Jerry Colangelo is a legend in the world of professional sports. But that isn’t how he wants to be remembered. Instead, Jerry hopes that when people think of him they will say, “He cared.” By all the world’s measures, Jerry Colangelo is a success. His career rocketed from being the youngest general manager in the NBA at age 26 to owner, chairman and CEO of the World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks—the fastest expansion team in MLB to win a championship. For an encore, he led the United States Basketball Team to win gold medals in 2008 and 2012.
But Jerry doesn’t measure success as the world does. “Sure, there is a feeling of accomplishment when you set a goal, have a plan, you follow it and you succeed, but it is better when you know you did it the right way.” For his part, Jerry has always tried to do it the “right way.”
He attributes his core values to his early years. Born in 1939, Jerry grew up in the lower-middle class community known as the “Hungry Hill” neighborhood of Chicago Heights. He lived in the upper flat of a little two-story shingled house that his Italian-immigrant grandfather built out of two railroad boxcars and some remnant lumber. The house still stands today, hosting a commemorative plaque that honors the neighborhood’s most famous resident.
Although his was a bit of a fractured family, Jerry’s life was built on a good foundation.
“I had no relationship with my father. We never played catch. He never took me to a game. Instead, he was someone I threatened to kill because of abuse to my mother. But my sense of family, hard work and relationships were grounded in the foundation of my early years in the neighborhood.”
Faith, while present, wasn’t the first priority, but he was instilled with the knowledge of “right and wrong” and what you “should or shouldn’t do.” It wasn’t until he met and married Joan, his wife of 52 years, at the University of Illinois that his faith started to grow.
“Joanie had been very involved in Young Life as a teen and in college. (Young Life International is an organization where Jerry later served as Chairman of the Board). She opened up a whole new world for me with regard to Christianity. However, I still had to hit rock bottom in my own mind before I was ready to make a true commitment.”
“Rock bottom” came when he broke from his friend and business partner in a tuxedo rental/dry cleaning business and discovered he had spent three years of blood, sweat and tears with nothing to show for it. Jerry had a wife and three young children, a small house with a payment and no idea where his next dollar would come from. It was difficult for this self-reliant man to accept that he needed help.
“As much as you think you are able to handle all situations, when something like that happens to you, it fractures you. I hit the point where I realized I had to turn my life over and put my trust in God.”
That night, Jerry desperately searched for ideas for where he might find work. “In my wallet, I had a card for business owner and Chicago sports fan, Dick Klein that my father-in-law had given me two years earlier. I called him first thing the next morning. He recognized my name and invited me to stop in for coffee. By the end of that day, he offered me a job in his business at twice the money I had seen over the past three years. Two weeks later, he shared his dream of bringing professional basketball back to Chicago, and within six months, we gave birth to the Chicago Bulls.”
What Jerry didn’t know was that he was a young guy in a “mom and pop” league that was about to explode into the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. That was 1966. He spent two seasons with the Chicago Bulls working as marketing director, scout and assistant to the president before moving to Phoenix to help start the NBA expansion team—the Suns.
Jerry arrived in Arizona in 1968 with a wife, three kids, nine suitcases and $300 in his pocket ready to take over the new NBA franchise as the youngest general manager in professional sports. With the Suns, his roles have included general manager, head coach, president, managing general partner, chief executive officer and chairman. Under his 40-plus-year tenure in leadership, the Suns grew into one of the most successful organizations in the NBA.
In the 1970s, Jerry was a “closet Christian,” and when he went public for the first time, it opened up a box. “I was asked to speak at CBMC. I was struggling with ‘coming out of the closet’ and talking about my personal journey and my faith. Because I had never done it before, the plan was for someone else to make the close. But without thinking, I just gave the close and an amazing thing happened. Out of the 1000 men in the room that day, 116 chose to give their life to Christ. It wasn’t me. It was God using me, and it was a testimony about the power of God. It blew me away that that could happen.”
"Since that time, Jerry recognized that something had been started in him. He knew he had been blessed in many ways and acknowledged that it wasn’t because he was the best or the smartest, but because God wanted him to do something."
“These resources aren’t mine, they are His, and I’m going to be held responsible for them on Judgment Day.”
He’s shared his testimony quite a few times since then, including in the year 2000 when he opened a program at the Bank One Ballpark (currently Chase Field), celebrating Christ’s birthday. There were 50,000 people of all faiths there. Jerry walked up to the microphone and said, “Hello, my name is Jerry Colangelo and I am a Christian!” It made the headlines the next day.
With a life centered on building teams, Jerry recognizes that you can do more when you have the strength of numbers. This is one of the reasons he joined Dr. Bill Bright, Founder of Campus Crusade for Christ International in launching the Pinnacle Forum, an organization whose mission is to build a network of leaders committed to personal and cultural transformation centered on the values of Jesus.
“When you bring together respected leaders who can make an impact on a community, and you work on doing things to share Christ within your own community, incredible things can happen!”
Jerry’s perspective is that you have to lead by example, and that is what he has tried to do in his own life. His reputation in the community and around the country is that his word is his bond, and as a result, he is known as a man of high integrity who is trustworthy.
“In the competitive world of professional sports, it is quite easy to try to bend the rules for your advantage, to take a shortcut or to do things that would be illegal. When you even get close to doing something like that, you know, instinctively, if your faith is strong enough, you know that is not where you should be. Our teams have always been thought of as teams of high character, and I put a great deal of emphasis on that. My players needed to be responsible on the floor or court or field, but also in the community.
There were times when I had to move a player because they broke the rules, were involved in domestic violence or otherwise failed to live up to our standards. But I’m also known as a person who does give a person a second chance to make it right. However, sometimes you don’t have a choice. Having the right standards—‘gold standards’—for your organization goes a long way to set the table in the right way.”
When the call came asking Jerry to take over the reins of Team USA in the spring of 2005, USA basketball was still reeling from its embarrassing performance at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. The Americans only earned a bronze medal in a sport they traditionally dominated. The only thing worse than their performance on the court was the arrogance of Team USA. “I was insulted with the view of Ugly American from all over the world,” Jerry said. “That is why I accepted the job.” And Jerry knew what he needed to do.
To transform the culture that had taken over NBA basketball and led in part to the breakdown of Team USA, the team needed one leadership voice, better player selection and a three-year commitment from everyone. He instituted the “Gold Standards” or basic values that are an integral part of today’s Team USA program and brand.
“It isn’t rocket science,” says Jerry of his formula for success. “We got a group together and said this is what we are here for, what our job is, what our goals are and what we stand for. If you want to be a part of this, then this is what you have to do. If you can’t, we will find someone else.”
He got input and buy-in from players and coaches, all of them legends in the game. The road wasn’t smooth, but in the end, Team USA proudly recaptured the gold at 2006 Olympics in Beijing, the FIBA World Championship in Turkey in 2010 and the London Games in 2012.
Currently, in addition to serving as the Chairman of USA Basketball, Jerry is involved in his real estate business as a principal in JDM Partners, LLC, as well as special assistant to the president of Grand Canyon University, where the School of Sports Business bears his name. But at 73, his time is much more precious than when he was 40 or 50. His priorities of time and resources are very heavily favored toward the Kingdom work. He selectively dedicates time to Young Life, Athletes in Action and projects that help people in need–whatever their needs may be.
Jerry jokes that as you age, people ask what you want written on your tombstone. While he’s not quite ready to be planted just yet, he hopes he’ll be remembered as someone who cared. “In the business world and how I conducted my life it was for the purpose of making life better for my family, my community and future generations.”