By Paul Coro
GCU News Bureau
Colangelo. Tables for 425.
Without reservation, that is much more than a dinner. For a sports icon who helped turn Phoenix into a major city and carries a respected global reputation in basketball, Wednesday night’s gathering whittled down Jerry Colangelo’s world to the Grand Canyon University campus.
“A Night to Honor a Legend” served as the grand opening to the Jerry Colangelo Museum and a GCU Arena dinner tribute to his life.
The VIP list of Hall of Fame members, Valley power brokers, star athletes, friends and relatives toured the museum and new GCU Basketball Practice Facility before filling 42 dinner tables spread across the GCU floor. There, the program featured a panel of notable figures in Colangelo’s life and tied how his eight-year association with GCU follows in line with how he raised the stature of the Phoenix Suns, Arizona Diamondbacks and USA Basketball.
“Life has been good,” said Colangelo, who entered to “The Godfather” theme before stifling emotions as he delivered humbled thanks to the people in his journey. “Life has been very good. At this stage of my life, I feel blessed to be able to continue to do all the things I do. When I’m asked, ‘When are you going to retire?’, my attitude is I’ll go as long as I can, as hard as I can, until I can’t.”
The night’s speakers shared how there has been little but “can” in Colangelo’s 50-year impact on Phoenix, restoration of USA Basketball and involvement with GCU.
Stars abounded for the event. Suns Ring of Honor members Dan Majerle, as GCU Men’s Basketball Head Coach, and Al McCoy, as emcee, and Paul Westphal, as a panelist, spoke from the stage with fellow Ring members Tom Chambers, Walter Davis and Dick Van Arsdale in the audience.
The affair featured 10 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame members – Colangelo, Van Chancellor, Teresa Edwards, Alex English, Dan Issel, Mannie Jackson, Bernard King, Nancy Lieberman, Ann Meyers Drysdale and Jamaal Wilkes. A baseball Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa, was joined by three Colangelo-era Diamondbacks, GCU Baseball Coach Andy Stankiewicz, Jay Bell and Junior Spivey. GCU basketball players presented Colangelo a framed replica of a “Thanks, Jerry” full-page display that GCU placed in The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Business Journal.
Guests were greeted in the arena by the “Thunder Big Band” playing Colangelo’s favorite tunes aside a stage designed like a living room. Seven plush chairs were set for panelists with decorated bookcases to the sides. The large overhead screen took on the look of a window into downtown Phoenix’s Chase Field and Talking Stick Resort Arena, symbols of the downtown development that Colangelo steered.
“The successes we experience today were driven by the risk taking of entrepreneurs like Jerry Colangelo,” Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said. “He has forever changed the landscape of business and sports around the world. We are all indebted to what you have done for the city of Phoenix.”
GCU President Brian Mueller spoke of the time when Colangelo stepped in eight years ago to help transform the University.
“I, honest to God, think he just felt sorry for us,” Mueller said. “I can think of no other reason he’d talk to us then.”
Initially, Colangelo was part of a GCU advisory board until he shared with Mueller that he did not like boards.
“I like to decide,” Colangelo told Mueller.
Soon after, Colangelo’s name was affixed to the University’s Colangelo School of Sports Business and, later, Colangelo College of Business. Colangelo has continued to help guide the University in all facets, including his affinity for athletics and the men’s basketball team coached by Majerle, whom his Suns brass drafted.
“We’ve been incredibly blessed by his presence here,” Mueller said.
Duke men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has been Colangelo’s USA Basketball Head Coach for three Olympic gold medal teams, recorded a video in which he extolled on Colangelo’s ability to sustain excellence.
“I love the fact that what you accomplished and what you sustained will be celebrated on a daily basis at your university,” Krzyzewski said in reference to the Jerry Colangelo Museum that opened today.
Colangelo’s attention to detail was noted repeatedly, particularly in a story from former The Arizona Republic/The Phoenix Gazette executive Bill Shover. While in the hospital, Colangelo once told Shover that he saw someone fall by his window. It seemed implausible until Shover later learned a patient had jumped from the roof that day.
Former Suns and Diamondbacks executive Rich Dozer expressed the same sentiment in telling what happened when he asked himself, “WWJD?” (What would Jerry do?), when a dinner tab came for a large group of Diamondback stars and their wives in Seattle.
“I got this,” Dozer told superstars Luis Gonzales, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and others. “Uncle Jerry is paying.”
Colangelo had not questioned Dozer on an expense report in 15 years. This $17,000 dinner bill caught his eye the next day. Dozer explained his “WWJD?” approach.
“Good enough for me. Thanks. Bye,” Colangelo said.
His commercial real estate business partner, Mel Shultz of JDM Partners, said Colangelo’s tenets to use your platform, understand relationships and create access will help make CCOB among the nation’s finest business schools.
“Learn what Jerry has done in his life,” Shultz said. “Emulate that.”
Colangelo has been famously straightforward and rewarding of pro athletes. That has earned their respect and appreciation, like the time Dozer shared that he bought Chambers a Mercedes on behalf of Colangelo to thank him for his first Suns season.
“I thought Tom was going to cry, but it just embodies how Jerry treated players,” Dozer said.
When Colangelo became chairman of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, a new $40 million museum had opened in Springfield, Mass., but the organization was $15 million in debt.
“He said, ‘We’re going to make this work,’ “ said John Doleva, the hall’s president and CEO. “We are, with all due respect, the Smithsonian of basketball history. I don’t know if we would’ve survived if we hadn’t met Jerry Colangelo.”
FOX 10 sports anchor Jude LaCava is the dean of Phoenix sports media. Shortly after his arrival, he took a walk with Colangelo through Arizona Center in 1989 and heard his vision for what the city wound up becoming. LaCava said Colangelo’s impact exceeds what any Arizona politician has done for metropolitan Phoenix.
“Chicago had a George Halas,” LaCava said. “Pittsburgh had the Rooneys. You only get one of these gentlemen. A visionary that is as successful as he is, he gives it back tenfold. We’re blessed to have him.
“When he walks in a room, he commands a presence. That’s a knack and a quality that has carried over to GCU.”
Contact Paul Coro at (602) 639-6841 or [email protected].