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

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

The group that decided to buy an NBA expansion franchise was made up of rich men from Tucson and Beverly Hills. Their bid was accepted at a league meeting far, far away, with no Phoenix reporters in attendance. The city awoke one day to find the Suns on its doorstep.

Colangelo was a brash young man, brimming with drive and street smarts. His experience consisted of a year with the expansion Chicago Bulls. He was a Chicago kid and for all he knew, Phoenix was in the Sahara and as likely a place for a basketball team.

The day he climbed on a plane in snowy Chicago and disembarked in sun-drenched Arizona, he was halfway there.

He then talked the prospective owners into a $22,500 salary in a league in which general managers were happy to earn $15,000.

Colangelo was young and headstrong, with a weakness for looking over his coaches' shoulders before chopping off their heads. He dispatched the first one, his friend Johnny Kerr, during the second season and took over personally. His second coach, Fitzsimmons, posted 48-34 and 49-33 records, remarkable for the third and fourth years of an expansion franchise, and immediately bailed out.

"Be serious," Fitzsimmons said at the time. "You don't think Jerry wasn't going to fire me sometime?"

Says Colangelo: "He felt I still wanted to coach, that I was looking over his shoulder. . . . He probably was correct. Because we'd won in that first experience I had (the Suns went 24-20 the rest of the way, made the playoffs and took a 3-1 lead against the mighty Chamberlain-West-Baylor Lakers before falling), ego probably wanted me to think, 'I'd like to take a team from camp, go through the whole season, see what would happen.' "

Fitzsimmons was followed by Butch van Breda Kolff, a happy-go-lucky man anyone would enjoy socializing with, but best suited to a relaxed employer. Colangelo pulled the rip cord in seven games and took over again.

"We didn't hit it off real well," Colangelo says. "A lot of things were starting to wear on me. We were 3-4."

He went 35-40 and was cured of his coaching bug. His next coach, John MacLeod, lasted 13 seasons, building a snappy little unit around Adams and Westphal. The Suns didn't have a true center--MacLeod played the 6-foot-8 Adams at such a high post that opposing centers needed binoculars to find him--but they posted four 50-victory seasons and made the NBA finals once.

Age wore at them. The great drug scandal of the '80s threatened to finish off the franchise.

At the low point, Colangelo put together a group to buy out the old owners, gaining a small piece for himself to go with the operational control he had always enjoyed.

He rehired Fitzsimmons to coach the 1988-89 season and they began to rebuild. They traded their last star, Larry Nance, to Cleveland for Ty Corbin, Mark West and a rookie backup point guard named Kevin Johnson. They signed Tom Chambers, the first free agent under the current system, a gunner by reputation who averaged 26 points for them in two seasons. They went from 28-54 to 55-27, the third-greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history.

They haven't won fewer than 53 games in a season since.

Still, there was something missing.

A title.

*

Big guys don't brag about 50-victory seasons. Big guys win titles or go home miserable.

The Suns were still smart, small, entertaining . . . and usually home by the conference finals.

Colangelo had a last card to play, the Suns' great depth, a result of draft expertise that led to the selection of players such as Jeff Hornacek, Cedric Ceballos and Andrew Lang with second-round picks.

The answer was out there and its name was Charles Barkley, who was coming off a reign of terror in Philadelphia that involved arrests, fights and published criticism of teammates, management, the press and anyone else he thought of. His skill was undeniable, but it would take a brave organization to tie itself to the back of this tiger.

The Clippers, who could have acquired him by trading Charles Smith, declined.

The Suns had another advantage. Barkley and Fitzsimmons were golf buddies, giving Fitzsimmons an invaluable, and at the time, rare look at Barkley's lucid side.

Colangelo packed off Hornacek, Lang and Tim Perry to Philadelphia and harvested the '90s.

"There was a lot of speculation," Colangelo says. "Why would you go after Charles Barkley, he's this, he's that.

"What he was, was one of the most talented players in the league. . . . Give him a new team in a new city with all the things we had going for us, we were going to catch him on the rebound, he was going to be so excited to get out of there.

"The day after we made the trade, he walks into this office--we'd only been in the building for two weeks--and he was excited as all get-out.

"He hugs me and he says, 'You got me out of purgatory.' I said, 'Charles, take a good look around. This building is sold out. We don't need you to sell one ticket.'

"He said, 'So you got me here to win.'

"I said, 'That's it. That's what this is all about.' "

It almost happened, too.

The Suns, supposedly still too short, too casual on defense, too this, too that, won 62 games, best in the league.

They rose from an 0-2 deficit against the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs to reach the finals. They lost the first two games at home against the Bulls, but still forced a Game 6, which they led in the closing seconds, making the possibility of a Game 7 in America West very real, indeed, until Paxson's three-pointer dropped on their heads.

*

He came, he saw . . . he retired?

How can you have a happy ending if your prince walks away?

Barkley is talking about retiring. His back hurts. His buddy, Michael Jordan, is gone, as are Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and all the other superstars he measured himself against. He might not feel like staying only to call Scottie Pippen more names.

Colangelo notes that Barkley hasn't reached the league's salary stratosphere and here's his chance, suggesting Barkley won't be allowed to bolt for the golf course without at least touring the Suns' vault.

But if he leaves, the Suns will have a large salary slot with which to pursue a free agent. Manning might be available and Phoenix is on his short list.

The most powerful man in Arizona will think of something.

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