Inside scoop: Colangelo dishes, crowd eats it up
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Jerry Colangelo has generously shared his insights into life, relationships and business with Grand Canyon University students in his years of being associated with the University, but he outdid himself Wednesday.
Which is saying something.
For 45 riveting minutes in a session that could have gone on twice as long if Colangelo hadn’t had another commitment on campus, a big crowd of Colangelo College of Business master’s students and other interested observers gathered to hear Colangelo share stories — many of them not widely known — that provided insight into what has made this man so successful.
Colangelo clearly was enjoying himself as he answered questions posed by sportscaster Jude LaCava of Fox 10-Phoenix as part of the CCOB Dean’s Speaker Series. This was Colangelo at his gold-standard best.
He talked with wonderment, not braggadocio, of how he predicted the ending of the 2001 World Series, between the team he owned, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the New York Yankees, before the series even began. When asked in a pre-Series press conference about the matchup, Colangelo said his reply was, “I’ll be satisfied if it’s bases loaded, tie game, two out in the ninth inning of Game 7 with ‘Gonzo’ (Luis Gonzalez) at the plate. Because I know he’ll come through.”
As any baseball fan knows, it came to pass. Gonzo won the World Series for the Diamondbacks with a soft base hit over the drawn-in infield. But there was one thing Colangelo said he got wrong: “There was only one out,” he said, laughing.
The audience caught a glimpse of Colangelo’s considerable business savvy and sense of humor when he shared the story of how he talked free agent pitcher Randy Johnson into signing with the D-backs.
Years earlier, Johnson was building a house in the Valley and wanted courtside season tickets to the games of the first team Colangelo owned, the Phoenix Suns. Colangelo gave them to him but told Johnson, “You owe me. I’m just not sure when.”
He collected in 1998 after Johnson qualified for free agency and was available to the highest bidder. Colangelo said he called Johnson’s agent and told him he wanted to meet with the 6-foot-10 pitcher before any other team and also wanted a “second bite of the apple” — that is, a chance to beat any other team’s offer after Johnson met with other suitors.
When he went to Johnson’s home in Paradise Valley, Colangelo said Johnson was concerned about more than the fact that Arizona was an expansion team that had gone 65-97 in its first year of existence. The D-backs manager was Buck Showalter, a renowned disciplinarian, and Johnson was famous for his shaggy mullet.
“If you had hair down to your knees or toes and rings in your ears and nose, I’d say pass,” Colangelo told him. “But one out of three is OK.”
Johnson shocked the baseball world by signing with the D-backs for $52.4 million over four years, which at that time was the second largest annual salary in Major League Baseball. The D-backs went 100-62 in 1999, and two years after that they shocked the baseball world even more by becoming the only expansion team to win the World Series within its first four years of existence.
Colangelo sees the irony in that. For all those years, after arriving in the Valley to become the Suns’ first general manager in 1968 and then buying the team in 1987, he had chased a National Basketball Association championship, coming closest in 1993 when the Suns lost to the team with which Colangelo started his career, the Chicago Bulls. So, of course, he was a champion in baseball instead.
He told several interesting stories Wednesday about acquiring players for the Suns, and again his determination and business smarts were evident.
He remembered the time that David Stern, then the commissioner of the NBA, told an assembly of owners that the league was going to allow something new — unrestricted free agency. Colangelo said he looked at the owner of the Seattle SuperSonics and thought to himself, “You just lost Tom Chambers.”
Then, on the first day of the free agent signing period, he contacted Chambers’ agent before any other team, arranged a 7 a.m. meeting, asked how much money the player was seeking and said, “No, here’s what I’m willing to give you. You’ve got 30 minutes to decide.” Chambers took it.
Colangelo shared the juicy inside stories behind the decisions to draft four players who would become Suns stars — Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, Jeff Hornacek and Dan Majerle, now head coach of the GCU men’s basketball team. There was a did-you-know moment in that segment: Colangelo said he was all set to select Kobe Bryant, not Nash, in 1996 before the Los Angeles Lakers traded up to get the 13th pick, two slots ahead of Phoenix.
It was great listening for any sports fan but also useful information for people who can apply Colangelo’s wisdom. One of them is Trent May, the GCU women’s head coach, who said he finds himself using elements of Colangelo-speak when he talks with his players.
“Success breeds success,” May said. “His life is an example of that in all the right ways. The path that he speaks about is a great blueprint.”
Another avid listener was a member of the men’s team, Ryan Majerle, who is working on a master’s in business leadership. Majerle said he has studied the leadership qualities of several famous basketball coaches, such as Mike Krzyzewski and Bobby Knight, but Colangelo brings something extra.
“It shows you the hard work,” Majerle said. “But it also shows you how hard he worked for his family.”
One of Colangelo’s other muses was the fact that every team he managed or helped manage, from the Bulls to the Suns to the Diamondbacks to several smaller operations, was a startup. He got in on the ground floor and knew how to rise to the top — by thinking big.
“I think it’s great to dream,” Colangelo said. “If you don’t, then you’re missing out on a lot.”
He made sure his audience didn’t miss out on anything Wednesday. Colangelo talks often about how life is “relational,” and on this day he related in ways that anyone there will not soon forget.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.