"I'll tell you a funny story," Jerry Colangelo says. It's about his son, Bryan, who grew up to be general manager of the Phoenix Suns, the NBA team that his dad owned until 2004. When Bryan was about 10 years old, Colangelo says, "He came home one day, and he thought for sure he was Jewish because he was always at the Jewish Community Center. That's where he used to hang out all the time, so he just assumed he was Jewish, which was, I thought, kind of neat, you know, that he would even think that."
The Phoenix Suns used the JCC as a practice facility in the 1970s and early 1980s, he says.
How did that come about?
"One of the first people I met was Dr. Paul Steingard ... and we got acquainted and he eventually became our team physician," Colangelo says. "He was a pioneer in sports medicine, going back to the late '60s. I believe that's where the introduction took place, but a number of the early, first-season ticket holders that I met in the community were from the Jewish community, and as a result of those relationships, the discussion about going to the Jewish Community Center for our practice, using that facility for practices, seemed to make all the sense in the world and so that became our home."
Colangelo will receive the Heritage Award, which the Arizona Jewish Historical Society gives "to individuals who have made an exceptional impact on our community," at a dinner at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in Phoenix on Nov. 12. His ties to the JCC and history as a sports, entertainment and real-estate development entrepreneur demonstrate that impact.
"I developed a lot of relationships in the Jewish community early on," he says. "They were very stout supporters of the Phoenix Suns, involved with the booster club, involved with various activities, and conversely, we, the Suns, were very involved in supporting a lot of the causes in that community, too." This included financial support and fundraising appearances.
The Colangelos moved from Chicago to Phoenix in 1968, just before Phoenix's biggest boom. At age 28, Colangelo had been hired to be the first general manager of the NBA expansion franchise.
Over the next 30 years, he was heavily involved in turning the Valley into a major U.S. sports market with franchises from all four major leagues. Launching the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks baseball franchise in 1998- the only Valley major sports team to bring home a championship- and drawing the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes to the Valley in 1996 as a tenant at what was then America West Arena. That arena- which he opened in 1992 and is now known as US Airways Center- was one of the key elements in the redevelopment of downtown Phoenix. He populated the arena with a host of sports from arena football to the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury so that there was rarely a dark night for sports in town. His later downtown venues include Chase Field, which opened as Bank One Ballpark in 1998, and Comerica Theatre, which opened as Dodge Theatre in 2002.
Today, he keeps his hand in real-estate development as a principal in JDM Partners LLC, and he heads USA Basketball, the national governing body for amateur basketball, which fields teams in both men's and women's international competitions, including the Olympics.
What excites him most these days? "The important thing is to get out of bed and look up and see the sun and be thankful for the time you have because it goes by so quickly. And what's important is to continue to try to make a difference as long as you're here."
- What: Arizona Jewish Historical Society's Heritage Award Dinner
- When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12
- Where: Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center, 122 E. Culver St., Phoenix
- Cost: $395
- Contact: 602-241-7870 or tinyurl.com/colangelo