Jerry Colangelo had it rough. A boy in a blue-collar world, he often left home with a salt shaker in his pocket. That way, when his stomach growled, he could swipe a tomato from a neighborhood garden and fix himself lunch.
He grew up hard, in a home his grandfather constructed with wood from railroad cars. At age 17, he came home and found his mother battered. He waited patiently for his father to return from a night of drinking.
"I heard my dad pull up, and then he came stumbling up the stairs," Colangelo said. "And when he hit the top step, I hit him right in the mouth. I warned him to never touch her again. At that moment, he walked out and slept in his car."
Two years later, his father disappeared from the family.
Colangelo didn't know it at the time, but his upbringing would mirror the classic inner-city struggles of many NBA players. It would bring him credibility in a profession where owners write the checks, but aren't to be trusted.
Colangelo was 26 and out of work when the tumblers of fate first aligned. He had three children at the time, including an infant who one day would become his general manager. He sent his wife to bed. He looked through business cards he had stockpiled in his wallet. He decided to call Dick Klein, a Chicago businessman and sports fan who desperately wanted to purchase his own franchise.
Together, they created the Bulls. When the NBA awarded Chicago an NBA franchise, Colangelo worked the streets, driving a flatbed truck up and down Michigan Avenue with a live bull in tow.
Just four years later, he found himself coaching the Suns. The team went 24-20 on his watch, and before a game in Atlanta, Colangelo couldn't believe his eyes. He spotted his father in the crowd, sitting with a woman and a young boy.
A few hours later, after the Suns won the game and clinched a playoff berth, Colangelo noticed that most of the fans had left the building. But his father was still watching from the corner of the arena.
"He had tears coming down his cheeks," Colangelo said.
Colangelo became a Phoenix icon, but empires don't last forever. In the worst year of his illustrious career, he sold the Suns, was pushed out by the Diamondbacks, traded punches with a mugger in Paris and was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
When Colangelo took over USA Basketball in 2005, the appointment came at a perfect time: The NBA carried a thug stigma, our Olympic team had become the subject of scorn, and Colangelo needed a new challenge.
Colangelo would use his credibility and reputation to lure three-year commitments from the best players in the NBA. Few people could've pulled off that sales job, especially when playing for Team USA was a toxic proposition.
Yet in one of his first orders of business, Colangelo joined his new team in the Dominican Republic. After the debacle in Athens, Team USA needed to qualify for the 2006 World Championship in Japan. They had to do so with a team void of marquee talent, a team whose biggest stars were Charlie Bell and Lynn Greer.
Colangelo was worried. He knew another disastrous performance would make a tenuous situation even worse. He called the team into his hotel room in Santo Domingo, and he threw $10,000 on the bed.
This is an incentive. Split it up," he told his players. "It's yours. But we have to qualify."
The money came from Colangelo's pocket. No one can ever say the man didn't pay to win.
The entire story is laid out in the new book, Return of the Gold: The Journey of Jerry Colangelo and the Redeem Team. It's a book about basketball, and full of stuff such as the aforementioned details. But as the author, I'm clearly biased, and not to be trusted.
Colangelo will sign copies of the book Saturday from 1-3 p.m. at Borders Books on 24th Street and Camelback. Do him a favor. Go say hello. Tell him you miss him. He'll get a kick out of that.