Colangelo’s 40-year journey reaches Hall of Fame

By Mike Tulumello, Tribune
Posted: Sept. 10, 2004

As he prepared for today, when he joins the legion of basketball immortals at the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., Jerry Colangelo must have — in some introspective moment — posed a question or two to himself:

What if I'd never stuffed that business card in my wallet, the one bearing the name of Dick Klein, a Midwest businessman, and found it a year later?

Would I still have embarked on a four-decade career in pro basketball, one that would have led to today's enshrinement?

Before heading to Springfield, Colangelo talked about his life. He focuses much more on moments like these. He seems to figure most people who care know about his 36-year career with the Suns. So he talks less about arriving in a boomtown in 1968 to take over the Suns as a 28-year-old general manager, at a time when the big league sports world was exploding.

He passes up such stories as the one in which the Suns made an improbable run to the 1976 Finals and Colangelo found himself taking questions from reporters at one corner of the floor in storied Boston Garden, with the legendary Red Auerbach answering questions in the other corner.

(Colangelo's thought at the time: "We've arrived!")

So Colangelo talks about how, as a scout for the Chicago Bulls, he sat and listened to the opinions of the league's pioneers, until a scout for the New York Knicks named Red Holtzman told him, "Kid, you're going to be OK in this league."

"What do you mean, Red?" he asked the future Hall of Fame coach.

"You keep your mouth shut because you don't know anything."

Says Colangelo, "From that time on, Red kind of took me under his wing. For the next year we basically traveled together on scouting trips. I learned a great deal from him.

"I try to pass on that story and that lesson to a lot of people who came into this league."

He talks about the time, just recently, when he toured his old neighborhood in Chicago and discovered the remnants of the rim he'd once attached to a 75-year-old garage. (Colangelo learned to play shooting at merely the rim, no backboard and, usually, no net.) About how he always pictured himself as a baseball player until he first picked up a basketball and smelled the leather.

Or about the time, in seventh grade, when he was cut from his grade-school basketball team because the left-handed Colangelo stumbled at converting right-handed layups. He worked until that problem never resurfaced.

About how he played on weekends in tough games in a nearly all-black setting on south-side Chicago playgrounds and loved every moment of it.

He talks about how — with his tuxedo business faring poorly — he studied that card and called Klein, who told him, "I remember you. You used to play at Illinois."

Or about how he went to work for Klein, who then soon revealed his dream of bringing an NBA team to Chicago.

About how Klein called him from New York with the news, "We're in!" And how he sent out notices to reporters that a "major announcement" of local and national interest was planned the next day at Chicago's Water Tower.

He recounts how he immediately drove through a snowstorm to play in a semi-pro game (he would be paid a handsome $50) in Grand Rapids, Mich., how he scored 37 points, including the game-winner in overtime.

The only trouble was that he had put his valuables, including his car keys, in the bag of a teammate named Mannie Jackson, who put the bag in a safe place until the game was finished. But Jackson left in a hurry because of the approaching storm.

So Colangelo broke into his own car, found an extra set of keys and drove back to Chicago, showered and got to the news conference just in time to announce the birth of the Chicago Bulls. Colangelo had been a basketball teammate and friend of Jackson at the University of Illinois.

Colangelo, a highly recruited guard, at first had picked Kansas because the great Wilt Chamberlain was there. But once there, Wilt broke Colangelo's heart when he told him he was leaving school to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.

Colangelo transferred to Illinois, but not before spending a few months working in the sewer department and riding garbage trucks back home to earn some money.

Then it was on to Illinois, where, Jackson recalls, Colangelo "didn't go by convention."

Jackson, a black student, recalls that minorities had a tough time gaining access to the best study materials, some of which were kept by the all-white fraternities.

Colangelo, however, "was very open in sharing what he had with us.”

"That would not have happened if he had observed the convention of the day."

During one holiday break, when the university all but shut down, the players stayed on campus. Because the town's restaurants and theaters discriminated against blacks, there was nothing for them to do.

The white players went out on the town. Everyone except Colangelo, who stayed with Jackson and another black player, drinking a beer or two and swapping basketball stories deep into the night.

"Here's a guy who could have gone anywhere," Jackson recalls. "But Jerry stayed behind to talk to these two black players."

Jackson, by the way, has maintained a friendship and professional relationship with Colangelo. He now owns the Globetrotters, who are based in Phoenix.

Though none of Colangelo's old pals could have foreseen what will happen today, they don't seem particularly stunned, either.

"He had a great confidence in everything he did," says Paul Goebel, Colangelo's running mate, in the backcourt and off the court, at Bloom Township High in Chicago Heights.

"He had a great single-mindedness. He had the ability to focus on a goal and achieve it. . . . None of the things he did for the Bulls and Suns surprised me," said Goebel, who became one of the Suns' first employees, and who later was the basketball coach at Phoenix St. Mary's High School, where the Suns practiced in the early years.

His determination once paid off in a prep game vs. a team that featured Don Nelson, later an NBA star and coach, Goebel recalls.

Colangelo got hit in the nose so hard that he dribbled the ball down the floor with his left hand, while holding his nose with his right.

He used both hands just long enough to throw up a shot so long that it was "unnatural," says Goebel, now a high school teacher in North Carolina. "By the time the ball was in the air, his hand was on his nose again."

The shot swished.

All in all, Colangelo was "one of the greatest shooters I've ever seen" at any level, nearly on a level with the great Oscar Robertson, Goebel says. He also had great speed; he could nearly run with another player on their team, Leroy Jackson, who later became an NFL running back.

Goebel, like Colangelo, got by with effort and ability, but not by resources or connections.

Colangelo came from a family troubled by an abusive father. At the most dramatic moment, Colangelo threw his father out of the house, literally. They reconciled decades later.

Had Colangelo not hooked up with Klein, the face of Phoenix surely would have been different.

As one of the country's booming areas, the Valley of the Sun certainly would have been awarded big league sports franchises at some point.

But most likely, a basketball arena and baseball stadium would have been located anywhere but in downtown Phoenix. In the late 1980s, when sports teams were thinking about moving to the suburbs, Colangelo's idea of building a new basketball venue in sleepy downtown Phoenix was deemed nearly loony. Hearings on his idea once drew snickers from the audience.

Yet Colangelo, a city guy by nature, persevered; the building that came to be known as America West Arena later was named the NBA's finest. The Arizona Diamondbacks, another project taken on by Colangelo, and the downtown baseball stadium followed a few years later. Looking back, Colangelo has no easy answers for the break he got in going to work for Klein.

"I can only speculate" on what would have happened, with no card in the wallet. "My whole thought process at the time was supporting a wife and kids.

"I was just looking for a job, looking for work. That I would end up in a matter of days being associated with someone who had a dream, to bring pro basketball back to Chicago, and be a part of that, which set me off on a 40-year career in the NBA, is an incredible journey for me to look back on.

"Obviously, because I'm a believer, I believe with all my heart that it was God's plan that the card was put where it was, and that it all played out the way it did because it was His plan, not mine.

"I mean you can go from the card in my wallet to Phoenix, 2004, because that was all part of the plan." Similarly, Colangelo doesn't dwell on how he perceives his legacy will be written in Arizona, saying that's for others to decide.

Among those in attendance today will be Jackson, who says Colangelo "will be celebrated" today at his induction.

Jackson should know. He's among the Hall's trustees.

"This is big time," he says.

On a personal level, "I'm proud to have known him."

After all, ever since that night nearly a half-century ago, that otherwise lonely night on the Illinois campus, "I've been his friend."

COPYRIGHT 2004, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.