Colangelo’s Olympic insights are as good as gold
By Mark Heller
GCU News Bureau
At this point, good luck finding a story Jerry Colangelo hasn’t lived or couldn’t tell.
Known locally and nationally as “The Godfather” of both the Arizona sports and business worlds, Colangelo owned the stage Thursday night the same way he’s owned franchises: successfully.
His humility, life lessons and humor made for another riveting hour of questions, answers and new stories to share with Colangelo College of Business evening cohort students – bachelor’s and master’s – as part of the CCOB Dean’s Speaker Series’ regular rotation of special guests.
A couple hundred onlookers squeezed into the Grand Canyon Beverage Company on the second floor of the Student Union, a crowd that included faculty, GCU executives and most of the University’s basketball teams.
It was a 45-minute Q&A with FOX-10 Phoenix sportscaster Jude LaCava that could have gone all night.
“It is such a privilege for our business students and this campus to have someone with the experience, insight and integrity of Mr. Colangelo,” said Dr. Randy Gibb, the CCOB dean. “I hope everyone appreciates and respects his involvement with GCU. What he has done for the Phoenix Valley as a businessman and leader is unmatched. We are so blessed to have him part of our university.”
LaCava repeatedly echoed Dr. Gibb’s sentiment throughout.
“He moved this state into the 21st century,” said LaCava, who has known Colangelo for more than 25 years.
Disappointment for Chicago contingent
LaCava asked questions about the Summer Olympics experience in Rio de Janeiro and its related experiences to the business world. Colangelo told of his attempt to bring those 2016 Games to his hometown of Chicago, his future as director of USA Basketball and what truly matters in the 21st-century business world.
Feeling as though President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey helped propelled Chicago’s presentation to become the frontrunner for hosting the 2016 Summer Games (Madrid, Tokyo and Rio were the other finalists), Colangelo spoke of how he and his fellow committee members were on a bus headed toward a meeting to find out the “verdict” of the awarded city. A passenger reading his Blackberry – “You don’t see many of those anymore,” Colangelo said – shouted that Chicago was out of the running. The bus turned around and went back to their hotel.
A third consecutive Olympic gold, however, soothed (somewhat) the sting. He spoke glowingly of his and the USA Basketball Team’s experience in Rio but challenged both the U.S. to better support its host city nominations (rather than burden the individual cities) and the Olympic Games’ governing body to not require billions of dollars to build venues, transportation, lodging and infrastructure to host Games.
It was Colangelo’s experience giving life to students’ classroom learning. Colangelo’s honesty was front and center. He said he believes media reporting about the Zika virus and expected lack of public safety were overblown, especially while some venues were half-empty.
“Did I see mosquitos? Sure, but being Italian, they stayed away from me,” he joked.
A Chicago Olympics would have been the perfect farewell for Colangelo with USA Basketball. Instead, he said, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be his last now that he has completely changed the culture of USA Basketball since its bronze-medal embarrassment (on and off the court) in 2004.
2020 will be his last
Former NBA Commissioner David Stern called Colangelo at home while he was recovering from prostate cancer in early 2005 about taking over USA Basketball. Colangelo had two ground rules: full autonomy of the roster and coaching staff selections, and “not a word about a budget.”
“I let the commissioner hem and haw and (rant) a little, and then I said, ‘It’s still No. 2,’” he said. “I have to do it my way.”
In addition to raising money through sponsorships, Colangelo personally interviewed every player and brought together a 40-person panel of former basketball Olympians and coaches. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski took the job. Colangelo’s second choice, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, took over for Krzyzewski for the 2020 Games on the condition that Colangelo stays.
“I love projects, challenges and part of it is still a game to me; business is a game to me,” he said. “It’s competition, it’s about winning and doing it the right way.”
Then LaCava gave the business students these stories’ big-picture lessons: “It’s not only what you do but how you do it,” he said. “You have to live with yourself.”
That message – along with Colangelo’s message of communication, honesty and relating to one another – struck a chord with business student Andres Ortega. Like Colangelo’s family from Italy, Ortega’s parents emigrated to America (from Mexico) and built their own opportunities, which Ortega cherishes.
Ortega was among more than 50 of his peers who stood in line to meet Colangelo afterward. He wore a Kobe Bryant jersey not only because he likes basketball and has a competitive streak in his veins, but because he takes being a minority in America seriously.
He got his chance to hear a legend who came from somewhere else with “humbling” roots, rise to the top of the business world, and “do good things.” Then a 1-on-1 chat and photo with Colangelo, who stayed to meet students for another 30 minutes.
“At one point you can make millions of dollars or change lives,” Ortega said. “You do what you love instead of for paychecks, and he knows it better than anyone.”
Contact Mark Heller at (602) 639-7516 or firstname.lastname@example.org