Colangelo's Idea of Fair Play

I arrived half an hour early. I wanted to watch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in warm-up. It was to be one of Kareem's final appearances as a player in Veterans' Memorial Coliseum.

The press box was nearly empty. As I have been doing for the past nine years, I spotted an empty chair in the press box and sat down.

Truthfully, I did expect there might be some unpleasantness from Jerry Colangelo, the Suns' president.

In that very day's editions of New Times, there had been two stories blasting Colangelo.

The first was a column by editor Michael Lacey. The second was a fascinating delineation by Andy Van De Voorde of Colangelo's strong-arm attempt to force the Phoenix City Council into building the Suns a new downtown arena.

They both had the power to set the ever-sensitive Colangelo psyche to fluttering.

Colangelo was sitting in the middle of the press box. He shouted down to me. He did not say anything about the New Times stories. He complained, instead, that I never spoke to him anymore.

I thought this surpassingly strange. Actually, Colangelo hasn't made any attempt to talk to me for four years. During this period, he has buttonholed a couple of my superiors on newspapers and at least one libel lawyer, always complaining about my writing style.

Naturally, I took Colangelo's sudden interest in conversation as a cause to be wary.

We live just a few houses from each other. Surely, if Colangelo wanted to talk, he was welcome to drop around the house anytime.

I assured him I'd be happy to talk to him anytime I thought we had something worth saying to each other.

One day, long ago, we did have breakfast together at the University Club. It was at Colangelo's insistence, and it was to discuss a column I had written. He signed for the bill and suggested I join the club because it would be good for making business contacts.

For an hour, he had tried to convince me to see things his way, pointing out that Joe Gilmartin of the Phoenix Gazette would never write about the Suns the way I did.

"Joe would never write anything that would hurt the Suns," Colangelo said.
At the end, Colangelo asked me if I would now write a new column to replace the offending one.

I said no. That ended what I must now presume was our "friendly" period.
When we reached the parking lot, Colangelo stepped into his Mercedes. He has since switched to a Jaguar. I got into a Subaru. I have since switched to a Volkswagen.

Clearly, we have miles to go before our life styles reach common ground.
So, the other night, I understood the timing of his sudden interest. Men like Colangelo don't talk to you unless they have an ax to grind. The conversation was extremely brief. Colangelo has all the personal charm of Darth Vader.

But during its course, I did think about mentioning how strange it was that Colangelo had taken recently to sitting in the press box. For years, he'd been sitting down on the floor behind the Suns' bench. Perhaps he has decided to sell those seats, thus taking in still more revenue.

I didn't ask that question. It would have prompted Colangelo to dart back again to one of my bosses bleating about my failure to show him the proper respect.

Now for the fascinating anecdote that demonstrates the vagaries of modern journalism.

With the game only minutes away, up popped tiny Barry Ringel, Colangelo's media relations director and chief gopher.

"You can't sit in the press box tonight," Ringel said officiously. Ringel looked like a Viennese headwaiter gone berserk.

I pointed out to Ringel that I possessed authorized credentials, was a legitimate journalist and was in the press box to work.

I was, in fact, preparing both a column for New Times and a radio commentary for the following morning for KOOL-FM.

But Ringel remained adamant.
"All seats are taken," he said. "You can't stay in the press box."
"Do you want me to go home?" I asked.

"I don't care," said the Suns' media relations director, "you can't stay in the press box."

So I was kicked out of the press box under the orders of Suns management.

My seat was taken by someone who identified himself as a reporter from a religious radio station. I know that Colangelo has announced that he's a born-again Christian, but this is a little much.

The Suns' action raises interesting questions about press freedoms or as they refer to it, "media relations."

Can Ringel-Colangelo remove legitimate newspaper people from the press box? The Coliseum is state-owned property purchased with taxpayers' funds. The Suns only rent the Coliseum. The press box itself was built with taxpayer money.

There's also the matter of NBA policy.
Does the league sanction the banishing of writers who offend owners by writing stories the owners don't like?

Must writers agree to praise Colangelo and the Suns in order to gain admittance to the press box? Suppose I had refused to leave? Would Ringel have summoned the police to remove me? And suppose I refused the police and they had placed me in handcuffs and taken me away to jail?

What would the charges be? Disorderly conduct? Whose disorderly conduct?

Would it be refusal to obey a police order? Before it can be considered a proper order by a judge, it must be proved to be a legitimate one.

Does a police officer have the right to banish a legitimate newspaper person from covering a story for his publication? Press credentials specifically state they are to permit the bearer to cross through police lines. Colangelo knows about high-finance. He is, in fact, the acknowledged Uriah Heep of the NBA. He has learned how to make money without risking his own.

We have learned one thing about him.
He thinks the citizens of this city owe it to him to spend millions of their tax dollars on a new downtown arena for him.

If the city council doesn't do this, Colangelo has threatened to leave. If councilmembers do engage in this monstrous giveaway of tax funds without input from the voters, they should be voted out of office.

Perhaps I should take the easy way.
I'll write only positive things about Colangelo and ignore his questionable business tactics.

I'll bow and scrape to Barry Ringel, his official sycophant. Perhaps then I'll once again be admitted to Colangelo's vaunted presence.

I must go back to the question of who really owns the Phoenix Suns. The team was purchased by Colangelo's group at the enormous price of $54.5 million. Colangelo runs the franchise, of course. But he's really little more than a front man.

Look to the courtside rows at the big games, and you can pretty well tell who the silent partners are.

Thanks to Van De Voorde's reporting we have, for the first time, a clear picture of the ownership. There are actually ten different partnerships involved. This could cause big trouble at some future date.

There is, for example, a $34 million loan from the Arizona Bank, as well as a loan for $2.5 million from the team's previous owners, for which the interest payments could come to $3.6 million a year.

For the purchase, the Greyhound Corporation came up with $6 million, and Keith Turley's gang came up with another $4 million. With Greyhound, Arizona Public Service and the Arizona Bank all deeply involved in the purchase, you can see why they want a new downtown building for the Suns. They call that urban packaging.

Here's a list of the annual Suns' player salaries that must be met this year:

Tom Chambers, $1.8 million; Armon Gilliam, $900,000; Eddie Johnson, $875,000; Tim Perry, $600,000; Kevin Johnson, $575,000; Dan Majerle, $475,000; Mark West, $412,000; Jeff Hornacek, $260,000; Tyrone Corbin, $200,000; Ed Nealy, $150,000; Steve Kerr, $100,000. No salary is yet available for T.R. Dunn, but he was reputedly making $400,000 at Denver.

The salaries are high.
For example, former Suns star Walter Davis gets $600,000 at Denver while Larry Nance is paid $800,000 at Cleveland.

Chambers, one of the highest-paid players in the NBA, makes more than Nance and Davis combined. Since Chambers is white, he's clearly worth the extra money to Colangelo. Compare Chambers' $1.8 million with the following superstar salaries:

Moses Malone of Atlanta, $1.5 million; Larry Bird of Boston, $1.8 million; Kevin McHale, Boston, $1.3 million; Michael Jordan, Chicago, $2 million; Isiah Thomas, Detroit, $1,100,000; Ralph Sampson, Golden State, $1.9 million; Magic Johnson, Lakers, $3,142,000; and Karl Malone, Utah, $1,350,000.

Talk about life in the fast lane . . .

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Tom Fitzpatrick