Shoot for the Stars

by Sarah Small

When Jerry Colangelo, currently the chairman of USA Basketball, moved his family from the Chicago area to Phoenix where he became the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, he had a wife, three children, nine suitcases and $900 in his pocket.

“It was exciting when you’re young, you’re eager,” Colangelo said. “Sports gave me another kind of a platform which was, I was never afraid to fail. It didn’t matter if we lost, I knew I was going to get up and try again.”

Colangelo, an alumnus of the University of Illinois, returned campus to speak at the College’s Dale Cozad Lecture in Entrepreneurship on April 8. While attending the University, he played basketball, captaining the team his senior year, and baseball.

“Coming back here is always very nostalgic to me because in some ways you can’t go back,” Colangelo said. “It’s never quite the same and then once you’re here it just brings back a lot of memories, good memories.”

He said his success is a result of the many blessings he’s had, including the upbringing he had in an old Italian neighborhood south of Chicago where he learned the true meaning of sacrifice and hard work. His athletic talent was also a blessing, he said, because it afforded him the opportunity to play ball at ILLINOIS, making him the first member of his family to attend college.

“And so that was another blessing, and it was here at the University of Illinois that I became a man, in a lot of different ways,” Colangelo said.

He met his wife on a blind date at ILLINOIS and made connections through basketball that laid the foundation for what was to come.

After graduating he connected with Dick Klein, a man who had a vision to bring professional basketball back to Chicago. Colangelo went to work for him, and the Chicago Bulls was born. After spending a few years developing the franchise, he moved to Arizona to accept an offer to work as general manager of the Phoenix Suns.

“I was very fortunate to be in a growth industry without knowing it with the start of the Chicago Bulls, the first expansion team in the modern era,” Colangelo said. “And I was 26, going on 27, and to meet people who I never would have met, is something I never would have had an opportunity to do, unless that chance opportunity had taken place.”

He served various positions with the Suns, including owner of the team from 1987 to 2004. In 1998 he helped start the baseball club, the Arizona Diamondbacks and was serving as chairman and CEO when the team won the World Series in 2001, the fastest team baseball in history to do so. He brought the Winnipeg Jets to Arizona in 1996, where the club became the Phoenix Coyotes.

“And so, my run in Phoenix was really something that I pinch myself about, and when people say, ‘Jerry do you ever think about it?’ and the best answer for me is, no, because I’m too busy thinking about what’s ahead,” Colangelo said.

Despite the World Series victory, he said he felt a void in his life because he had never won a basketball championship.

He described 2004 as being a watershed year for him. He sold the Suns, traveled Europe with his wife and underwent surgery for prostate cancer. While recovering from surgery, David Stern, commissioner of basketball, contacted him and asked him to take over USA Basketball.

He accepted the job and began the task of changing the team, which he said had hit an all-time low in the 2004 Olympics when the team finished third in the tournament. In addition to the disappointing finish, comments were made that suggested the USA team did not respect the sport of basketball, and or its competitors.

“So what I had to sell was a passion and a vision and a plan,” Colangelo said. […] “The culture needed to change because we did not show respect for the rest of the basketball world. […] We needed to change that culture, and I set out to do that. I did it one-on-one, eyeball-to-eyeball with each of the people I asked to participate.”

Part of changing the culture meant changing the attitudes of people involved, and Colangelo made it clear that the players needed to set aside their personal agendas for the sake of a unified team agenda. He said all members of the team bought into this idea and in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the American basketball team won the gold medal.

“When teamwork is the destination, victory happens along the way,” Colangelo said. “I really believe that.”

After a successful career in sports, Colangelo has a choice of three rings he can wear: a World Series ring, a basketball hall of fame ring and an Olympic basketball ring. He said he chooses to wear the ring from the Olympics.

“It’s because everything else pales to me,” Colangelo said. “To have the ability to represent your country on an international stage, to change a culture, to have a game plan, a passion, a vision, to have it implemented and executed. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Nearing the end of his lecture, he told a story that a mentor from the old Italian neighborhood where he grew up told him. Colangelo said the man pointed to a star and said, “Jerry, see that star out there in the sky? It’s better to be on that star for day than never get there at all.”

“That really has been the driving influence in my life because I believe it,” Colangelo said.

Colangelo spent his day at ILLINOIS meeting with many student groups and student leaders before addressing a larger audience in the afternoon. He said he found the efforts of the students admirable and made him optimistic for the future.

“I commend what’s happening here at the university,” Colangelo said. “I encourage all the young people to shoot for that star, to go forth, don’t be afraid to fail, enjoy your ride.”