Throughout his storied career as a sports executive, Jerry Colangelo has succeeded with a unique combination of know-how both on the basketball court and on the business side of the operation. That savvy and experience has enabled Colangelo to be regarded as one of the top owners in professional sports.
Colangelo’s impact on the sports scene in Phoenix has been so great that the Arizona Republic named him the Most Influential Sports Figure in the state of Arizona for the 20th century and The Phoenix Business Journal voted him the top businessperson in the Valley for the last five years. Nationally, he has been ranked among The Sporting News most powerful people in sports for the last 10 years.
Since first moving to the Valley of the Sun in 1968 to take over the expansion Phoenix NBA franchise as the youngest general manager in professional sports, Colangelo has molded the Phoenix Suns into one of the most successful organizations -- on and off the court -- in the NBA. In addition, he brought Major League Baseball to the Valley in 1998 and serves as Managing General Partner of the 2001 World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks. Colangelo also was the key element in facilitating the move of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets to the Valley of the Sun to become the Phoenix Coyotes.
From his position on the NBA’s Board of Governors, Colangelo’s influence has been crucial to the growth of the NBA with his inclusion on the league’s Finance Committee, Long Range Planning Committee, Expansion Committee and Competition and Rules Committee. Commissioner David Stern turned to Colangelo to chair a special group in the 2000-01 season that evaluated the state of the game and made rules modifications. Colangelo was also the chair of the committee that welcomed Toronto and Vancouver to the NBA.
With the Suns, his roles have included general manager, head coach, president and now chairman, chief executive officer and managing general partner. The 34-year tenure with one franchise is the second-longest in the NBA, behind only Boston’s Red Auerbach, who has been an NBA fixture since the league's inception in 1946. Colangelo spent two seasons with the Chicago Bulls working as marketing director, scout and assistant to the president before moving to the Valley to help start the expansion Suns.
Colangelo and former president George Bush enjoy a Suns game.
Phoenix owns the fourth-best all-time winning percentage among NBA teams with a 1509-1247 (.548) mark, trailing only the Lakers (.619, 2621-1616), Boston (.601, 2612-1735) and San Antonio (.569, 1196-904). Colangelo has collected an unprecedented four NBA Executive of the Year awards (1993, '89, '81, '76). During that period the Suns enjoyed seven consecutive 50-plus win seasons from 1988 to 1995, including a franchise-best 62 wins in 1992-93 and a trip to the 1993 NBA Finals.
On two occasions Colangelo stepped in to coach the Suns, including the 1969-70 season when he guided the club to a 24-20 mark down the stretch and to its first playoff appearance. He also took over in 1972-73 and compiled a 35-40 mark. Overall, Colangelo is 59-60 as an NBA coach.
The state of the franchise was in question in 1987 but Colangelo stepped up and coordinated a group of investors that purchased the club for $44.5 million on October 14, 1987. That transaction was the first of many that helped Colangelo not only stabilize the basketball organization but also transform downtown Phoenix into an active and thriving district.
Colangelo quickly moved on a new arena for the Suns and in April 1989 the city of Phoenix approved the concept of a new, state-of-the-art arena in downtown that would house the team. The 19,023-seat America West Arena opened in June 1992 and became the first venue in the NBA to also house a full-size practice facility, an amenity now common in the league. The arena is a public-private partnership with the City of Phoenix and has played host to a wide variety of concerts, family shows and sporting events, including the 1995 NBA All-Star Game and the 2000 WNBA All-Star Game.
America West Arena is currently undergoing a $40 million renovation that will be completed in three phases that include the already completed new Platinum Club, the addition of an entertainment paseo, and a new entrance to the facility.
Colangelo added to his NBA involvement with a position on the founding committee for the WNBA, helping advance professional women's basketball in the United States. The Phoenix Mercury were one of the WNBA's inaugural teams in 1997. The Mercury set a league attendance record in their first season, advanced to the 1998 WNBA Finals and qualified for the playoffs three times.
When a group targeted Major League Baseball as a possibility for the Valley, Colangelo was asked to become the lead player in securing a team for Phoenix. That bid was successful in 1995 and shortly thereafter Bank One Ballpark broke ground in downtown Phoenix in a public-private partnership with Maricopa County.
As with the NBA, Colangelo is involved with the governing of baseball, serving on the Legislative Committee, Equal Opportunity Committee and on the board of directors of the MLB Advanced Media, the technology arm of the league.
The Arizona Diamondbacks began play in 1998 and won the National League West in just their second season to become the fastest expansion team in baseball history to qualify for the postseason, just as the Suns did in their second season in 1969-70. The Diamondbacks followed up that achievement by becoming the fastest expansion team to win a World Series Championship when they defeated the New York Yankees in a memorable seven-game series in November 2001.
Opened in April 2002, just down the street from the sports facilities, is the Dodge Theater. This $35 million downtown venue will host a variety of events ranging from concerts to Broadway plays, including boxing, family shows and corporate events. It will be versatile enough to expand its capacity to as large as 6,000 or scale down to an intimate 3,000.
Colangelo’s commitment to the Valley transcends sports and he is well-known as one of the city’s most active community leaders. He is currently Chairman of the Board of the Council of Leadership Education and Collaboration for a New Century, is vice president of the Phoenix Downtown Partnership and was a leader in the establishment of Employers Against Domestic Violence. Colangelo has served on the Board of Directors of the Phoenix Art Museum, Greater Phoenix Economic Council, Phoenix Community Alliance, Southwest Leadership Foundation, Athletes in Action and Phoenix Suns Charities. He is a lifetime member of the Phoenix Thunderbirds, an organization dedicated to the promotion of Phoenix through sports. In addition, he is past chairman of Arizona State University’s Dean’s Council of 100 and the Honor Board for Junior Achievement of Central Arizona, served as president of Valley Big Brothers, was on the board of directors of Qwest and was chairman of the board of the Christian Businessmen’s Club. As campaign chair for United Way in 1994, Colangelo raised the standard for community fundraising when he secured pledges for $25 million.
The author of a book titled “How You Play the Game,” Colangelo gives insight into the world of the business of sports and his own life. Proceeds of the book sales go to YoungLife of Arizona, Phoenix Suns Charities and Arizona Diamondbacks Charities.
An outstanding athlete, Colangelo prepped at Bloom Township High in Chicago Heights, Ill., where he was an All-State basketball honoree as a senior. A left-hander, Colangelo was the top pitcher on the baseball team that also featured former Yankee hurler Jim Bouton. Upon graduation he had 66 scholarship offers for college basketball and seven for professional baseball contracts.
He enrolled at the University of Kansas, but transferred after his prospective teammate, Wilt Chamberlain, left the Jayhawks for a pro contract. Colangelo transferred to the University of Illinois, where he earned All-Big Ten honors, captained the Illini as a senior and was later inducted into the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame. He also played two years of baseball at Illinois.
Born November 20, 1939, Colangelo grew up in the “Hungry Hill” neighborhood of Chicago Heights. His ties to “The Heights” and Bloom Township are evident in the Jerry Colangelo Gymnasium, dedicated in his honor November 10, 1996, and Colangelo Way, a street named after him. Currently under construction in Chicago is the Colangelo Center that will house the Italian-American Athletic Hall of Fame.
He and wife Joan have four children: Kathy Holcombe, Kristen Brubaker, Bryan, and Mandie Okyere, and six granddaughters and four grandsons, all of Phoenix.