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Valet of the Suns : Jerry Colangelo Presides Over NBA Team's Rise in Phoenix, but He Isn't Finished With Big Plans for Arizona

May 01, 1994|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — The sun streams through the windows that make up three walls of Jerry Colangelo's corner office in his Taj Mahal, the $90-million America West Arena.

To the north sit the downtown office buildings. In 1966, when he arrived, it was a metropolitan black hole. New Arizonans checked their urbanity at the state line.

To the south sits the site of a proposed $253-million domed baseball stadium. Colangelo leads the local group applying for a major league expansion team.

Or maybe they'll put the facility east of America West. They aren't sure.

The desert fox watches an empire emerging in the hard-baked Valley of the Sun. Colangelo's basketball team has become one of the NBA's entrenched powers, but until the '90s he was a guerrilla pitted against the rich and famous, the purple and gold, the shadow that fell across his kingdom . . .

The Lakers. "Immediately to the west of us was the giant, L.A.," Colangelo says. "Phoenix, first of all, was kind of a stepchild city to Los Angeles. And the proximity and the stars that the Lakers had. . . . "

The salary cap leveled the playing field. Time leveled the Lakers. Now it's a scramble to fill the vacuum, with the Suns in the forefront.

Their storybook '92-93 season preceded this year's third-place finish in the Western Conference, but they have elite players and resources beyond those of a team in the nation's 19th-biggest television market.

Their 19,023-seat arena always sells out. Walk into a convenience store and there's a four-foot cardboard cutout of their mascot, the Gorilla, hawking a scratcher game. Colangelo plugs America West, the airline, not the building. Coach Paul Westphal endorses Neiman-Marcus. Frank Johnson, the backup point guard for heaven's sake, does a TV spot for the official chiropractor of the Suns. In one corner of the arena is the swank Phoenix Suns Health Club. A block away is Majerle's, the night spot co-owned by Dan, the local bare-chested poster king. Wherever you go are the voice, image, opinions, commercial endorsements and further adventures of the Sun God himself, Charles Barkley.

Given every break last season, other than the three-point basket by the Chicago Bulls' John Paxson that won Game 6 of the NBA finals, the Suns made more money than any other team.

Danny Manning's hard-nosed agent, Ron Grinker, praises Colangelo for doing it right. Indeed, it's hard to argue with the Suns' all-in-the-family operation.

The front office is run by basketball people, starting with Colangelo, a University of Illinois point guard in the early '60s.

Two former Sun coaches remain on the payroll, one of them Cotton Fitzsimmons, who left, was brought back, then moved to the front office where Colangelo thought up a title for him--senior executive vice president, or as friends call it, VP in charge of golf--to keep his brain in-house.

The current coach, Westphal, took Colangelo to arbitration twice but was forgiven when he showed promise. Neal Walk and Connie Hawkins work in community relations, Dick Van Arsdale in administration, Alvan Adams in the arena.

In lesser places, players are soon forgotten--remember when ex-Laker Pat Riley was turned away from the Forum press lounge?--but here there's an alumni lounge, next to the family lounge for current players, across from the decadently luxurious home team's dressing room and the practice court.

So conspicuous had Colangelo become as a rival that Magic Johnson, retiring for the last time in 1992, blasted him for having stage-managed a campaign to get him out of the Suns' way.

Colangelo acknowledges raising the medical issue of Johnson's return at a board of governors meeting but says that's as far as it went.

"The day I heard the news he'd retired (in 1991), I was stunned," Colangelo says. "I cried. That doesn't sound to me like someone who's leading a campaign."

The Suns play to 100% capacity; the local NFL team runs closer to 50%.

The city hungers for major league baseball, its appetite whetted by the Cactus League and the old Arizona State dynasty. Colangelo says he has been assured by baseball officials that Phoenix will join the National League and St. Petersburg, Fla., the American in the next expansion. A quarter-cent sales tax increase to build a new stadium has been approved.

Colangelo is sometimes called the most powerful man in Arizona. He has to deny speculation he will run for office. The anti-tax people are upset at him. The minor league hockey people fear he will use his friendship with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, the former NBA counsel, to import still another team.

Not bad for a guy who arrived at 27 with a wife, three kids and "$1,000 in my pocket," is it?

*

Not that anyone was buying what he was selling in those days.

Like Willy Loman, Colangelo was out there on a smile and a shoe shine, proprietor of an enterprise no one had sought or wanted.

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