Let's Make a Deal

Jerry Colangelo sued reporters in 1983 when his name was linked with betting activities at a local deli. Bookies, high-stakes wagers, point spreads, he didn't know from nothing and it was libel if you said he did.

But if Jerry Colangelo resented being viewed as a gambler, apparently he has no problem being thought of as a thief.

Colangelo's latest plan, that the taxpayers and the City of Phoenix build him a new arena, is highway robbery.

Under Colangelo's leadership, the Suns have in years past suited up one of the whitest, dullest teams in the NBA. In two decades they've won only one Western Conference championship. They've had a losing record for the last four years and a drug scandal to boot. At the start of this season, the player with the most experience as a Sun was Jeff Hornacek, with a total of two years. To distract fans worried about a green team, management retired the jersey of Alvan Adams, former mediocre center.

Colangelo claims he needs a new arena so that he can rake in the revenues from a hundred new skyboxes. The luxury suites around the league cost from $35,000 to $120,000 yearly. Skybox leases will keep the Suns competitive, argues Colangelo.

It's hard to imagine who will pay that kind of money to watch the Phoenix Suns.

It's not as though these high-priced sports seats are economy-proof.
Despite the rabid enthusiasm in the big-cigar boardrooms this past season over the arrival of the Phoenix Cardinals, the football team's luxury skyboxes are not a hot ticket in the current recession. Ordinarily, the Valley's premier silk-stocking law firm, Snell & Wilmer, would be considered a lock to buy a skybox. And yet the partners at Snell & Wilmer were hotly divided over whether or not to purchase a luxury suite. This division was all the more remarkable because Keith Turley of Arizona Public Service is one of the point people for skybox sales and APS is one of Snell & Wilmer's most important accounts. "Keith Turley is a persuasive guy," recalled one partner at Snell & Wilmer. "He's an important client, you bet. There's no question that he's a guy we're going to pay attention to when he speaks." With this proper perspective, the well-heeled partners eventually voted to spend the big bucks for a skybox suite.

Times are tough. Are there enough fat cats to purchase a suite for the Suns as well as the Cardinals?

Don't be ridiculous.
The Suns can't even fill the inexpensive seats they already have at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. Colangelo's team has the worst ticket sales of any franchise in the NBA.

The other argument Colangelo puts forth as to why we ought to subsidize this new arena fantasy is that this structure would revitalize downtown. Colangelo paid some consultant in San Francisco good money to convince us that a new, subsidized basketball stadium downtown would generate $3 billion for the local economy. These incredible dollars would nourish new bistros, restaurants and saloons that would spring up like mushrooms to serve the yuppie sports fans at Suns games.

This is hilarious.
Take a look at the area around the Coliseum where the Suns currently play. Where are all the nightlife establishments catering to the basketball crowds? They don't exist.

I stopped at the Long Wong's restaurant near the Coliseum before going to last week's game with Charlotte. Wong's sells some of the best Buffalo wings in the Valley and even promotes a sports theme by covering the counters with Topps football cards. Yet I was the only person in the joint. I asked if the Suns games generated more customers. The owner looked at me like I was playing a cruel joke on him.

The city, explaining why it wants taxpayers to subsidize Jerry Colangelo, claims that a new arena would attract a third hotel downtown, and then Phoenix would book larger conventions. This is triply iffy.

First a reasonable deal with Colangelo must be struck. Then a hotel has to be lured into the deal. Finally conventions must be attracted.

Originally Colangelo's idea of a reasonable deal was that taxpayers should give him $261 million.

Phoenix selected Denny Maus, director of community and economic development, to haggle with Colangelo. Maus' experience consists of running the Civic Plaza in the red for seventeen years. Neither a savvy businessman nor an elected official who can be voted out of office for his bumbling, Maus bears careful watching.

To give you an idea of how a bureaucrat approaches an $88 million business deal, Maus says the Suns don't need to open up their books. Maus maintains that the owners of the Suns are reputable people and that if there is a problem of payment, the city will know where to go to collect its debt.

I think if Denny Maus believes this he is a moron.
Last year when Colangelo decided he wanted to own the team, not just manage it, he paid more for the Suns than anyone had ever paid for an NBA franchise. He went $36 million into debt to pull it off. You can bet the bank that loaned him the money closely examined the Suns' books.

Even with the tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies that Colangelo wants to hustle Phoenix for, he will still have to borrow another $31 million to cover his share of the arena's cost, creating almost $70 million of total debt. You can be sure that the bank that lends him the arena millions will closely examine the Suns' books.

But Denny Maus, who has seventeen years of experience running the Civic Plaza in the red, says it isn't necessary for Phoenix and the taxpayers to look at Colangelo's books before underwriting Colangelo's glorious expansion.

And if the entire enchilada collapses, Maus says the owners of the Suns are reputable people who will cover their debts.

And that's moronic.
Gary Driggs and his brothers at Western Savings were reputable people, but they went up in a puff of smoke in the new Phoenix economy.

If the Suns arena deal collapses halfway through, Phoenix will be last in line to collect its share behind the banks that loaned Colangelo the $70 million.

And Denny Maus will be nowhere to be found.
I don't think you do $88 million arenas based on the idea that Jerry Colangelo is a reputable man.

I don't even believe Jerry Colangelo is a reputable man.
In November 1987, Colangelo stood before the Valley Forward Association speaking about his born-again religious conversion, about trying to convert Phoenix Suns, about team prayer meetings. This occurred during the team's drug scandal.

I was raised to believe that honorable men don't brag about their sexual prowess or their religious convictions. So I'm not very reassured when some bureaucrat reassures me that the likes of Jerry Colangelo is reputable and therefore good for his debts.

And why is it that a guy like Colangelo, who owns two white Jaguars and who talks so freely about Jesus, makes me nervous when he puts his collection plate in my face?

Look, Colangelo goes off like a terrorist when frustrated. After the first serious roadblock to Colangelo's success, the '87 Suns drug scandal, Jerry erupted. He found God, he bought the franchise, he traded the entire team away and, without planning it, created a new, exciting collection of players who have talent and scrap in equal measure.

Frustration clearly motivates the guy. And it's time for Maus to thwart Colangelo until the owner gets real about the arena deal. Who knows, Colangelo's anxiety might spur him to go out and spend the money it takes to create a winner. Colangelo is spending $400,000 less than the minimum NBA cap on players' salaries. Take those greenbacks and add them to the additional $500,000 it would take before Colangelo approached the league maximum, and the Suns could buy another million-dollar athlete. Maybe the kind of ballplayer who'd embarrass Armon Gilliam into grabbing a few offensive boards. Colangelo has this money. He just won't spend it.

If Colangelo wants the taxpayers to subsidize him, to become his business partner, then he needs to open his books so we can discuss this proposition like gentlemen.

Anything less is a greasy con job.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey