When Jerry Colangelo looks back at his humble beginnings, he is often amazed at how much he has accomplished throughout his life as a sports team owner and executive. Noted for his past involvement with the Phoenix Suns, the Phoenix Mercury, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Arizona Rattlers, Colangelo has long been considered one of the most influential leaders in the business.
But Colangelo is most famous for restoring USA Men’s Basketball back to its former glory and leading the program to three consecutive gold medal performances in Beijing (2008), London (2012), and Rio (2016). Now a special adviser to the Philadelphia 76ers, he continues to seek out big challenges and relies on his faith every step of the way.
In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, Colangelo talks about those aforementioned beginnings, the importance of maintaining a healthy balance of priorities, and why a reputation for keeping his word helped bring the Redeem Team together:
Bonham: Tell me about your background and the unlikely path that brought you to prominence in the sports world?
Colangelo: I’m so pleased that I came along when I did and how I did. In my case, I came from a poor Italian part of South Chicago where people had very little. The only home that I lived in was a home that my immigrant grandfather built out of the remnants of two railroad boxcars and some extra lumber. In that neighborhood, nobody had much of anything. Everyone worked at the steel mill or the textile factories and it was a lunch bucket town. Everyone took care of one another. Everyone was welcome in one another’s homes. So I got it. I got a foundation right there and a little bit of sports ability led to some offers for basketball and I was a baseball prospect as a pitcher. Coming from that kind of a beginning and understanding what it was all about and to have been blessed so much, I’ve maintained a certain appreciation for the simple things in life.
Chad Bonham: How has your faith played a role in your career?
Jerry Colangelo: (In the early ‘60s) I was being transformed in terms of my personal faith in Jesus Christ. At the time, Coach John Wooden had a big impact on me. The fact that he was so outspoken regarding his principles made me admire him even more. This goes way beyond wins and losses and championships and things like that. In my lifetime, I’ve been pretty outspoken about my faith as a result. I’ve been very involved with many Christian organizations including Young Life where I’m presently the Chairman of the Board, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action and right on down the line. I came to understand that God gave me a platform and that platform being sports and achieving a level of success in those sports put me in a position to do some good things in His name.
Bonham: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as you’ve traveled this road to success?
Colangelo: One of the big challenges I found throughout the course of my career was balancing the priorities that are so critical, which should be your faith, your family and your business—in that order. So often people get that all messed up. That’s been very important to me. As a human being, its something I’ve always struggled with because we’re so competitive. We want to win and sometimes we can get lost. Since there’s only been one perfect person who’s ever walked the Earth, we all fall short and we have our struggles. This platform gave me an opportunity to not only do things that were expected of me because of my faith in Christ, but I also came to the knowledge and belief that with all the blessings I had, I would be held accountable for the resources given me, for my actions, my associations, everything about my life. I grew up understanding that life was about working hard and having goals and objectives, being honest, being sincere, being willing to pay the price, understanding the basic foundations and principles of living successful life.
Bonham: What was the key to turning around the USA Men’s Basketball Team and setting the stage for the Redeem Team?
Colangelo: My word has always been my bond. Leading with your honesty goes a long way. When the program was in total shambles after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, I was asked to take over USA Basketball. I said I would with certain provisions, one of them being total autonomy—picking the coaches, picking the players and then having control over the budget and things like that. But all I really had to sell was the vision and my own passion. When I went to meet with each of the players eyeball to eyeball, the respect was there—again, earned over a long period of time. Someone asked me how I got all of these players with big egos to respond this way and get in line and be a part of this team because it proved to be a great team. It was pretty simple. I told them what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, and if they wanted to be part of it, they had to A, B and C. And if it was too much for them, then they were out and we would find individuals who wanted to be a part of it. Well, I didn’t have anyone who didn’t want to be a part of it and it just kind of snowballed and all of the sudden we had hooked into something very unique. We asked them to check their egos at the door. They did. We said it would be the greatest experience of their lives. Everybody said it was. And it gave all of us a great feeling that we were able to share in something very unique on an international stage.
Bonham: What do you think would happen if more people approached their business with that same principle of honesty and keeping their word?
Colangelo: I’ve spent over 40 years in the world of professional sports. I’ve built a few billion dollars worth of projects such as stadiums and arenas and theaters. I’ve signed multi-million dollar contracts with a host of players. My word was my bond and my handshake was good enough for most of them. That seems to be a dying situation and that’s sad for me. There’s no question that people are very hesitant to go with just someone’s word or handshake today. It’s because respect and trust is something that’s earned over a period of time. It just doesn’t happen. You can’t ordain it. From my perspective, I wish life could be simpler. I wish people would trust one another more. I wish people would get along better. Life would be better.
Bonham: What comes to mind when you reflect back on this incredible journey you’ve had thus far?
Colangelo: Number one, this has been my journey. Everyone’s journey is a little bit different and the important thing is to stay within your parameters. When you get off the path is when you get into trouble. In my case, I really tried to live up to what I believe in. Then, I’m not afraid to fail. Sports have given me an attitude that failing was something I was afraid of. If it all ended tomorrow, it’s okay. It was a great journey.
(Photos: Courtesy of Chad J. McKneeley, US Olympic Team, Tony the Tiger via creative commons)