THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD
I walk into the small garage on Route 30, an hour's drive south of Chicago. It's quiet here in Chicago Heights. Many of the factories and steel mills have shut down. It's hard times.
There is only one man at work in the garage. He also pumps the gas. I'm supposed to ask for Tony Renzetti, so that's what I do.
The mechanic is covered with grease, and right now his head is down into a truck motor. He jerks around.
"That's me," he says. "I'm Tony. What do you want?"
I tell him I'm looking to find some boyhood friends of Jerry Colangelo, and that his name had been mentioned.
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Tony's eyes brighten. In his 50s, he's still slim and about five feet seven inches tall. His hair is gray.
"I went all through school with Jerry," he says, "from grammar school until we graduated in 1957 from Bloom Township High School.
"We all lived a mile from here, over on 21st, 22nd and 23rd streets. It's an area of Chicago Heights called Hungry Hill.
"We were all Italians with big families. Most of our fathers worked in the steel mill. We had six mills going at that time. But Jerry's father was a house painter and his family was one of the smallest. There was just Jerry and his sister and his mother and father."
"They called it Hungry Hill because there was no way anyone was ever going to be allowed to go hungry. If you didn't have food, you'd be fed by the neighbors."
"Jerry never forgets his days on the Hill. When he comes back, it's just like he never went away. He's the same nice guy he always was. Hey, you don't realize what a skinny little kid he used to be. Let me show you something."
Tony rushes off to a large red truck. He reaches in on the passenger's side and comes back with what turns out to be a Bloom Township High School yearbook from Colangelo's freshman year. Tony finds the picture of the freshman basketball team. Colangelo, then weighing about 135 pounds, with large ears sticking out from the side of his head, stares from the front row.
"See how skinny Jerry was? You know, nothing ever came easy for him. He had to work real hard at school. Sports came easier for him. It seemed the talent for basketball and baseball was always there."
Tony remembers how Colangelo developed from the early days.
Colangelo's house was just two doors from the Three Star Ristorante on 22nd street. Garfield School, with its playground, was only a block away. All Jerry had to do was walk across an alley and he was there.
"This was a very quiet kid. But what a ballplayer Jerry was. He was the best basketball player we'd ever seen up to that time. He was such a great outside shooter.
"He was also a great prospect as a left-handed pitcher, too. Let me tell you how good he was. Jim Bouton, the New York Yankee pitcher, was on the same high school and American Legion team as Jerry. But Jerry was far ahead of Bouton."
Tony shakes his head.
"Let me tell you something about Jerry," he says. "We all know how successful he's become out in Phoenix. You might expect some people to be jealous of him. But we're not. We're proud as hell of him. To us he's still Jerry from the Hill and still our friend."
A little while later, I found Bob Leuder, who had been one of Colangelo's greatest supporters and fans during his high school playing days.
"I think Jerry's about 52. I'm 60 now. I saw Jerry play every one of his games at Bloom Township," Leuder says. "He was such a great outside shot, if they had the three-point deal when he was playing, he'd probably still be playing.
"He was a lefty and he was a great driver to the basket. That was a great Bloom team that he played on, and they rarely lost. People came from all around. If they had just a couple of breaks, they would have won the state championship.
"Jerry was a great pitcher, too. I thought he might make the big leagues, but he got hurt in the finals of the American Legion championship game in Cincinnati one year and he never came around. Anyone you ask will tell you that he showed a lot more promise than Bouton, who went all the way to the Yankees."
"This is a very classy guy who we all love," Leuder says. "Do you know that when I retired, he sent me a Phoenix Suns jacket?"
Frank Narciesi went to school with Colangelo, too. Narciesi is cautious, apparently afraid he's being set up to say something that will embarrass an old friend.
"All I can tell you is that he was a great friend of mine then and he is now, too. I go out to visit him every winter in Phoenix," Narciesi says.
"How good was he as a high school player? He was the best player on a team that was nationally ranked. In short, he was great."
Narciesi lets down his guard for an instant.
"The only thing I'm worried about is whether it was smart for him to get Charles Barkley."
"I guess you can put that in the paper," he says.
The people on Hungry Hill remember how Colangelo was recruited to play at the University of Kansas. He was to be a member of the same team as Wilt Chamberlain. But Chamberlain suddenly turned professional and Colangelo transferred back home to the University of Illinois.
"Was he good as a college player?" Leuder asks. "He was captain in both his final years."
Those were the days when Ohio State University had the best college team in the country and was led by Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Mel Nowell. Bobby Knight sat on the bench.
"I drove Jerry's father down to Champaign to see Illinois play Ohio State. We were certain that Jerry would pull off an upset. But they lost and I remember I totaled my car on the drive home."
Another of Colangelo's close friends could not be reached.
When Colangelo got out of school, he went to work for an old high school buddy, Charles "Chuck" Panici. They rented and sold tuxedos and the business was called "The House of Charles."
Panici became mayor of Chicago Heights and served for more than a decade, until he was forced to resign when he was indicted for extortion, which he has denied.
He was busy defending himself in federal court in a civil suit charging that he conspired with other city employees to destroy rental properties so the buildings couldn't be occupied by blacks.
Panici denied the charges, pointing out that blacks were already living in the same neighborhood.
But the jury came back with a verdict against Panici last Friday. Now it must be determined how much damages the city must pay.
Colangelo is now one of the most successful men in professional sports. He is the president of the Phoenix Suns and recently completed constructing the new American West Arena, one of the best in the league.
Each day Colangelo sits in a magnificent office, complete with his own dressing room and personal shower. There is a $15,000 rug on the floor in front of this desk.
I went over to have lunch at the Three Star Ristorante and to see the home where he grew up. The house still stands. The neighborhood is surrounded by factories. You don't see many trees. Today the old house may have a value equal to that of the rug on Colangelo's office floor.
Colangelo's home near the Phoenix Country Club golf course is worth close to $1 million, depending on the fluctuation of the market.
The Three Star is a classic Italian restaurant with color prints of Rome and Venice on the walls. The daily specials are Italian dishes like capreto, which is Italian goat, or rabbit cacciatore, fried calamari, gnocchi, pasta e fagioli, or peppers and eggs. And on Wednesday, there is always pasta.
There was no pasta being served on this day in the Three Star. The special was risotto with green peas and meatballs. Very good.
Arturo Cioe is the owner. Of course he knows Colangelo.
"Not long ago, Jerry comes in and we all go outside on the boccie ball court to play a game," Arturo says.
He leads me outside.
"See, what did I tell you? We have two official boccie ball courts. We have our own league."
He takes me to the bar to meet his son, Art Jr.
"I just got a call from Jerry's son Brian the other day. I went to school with Brian. He tells me the family wants to build their own boccie ball court out there in Phoenix."
I get in the car and head back north to Chicago. The sky is slate gray and the air is filled with the smells of industrial waste. The roads are clogged with huge trucks pulling double trailers along the Dan Ryan Expressway.
It's a long way from Arizona.
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