Youth sports becomes Hanzlik's crowning achievement
LAKEWOOD - With one honeymoon concluded, another was about to begin.
Bill Hanzlik and his wife Maribeth had just returned from Hawaii when he made a phone call to the basketball folks in Seattle. It was July 1992 – long before the age of internet access, e-mail and smart phones – and Hanzlik wanted to see if there was any news while he was on vacation.
The secretary in the SuperSonics office told Hanzlik that the general manager needed to speak to him. A few moments later, he learned that he had been traded to Denver.
As someone who firmly believes that things happen for a reason, Hanzlik was thrilled with the news. The Nuggets played an exciting style under coach Doug Moe, and it would be a homecoming for his wife, who grew up in Denver.
“It was the perfect situation for me,” Hanzlik said.
As he smiles at the memory, Hanzlik is sitting in the shade on a concrete bench outside the main entrance to the Gold Crown Field House, a building that would not exist if not for that fateful move from the Pacific Northwest 29 years ago.
Building A Foundation
When Hanzlik arrived in Denver, one of the first people he met was Ray Baker, a respected Colorado businessman and avid sports fan with the ability to get things done.
“Ray is probably one of the most influential people in Colorado that nobody knows about unless you’re the governor, the mayor, Pat Bowlen, Stan Kroenke or Dick Monfort,” Hanzlik said. “But he doesn’t thump his chest and say, ‘Here I am.’ He just loves doing things with kids.”
In 1986 – four years into their friendship – Baker asked Hanzlik to start a basketball camp. With two young girls and camps of his own back in his native Wisconsin, Hanzlik was hesitant. Baker upped the ante by proposing a girls basketball camp, but Hanzlik still wasn’t sure. When Baker proposed a non-profit girls basketball camp, Hanzlik was swayed.
The inaugural Gold Crown girl’s basketball camp on the Metro State campus consisted of 150 high-school girls – including 50 who earned scholarships – from as far south as Pueblo. The proceeds went toward paying the coaches and then donating the rest to charitable organizations such as Samaritan House and Colorado Christian Home.
“Once we paid all our bills, we had about $5,000 or $10,000 left over,” Hanzlik said. “We just tried to raise money, give scholarships and see how much money we could give away.”
That initial camp was the foundation for a program that has become the crown jewel of Denver-area youth sports programs. Sitting on a 13-acre complex at Harlan and Alameda, Gold Crown now operates basketball, golf and volleyball programs for 16,000 to 18,000 boys and girls annually.
The Gold Crown Foundation also has an after-school enrichment program that includes a computer lab for children living in nearby low-income neighborhoods.
“There was not a master blueprint that said we eventually want to get to this,” Hanzlik said. “We were just trying to fill a void, fill a need and find enough financing to make ends meet. We’ve been pretty lucky.”
Every success story involves an element of good fortune, but Bill Hanzlik built an NBA career on hard work.
With a 6-foot-7, 200-pound frame, the wiry forward brought hustle and a defensive mentality to Seattle after the SuperSonics made him the 20th overall pick out of Notre Dame in the 1980 NBA Draft. He averaged 5.6 points and 2.7 rebounds in two seasons with the Sonics before being the final piece of the trade that sent Nuggets All-Star David Thompson to Seattle in exchange for Wally Walker and a first-round draft choice.
Playing alongside big-time scorers such as Alex English, Dan Issel and Kiki Vandeweghe, Hanzlik was an ideal reserve for Moe, who affectionately referred to Hanzlik as a “no-hoper.”
“I was so happy to get Bill on our team because finally I had a guy that Doug yelled at more than me,” Vandeweghe said with a laugh. “Hanzlik was the all-time best guy and a great teammate because he didn’t care about scoring or who got the credit. He did all the dirty work from Day 1. He always wanted to take the hardest defensive assignment and set up a guy for a score. He made playing fun.”
Hanzlik provided some scoring punch off the bench when he averaged 12.5 points in 1985-86 (he also was selected to the NBA All-Defensive second team that season) and 13 points in 1986-87. Not bad for someone who rarely – if ever – had a play drawn up for him in the huddle.
“The biggest thing is I was a competitor,” Hanzlik said. “I was not the biggest, fastest or strongest by any means. I was totally below-average. The only thing I was average at was my size. I took a lot of pride in playing defense and I trained really hard. I was always physically in great shape, and that’s why Denver was such a good fit.”
After 10 NBA seasons and three back operations, Hanzlik retired from basketball in 1991 and joined the Charlotte Hornets as an assistant coach to Allan Bristow. He spent five years with Charlotte before moving to Atlanta to serve as an assistant to his former Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens in 1996.
“The funnest thing I’ve done coaching-wise was being an assistant coach on a winning team,” Hanzlik said. “In Charlotte, we were winning and it was a blast.”
The Hawks were about a week removed from being eliminated from the Eastern Conference playoffs when Hanzlik received a call from his good friend Bristow, who had been hired as Denver’s vice president of basketball operations just three months earlier.
Bristow was looking for a head coach, and he offered Hanzlik an opportunity to return to the city where his career took flight and be closer to his wife’s family and his ever-growing foundation.
“Getting a chance to go back to Denver was unbelievable,” Hanzlik said.
The potential dream job quickly deteriorated into 82 games of injuries, stress and frustration. Denver’s eventual playing rotation included five rookies, and the Nuggets finished 11-71 in Hanzlik’s only season as a head coach.
“Weird things happen, but there’s always a purpose,” he said. “Change is good. If you treat change as good and get after it, good things can happen.”
With unexpected free time, Hanzlik turned his attention to the Gold Crown Foundation, which was growing almost exponentially through its middle-school basketball leagues and team camps.
Through its partnership with the Colorado Rockies, Gold Crown received funds from the 1998 Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Coors Field to build Coca-Cola All-Star Park. The baseball facility is a replica of Coors Field and hosts more than 120 games per year.
“That gave us this marquee attraction that enhanced Gold Crown’s image,” Hanzlik said. “Then we started expanding our programs.”
Hanzlik and his partners then began the raising money to build a $6 million fieldhouse that would double as headquarters for Gold Crown’s many youth sports endeavors. The 56,000-square-foot facility, anchored by six basketball courts, opened in 2003.
Between team camps, tournaments, school functions and other programs, Hanzlik estimates that a half-million people pass through the fieldhouse every year.
“It’s a regional sports complex,” he said. “Ninety percent of the kids are within an hour and a half, but some of our tournaments have teams from all over the country.”
The Gold Crown docket is so busy that it contracts with the company that puts together the season schedule for the NBA and NHL. Spring and summer events included the 2011 National Wheelchair Basketball Championships, basketball and volleyball high school team camps, and Hanzlik’s own annual basketball camp.
Over Labor Day weekend, 52 teams from across Colorado will converge for volleyball tournament hosted in conjunction with Regis High School.
“You’re just constantly trying to plan ahead for the next big thing,” Hanzlik said.
As the CEO who oversees a full-time staff of 20 people, the 53-year-old Hanzlik still finds time to stay close to the NBA. He began working as a television analyst for the Nuggets in 2002 and still does studio work during telecasts on Altitude Sports & Entertainment.
His passion, however, is helping young athletes develop their bodies and minds.
Twenty-five years after Gold Crown held its first basketball camp, the honeymoon is far from over.