-known history.

But it is "Hungry Hill" that Colangelo talks about most whenever a reporter is in earshot. Again and again, he says that, although he may appear to be a rich man who conducts business on a world cell portable, works in a large office of mahogany built-ins on thick Oriental rugs behind massive windows that provide a panoramic view of his personal downtown, he is actually (as old friend Narcisi put it) just "one of the guys."

"I keep repeating it because I have to keep repeating it," he says. "I am still the same guy from the old neighborhood. . . . I need to cling to the past and those memories. That is the balancing act I go through.

"I try to go back at least a few times a year. I go back because it is kind of soul-cleansing. It keeps my feet on the ground and close to the people I come from."

How can reexperiencing the past gratify you when in childhood there was so much angst about your father?

"We all have things in our past that we wish had never taken place, so when you do cling to the past, that can only happen with selective, positive memory."

He pauses.
"You are also almost embarrassed by the level of success," he says. "It is easy to be a little bit embarrassed and to minimize it by talking about the past to take the focus away from success.

"I have known throughout my career, all the way back to Little League baseball, that many people were living through me vicariously, and I have always felt that I carried that proudly on my back. They [old neighbors] take great pleasure in everything I have done. And no one has ever come out of that neighborhood that achieved what I have been able to achieve.

"I have always felt that I carried the people here, too. That is what drives me. I feel a sense of community about being a traveling ambassador.

"The joy that I will take in seeing people enjoy this team, and the attention it will bring to this community, is my satisfaction. Money is a by-product."

At one point in this recitation, he explodes a little with frustration. "The problem with all this is that it is going to sound so self-serving!" he says.

Well, such purity of intent is a little hard to swallow when you've got a $238 million tax problem stuck in your throat.

But business associates in particular say that there is a certain purity about the man. Sports agent Herb Rudoy, who has known and negotiated with Colangelo for 30 years, thinks highly of him. "He is a very honorable man," he says. "When you make a deal with him and you do not execute the contract for a month, nothing will change with him. If your player breaks both of his legs during that time, you still have a deal. It is very unusual. You know when you have his word that it is finished. With many people running teams, you cannot trust their word."

Says David Falk, agent to the superstars of sports, including Michael Jordan: "When I deal with Jerry, I feel that I am dealing on a higher plane than average." (Falk has represented Suns players Dennis Scott and Rex Chapman.)

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