Empty Seats: Sports Deal Decades Ago Changed Phoenix's Future
This story is part of a six-part podcast project called Empty Seats, the pandemic versus a sports capital. Download Episode 2 to hear more from Jerry Colangelo about his role transforming the city into the home of teams from each of the top four sports leagues in America. Visit emptyseats.kjzz.org to get a new episode every Monday through Nov. 9, 2020.
A construction crew worked on the east edge of the concave roof that gives Veterans Memorial Coliseum its signature shape. The inward slant affects the acoustics inside, where starting in 1968, Phoenix Suns fans sat on top of the action.
“I knew that from day one, and that is proximity to the players, proximity to the court was what it was all about,” said Jerry Colangelo, former team owner and longtime sports executive.
The week of Oct. 12 marks the 33rd anniversary of a sports deal that changed the future of Phoenix. The Suns were the only major pro franchise here in 1987, and they could have left. But Colangelo bought the Suns and played the lead role in transforming the city into the home of teams from each of the top four sports leagues in America.
Colangelo wore a charcoal suit, a purple shirt and a gaudy ring from U.S.A. Basketball’s gold medal win in the 2016 Olympics. It’s one of his few sports treasures not on display at his own museum at Grand Canyon University. Colangelo talked about the National Basketball Association decades ago when the Suns were a new franchise.
“I was the coach. I was the GM. I didn’t have a scout. I didn’t have any assistants. So it was a one-man game,” he said.
This was long before the National Basketball Association grew into an international brand with power and influence as bright as the bling of Colangelo’s Olympic jewelry.
“Today it’s a multibillion-dollar industry. Franchise values of $1 billion and a half to $4 billion,” he said.
With Colangelo’s early leadership, the Suns made a championship run in their first decade. A string of playoff births led the Suns into the 1980s, which was when the league started to bloom financially. But years of losing seasons got the long-time coach fired in '87.
“And then immediately after that, I quote unquote, broke the drug scandal story. And I say, quote, unquote, because it never really was a story. No one who was indicted ever was convicted of a drug-related charge,” said Lee Shappell, who covered the Suns for The Arizona Republic for nine years.
Suns players were accused of cocaine trafficking by a grand jury. Shappell said the investigation fizzled.
“But what it did is it created a dark cloud over the franchise. And the owners at that time had had about enough.” he said.
A former Suns player who was also a grand jury witness in the drug probe died in a drunk driving accident. Then a team starter died in a plane crash. Shappell said the Suns went up for sale in September and speculation was they’d leave town.
“The negative publicity surrounding the franchise couldn’t have been greater,” he said.
Colangelo told Sports Illustrated that he’d worried a new owner would move the team out of Phoenix. But Colangelo got the first chance to buy the Suns, if he could finance a deal.
“Jerry didn't have that kind of money, but where he was great was putting people together, forming partnerships. He had all of these contacts that he had developed in the community from 1968 through 1987,” said Shappell.
The window to pull it all together was small. But Colangelo set up an ownership group.
“It was the highest price ever paid for an NBA franchise — $44 million,” said Colangelo.
"It was the highest price ever paid for an NBA franchise — $44 million."
— Jerry Colangelo, former Suns owner and longtime sports executive
Forbes recently valued the Suns, now owned by Robert Sarver, at more than $1.6 billion. Shappell said Colangelo’s deal was finalized on a Friday in October of 1987.
“On Monday, Black Monday, the stock market crashed. If that deal hadn’t closed on Friday, Jerry would not have been able to do it and the Suns would have been gone,” Shappell said.
Instead they were starting their third decade when the National Football League arrived. The Orlando Sentinel reported that then Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill was booed by the not-sold-out crowd for the team’s first regular season game in Tempe. Colangelo was more welcoming.
“And I met with him for lunch, and I said, ‘Bill, this town, there's more than enough room for everybody. And if I could be of any help to you, I want to do that,’” said Colangelo.
Colangelo went on to play lead roles in landing a National Hockey League franchise and a Major League Baseball expansion team over the next decade. But the downtown arena the Coyotes first used may not have even been built if the Suns were bought by someone else. And it’s hard to see how Colangelo could have done the Diamondbacks deal if he hadn’t turned the Suns into a success story that ingrained the franchise as part of the local identity.