Jerry Colangelo was unobtrusively seated in a suite high above the court at Phoenix Suns Arena last Tuesday night when the NBA team he once owned thrashed the Los Angeles Lakers by 30 points in Game 5 of their now-concluded first-round playoff series.
The best-of-seven second round against the Denver Nuggets begins Monday night in the arena he once helped build. He said he’ll be there.
“I really enjoyed it,” he told Sportico in an exclusive interview. “I have tickets for all the games moving forward.”
The man once dubbed “The Godfather” of Phoenix sports is now completely behind the scenes locally, recognized forever among the franchise cornerstones—10 players, two coaches, an owner, trainer and announcer—in the Suns Ring of Honor. He declined to comment about whether his experience and expertise are sought by current owner Robert Sarver.
“I don’t want to get too deep into any of that stuff,” he said. “I will say, I’m very happy. I’m excited for the organization, for the management, coaches, players. It’s a good time in Phoenix again.”
No one, though, is more important to the history of Phoenix pro sports, which dates back to the Suns’ NBA debut in 1968. Colangelo, at 81, is about to retire as managing director of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team, replaced by Grant Hill after the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, because of “Father Time,“ he said.
But he rose with the Suns, from being the youngest NBA general manager in history at the team’s inception into the franchise owner. He founded Major League Baseball’s expansion Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998 and turned them into a World Series winner by 2001. He’s responsible for the NHL moving into the Valley when the Jets shifted from Winnipeg in 1996 and became the Coyotes.
His vision included the building of a downtown arena in 1992 at the cost of $89 million, which was recently renovated for $230 million, $150 million from the city of Phoenix, and $80 million contributed by the Suns.
That vision included construction of the adjacent, retractable-roofed Chase Field, which cost $364 million when it opened in 1998, $253 million funded by a Maricopa County sales tax and the remainder of cost overruns paid for by the D-backs. The ballclub is now considering a new user fee on stadium tickets, merchandise and concessions to fund a $500 million reconstruction and renovation Colangelo called necessary.
“They would be irresponsible not to consider every course of action,” said Colangelo, who sold out his portion of the club and his general partnership to Ken Kendrick in 2004 under the shadow of some $20 million in unfunded deferred player debt that had to be repaid via a bank loan co-signed by MLB.
The current D-backs ownership group, founded by Colangelo, paid a $145 million expansion fee to join the National League, and according to Sportico’s most recent valuations of MLB teams, is now worth $1.28 billion, 26th among the 30 teams.
Colangelo was more succinct when he asked if he still had any contact with the D-backs.
“No,” was his response.
Colangelo never owned the financially strapped and once-bankrupt Coyotes, but they played as tenants in his building for seven years until moving to a new hockey-only facility in Glendale. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sought out Colangelo when he needed a place to move that team.
Colangelo’s quick to recognize that every franchise, like the Suns, runs in cycles.
“The reality is there are franchises who had been buried in non-playoff land for many, many years,” he said. “The Suns went through a great cycle prior to the past 10 years, when they were not in the playoffs only a handful of times. And then came this period of time where the stars were not aligned, and you can speculate about the various reasons for that. Most everything that went wrong could have.”
The Suns had unprecedented success after Colangelo purchased the franchise, from a group headed by controlling partner Richard Bloch in 1987, for $44.5 million, or $104.6 million in today’s money. They made the playoffs 13 times in 14 seasons through 2004, when Colangelo sold the team to Sarver for a then-NBA record $401 million. By Sportico’s most recent valuations of NBA franchises, the Suns are now worth $1.64 billion, 23rd highest among the league’s 30 franchises.
Don’t shed any tears for Colangelo, who’s still an active local businessman and developer with a net worth of $300 million.
But money doesn’t always buy success. Until this season, the Suns had made the playoffs only once since 2008, and hadn’t won a playoff series since 2011 until they defeated the Lakers this past Thursday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Even inclusive of the Colangelo years, the Suns have never won the NBA title, having been to the NBA Finals only twice, the last time in 1993, as Charles Barkley’s club lost in six games to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
When Colangelo bought the team, it had suffered through drug problems, plus the death of key player, Nick Vanos, in a plane crash only a month after a former Sun, Johnny High, was killed in a car accident. High had been named in an indictment with other ex-Suns players for witnessing or being involved in drug transactions. Colangelo would later turn the day-to-day basketball operations over to his son, Bryan.
It was a low point in franchise history.
The Suns made the Finals in 1976 for the first time with a Colangelo-built team, losing to the Boston Celtics in an unexpected six-game series. Three players—Alvan Adams, Dick Van Arsdale and the Paul Westphal—and coach John McLeod from that team are in the Ring of Honor. Walter Davis, another Ring honoree, joined the team a season later. Adams still works in a front office capacity as a Suns vice president.
“The difference between now and then is that we started from scratch,” Colangelo said. “We were building all the time, trying to build history, trying to build a winning franchise. We had a number of bites of the apple, and that was all fine.”
The Sarver group is taking its bite of the apple after a period of low growth, and “trying to build their own history,” Colangelo added.
“They’re out of that circumstance,” he said. “Now, they can field a team that’s an exciting team, that’s a winning team with a very bright future. It’s been a long time in coming, but you have to be grateful when it comes.”
Colangelo will be content in his suite in the coming weeks, watching most all of it unfold.
(This story has been updated with details of Colangelo’s role with the USA Men’s National Team in the sixth paragraph.)