With Olympics in full swing and the US Men’s National Basketball Team a center piece of the United States’ dominant presence in Rio, I thought it would be a good time to talk about my guy, Jerry Colangelo.
I don’t know many people outside of Arizona or absolute basketball fanatics that even know the name, but he has had a major impact in our sports landscape.
I was introduced to Colangelo as the understated, but supremely respected owner of the Phoenix Suns. He was the man behind the Charles Barkley era and one of only two finals appearances in the team’s history.
This was an amazing time to be a Suns fan with a new arena in downtown Phoenix and Colangelo’s paint the valley purple marketing taking over the city.
I remember my mom selling Suns themed gift baskets and teddy bears to her friends. Business was booming during the championship run, but ended quickly when John Paxson hit that game winner at the end of game 6. My dad even took me to the arena for an away game where Colangelo opened up the stadium for us to watch the game on the jumbo trons. I don’t know how many teams were doing this in 1993, but it seemed genius to me at the time.
Now if this is where the story ended this would not be a tale of legend, but in fact the opposite because the next move that he made was to sell the team to an ownership group that included Robert Sarver. Sarver would be the worst owner in the league, if it didn’t already have some racist and genuinely crazy old guys.
But the Colangelo legend doesn’t end there. He brought baseball to the valley in 1998. I was in junior high and remember the newspaper front page showing the purple and teal uniforms with the moniker of the Diamondbacks. I was stoked. I didn’t really follow baseball, but had an affinity for the Yankees (I know but I was a kid and they were always winning). But now that we had our own team, I was 100% on board.
It was only a few years later that I remember watching Game 7 of the World Series with my future wife. Jesse Maguire played the national anthem on the trumpet, a B2 stealth bomber did the fly over and we were playing the Yankees.
It was the bottom of the 9th and Luis Gonzalez hit a blooper over Derek Jeter’s head as Jay Bell and his wire-framed glasses scored the game winning run.
Colangelo had brought a championship to Phoenix. Our first and only championship in any of the four major sports. Sure we have been dominate in arena football (Colangelo also owned this team from 1992-2005) and have since had some pretty good women’s basketball played here, but it still stands as our lone beacon of hope.
Again Colangelo sold the team to an ownership group that has not been able to duplicate the success that he had.
In 2005, Colangelo was asked to help take over the US Men’s Basketball Team. The team had not won a major international tournament since the year 2000. With now real leadership and guidelines, the team had believed that they could just show up and win in the Olympics. Colangelo’s first move was to bring in Coach K. This helped him secure the top talent in the NBA to participate and he also made it mandatory that players join the program for the smaller FIBA tournaments to be included on the Olympic roster.
It has obviously worked. We are undefeated since then and by the end of this Olympics will have won three gold medals.
Locally in Phoenix he took over and restored the bankrupt Wigwam resort, a local treasure that has been in the west valley of Phoenix since just after World War I.
He has also taken a major role in Grand Canyon University with sponsoring their sports marketing program and helping them to obtain Division One status for their basketball program that is coached by Thunder Dan Majerle.
Phoenix and our entire sports culture would look extremely different without Colangelo’s experience and leadership. Recently, the Philadelphia 76ers recognized his leadership and have brought him in as a consultant to help rebuild that team.
After all of this, I think I am still mad at him for selling the Suns. But, when asked why he has not helped the struggling Suns as he is with Philadelphia he had a pretty clear answer, “I was not asked.”
In America, we have have all been taught the power and importance of the freedom of choice. Because of this we are always looking to capture the best option and are quick to label something as better or best than it’s competition.
My wife, her cousin, and I were at a winery in Napa a couple of years ago. We were on a tour and at this particular winery they would take you on a tour of their caves that they aged barrels of wine in. We had a fantastic guide from New Zealand that had a great accent and an even better job. We meandered through the cool corridors of the caves lined with casks of wine and every few barrels he would insert some sort glass flange to extract wine directly from the barrel for us to try. About 10 minutes into the tour we got to a pair of barrels and he was describing the type of grape that was used and that this particular batch was split into two different casks. One was made of a French Oak and the other American Oak. I am not so naive to think that American Oak is better than French, but I was not willing to concede that fact without asking the expert. So Mr. New Zealand wine guy “Which is better, the American of French?”
In his charming accent he laughed at me and then quickly apologized for laughing, but said that it was a very “American” question. He explained to us that the difference was simply that, just different. He went on with an analogy of his dress socks and how he would pair them depending on the suit he was wearing, but he didn’t have a favorite pair of socks, they were just different.
I was a little offended that he laughed at me, but his message hit home. Since that day, I have tried to be careful to not compare things and try to rank them if not absolutely necessary. Now, I am not doing this to be more politically correct or some anti-American bias, but to simply get rid of the idea that something has to be best and open myself up to trying new things.
I say all of that to explain that when I do call something the best or the worst, it has been thoughtfully considered.
So when a couple of friends and I got into a conversation about sports movies and this movie came up, I was clear. Hoosiers is the worst sports movie of all time and here is why.
It sells itself as a classic come-from-behind redemption story, but really it’s not. Hackman, who plays a failed college coach is forced to take a job at a high school in a tiny town after being fired. Why was Hackman fired? He hit a kid.
He then hires the town drunk to be his assistant to help turn the team around. Except he can’t. At least not without the star player, Jimmy Chitwood, that is not playing because he is neglecting his school work. So to get the team moving in the right direction, he decides to forgo developing his team into the best they can be and focuses his attention on badgering the teacher who is keeping Chitwood on the sidelines.
Then we get to the climax of the movie as they make it to the state championship and they are paired against an all black team in the 1950s. The racism is dripping off of the screen and classic sports stereotypes are brought to life before your eyes. The overdone back and forth Rocky style of a sports game is played with Chitwood hitting the game winning shot.
The only real winner in the movie is Denis Hopper that played the drunk assistant, who is able to put the bottle down long enough to help the team win. His accomplishment however is almost completely thrown away as they focus on Hackman and Chitwood and their respective victories. We celebrate the redemption of a coach that went from college failure to lower division high school champ, because he didn’t assault anyone this time around.
This movie was fantastically directed and had a feel good ending that everyone was rooting for, but those two things did not make up for the biggest problem with the movie. The plot.
There are a lot of people that would say nothing. The NBA still has some die hard fans that live and die with with games that happen what seems like almost nightly for months during the regular season. The NBA is exciting and full of masterful athleticism that is beautiful to watch when it is played at it’s highest level.
But there are some real issues when you look at the league and how it is managed right now. Referees have become as big a part of the game as some coaches or broadcasters. Every time I see a referee jump and skip down the court when making a call, I think of some WWE ref and their D level acting. The block charge call has only been outdone, as the most ridiculously missed and scrutinized call in sports, by the NFL’s catch rule.
And then there is the player that jumps in the air to block a shot and how he must navigate not getting a shoulder or elbow into their mid section, to avoid being called for a foul is almost laughable to watch in real time.
Then there is the parity in the league. JJ Reddick just recently tweeted rebutting the super team concept and pointed out that since Lebron went to Miami that 6 different teams have won the chip. While this does address the parity of “super” teams, it does not deal with the overall league parity. The Sixers have been so bad for so long and even the “stacked” western conference only shuffles a few teams around when they send their top eight to the playoffs.
We can cut the lack of parity up so many ways. Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan both exited the league this year and in the 19 seasons that Tim Duncan played he or Kobe won 10 championships. That is better than half of the time that two teams from one conference won it all.
Let’s go back even further. Since the first NBA finals that I was alive for in 1984, 10 teams have won a championship. Cleveland, Golden Sate, and Dallas in that time frame are the only teams to only win one championship. The other 7 teams Share the remaining 29 championships together.
Then add in the finals losers. In 32 years, you can add 10 teams to the list that have at least been to a championship. Of those Phoenix, Indiana and Philadelphia are the only one time losers. That leaves 20 teams with fans that are 30 years our younger that have never seen their team win a chip and 10 teams with fans that age that have never even seen there team in a finals game.
Now contrast that with the NFL. The sports powerhouse in the US.
The NFL has 13 teams that have never won a Super Bowl and only 6 teams that never been to the big game. What makes that an even more significant difference is that the NFL has two more teams than the NBA.
Lastly, is the product itself. Now hear me out on this one. I love the athleticism and artistry that happens at the pro level. The problem is that Basketball games are played with half of the intensity during the first three and a half quarters and ratchets up in the last six minutes.
This is what makes the playoffs so much fun is that every possession is played at crunch time level. I get that it would be impossible for these guys to play at that level for 82 games a year, but it does dilute the product.
I can watch an entire game and get all the important highlights from a 30 second Instagram video, or in some cases a six second vine. Somehow the game needs to be more important every time the world’s best walk on the court.
Now I don’t like to only point out problems without offering solutions. I think the NBA should change the playoff system. The better team always wins and that can get boring. From the Harris poll above, college basketball is the least popular sport in the U.S., but when March Madness rolls around people go crazy. The win or go home mentality and Cinderella story are fascinating and the NBA could use some of that drama.
Also let’s bring back the value of the big man. I would love to see the NFL adopt the international goal-tending rules. I would love to see Dwight Howard be able to swat away a game winning shot as it bounces around the rim.
I think that the league should also go back to 28 teams. There are easily 24 players that we could remove from the league without the general fan noticing. It is difficult to think of what two franchises would go away, but it would increase the competitiveness.
I still have love for basketball and the NBA is a part of that, but it can be better.
Sports are incredible. They can leave you with once in a lifetime memories, good and bad. They elicit some of the best of humanity and some of the worst. Love of teams and characters from all over the world can spark riots and parades.
When a sports legend retires and leaves the game, something similar happens. How you feel about that person changes, for better or worse. Everything they ever did good is exaggerated and bad is forgotten, or in some rare occasions the reverse happens.
I try to remember people and players as they were.
Today Tim Duncan announced his retirement from basketball. 19 years with one team is incredible. It is also in the same year that Kobe retired. Tim’s was much quieter compared to Kobe’s season long farewell tour and final game circus. That is how Tim played too, never overstated, but always impactful.
The league will not be the same.
When I look back at Duncan’s career all I can think of are the once in a lifetime memories that I mentioned earlier. But in Tim’s case, they are almost all bad memories.
With my love hate relationship with the Suns, Duncan has been more than a spoiler. His Spurs team has single-handedly destroyed multiple season of championship hopes in Phoenix.
As an individual player I will remember him more for his disgusted look on his face every single time a foul was called on him. His eyes would literally look like they were ready to pop out of his head, palms upturned asking, “what did I do?”
You hacked the crap out of Steve Nash Tim, that is what you did.
Or the circle arm sweep move he would do with the ball, where his only intention was to draw a foul on the defender.
Or the time he jumped off the bench during an altercation and it was ignored. I will start crying if I talk about that game too much so I will leave it at that.
Let’s be honest though. These are really just bad excuses from a fan of a team that Tim abused. It was probably his 20 points and 10 rebounds a game that had something to with beating my Suns every year.
His perfect chemistry with Coach Popavich and his two other co-stars. I won’t say their names, since they are still in the league and I don’t have to say nice things about them yet.
So while I will remember him as cry baby Duncan, he will go down as a top 5 or 6 player of all time. I am glad I lived in an era that saw both Kobe and Duncan at their best.
I just wish it didn’t have to happen at the same time as the greatest Suns teams to ever play together.