By Jonah Sharf
Jerry Colangelo has taken on numerous roles in ensuring the success of the sports teams he has been involved with. He has been around sports, especially basketball, his entire life, and as much as he has had fun with it, he admits that he owes almost all of his success to basketball.
Colangelo has held the position of director of USA basketball since 2005, and when he meets with players for the US national team, he discusses his motivations for taking and continuing with the role.
“I could look them in the eye and tell them that I came from the same side of tracks that they did,” Colangelo said. “Basketball has been great for me, it’s given me a heck of a life, and this is me giving back.”
Colangelo played baseball and basketball at an extremely high level in high school, receiving multiple college scholarship offers in both sports, with most in basketball. He eventually committed to play basketball at the University of Kansas with future all-time great Wilt Chamberlain, but when Chamberlain left for a pro contract, Colangelo transferred to his home-state school of University of Illinois.
After graduating from college, he worked at a tuxedo rental shop until he connected with Dick Klein and began to work for him—just six months later, Klein founded the Chicago Bulls and Colangelo became a marketing director among other jobs he had with the Bulls.
Due to this role, he was able to land a new role as the first general manager of the newly formed Phoenix Suns in 1968, where he was able to build a team almost from scratch. He eventually bought the Suns in 1987, and while they never won a championship, he put together some impressive teams. He eventually led a group to buy an expansion Major League Baseball team in 1995, which ended up being the Arizona Diamondbacks who started playing in 1998 and won a World Series in 2001.
“The only thing I’m missing with the Phoenix Suns is we didn’t win a championship, we had the fourth best record in the history of the NBA during my 40 years with the Suns,” Colangelo said. “I’m very proud of all of our accomplishments, and the irony for me is going into baseball we won a World Series in our fourth year.”
Colangelo eventually turned over his role with the Suns to his son, Bryan, who went on to have his own long career in the NBA with the Suns, Toronto Raptors, and Philadelphia 76ers, winning two NBA Executive of the Year awards. Jerry stepped down from his post with the Suns after winning four NBA Executive of the Year awards and approximately 40 years with the team, and from the Diamondbacks in 2004.
One of Colangelo’s most significant roles since he stepped down from the Suns, especially to Jerry himself, is his role with the US national team. He got the position after the 2004 Olympics ended in disappointment as the team only won a bronze medal, becoming the first American team composed of professional players to not win a gold medal.
“I wasn’t proud of the way people were looking at us as athletes and basketball people in particular, we had kind of lost our glow,” Colangelo said. “We had to change the culture, we had a lot of things to do and it was going to be challenging, but that’s fine—nothing comes easy.”
He always knew that getting into the sports business would be difficult, and that at the same time he would need to take risks if he wanted to be successful. Overall, his risks have clearly paid off.
Part of his success may be due to the fact that he was around basketball his entire life in one way or another. Basketball was meant to be a part of his career from the beginning, whether he knew it or not.
“Where many people in sports have made their fortunes and made their careers elsewhere, and decided to get into sports as a hobby, my life was within the sport,” Colangelo said. “I was the first person who had played, scouted, coached, [and] managed, to end up in ownership, so that was my life.”