Mark Coronado can recall when Valley sports mogul Jerry Colangelo visited the Peoria Sports Complex in 1993.
At the time, Coronado held the title of director of Peoria Community and Recreation Services.
Coronado, now the Surprise interim city manager, said he had no idea why Colangelo was in the barren West Valley.
It turned out, after a roundabout discussion, that Colangelo was looking for a backup plan in case his goal fell through for a proposed downtown major-league stadium in Phoenix.
Colangelo, who would land a Major League Baseball franchise in the Valley, talked to Coronado about expanding the seating capacity in Peoria Stadium to accommodate 35,000 fans.
Colangelo, who came to the Valley in 1968 to start the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, complimented Coronado on Peoria’s state-of-the-art baseball facility that housed two major-league teams, the first of its kind in 1993.
Indeed, Coronado noted Colangelo had a vision then — and in 1968 — for believing in a small town and what sports could provide to thousands of fans in the way of entertainment and value.
“Phoenix was a small town in 1968, and I had a dream to make this a major-league city,” said Colangelo, recalling a story about how he told Suns brass in the late 1960s he would have to think for a few days about whether to purchase the team. He got on the phone with his wife minutes later and said,” Pack your bags, babe. We’re moving to Phoenix.”
Colangelo was the keynote speaker Friday during the Surprise Regional Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast, explaining how at age 28 he came from Chicago to Phoenix in 1968 with nine suitcases, $300 in his pocket and three children.
The man who helped form the Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks said life is all about taking challenges and having a strong, loving support system in family and friends when things don’t always go your way. Colangelo said he got his foundation during the 1940s after growing up in a blue-collar community in Chicago, where family and neighbors were “one” and protected each other.
He remembers being told by a neighbor growing up that “it’s better to be on a star for one minute than never at all.”
When he was about to purchase the Suns, Colangelo noted NBA executives increased the cost to purchase a franchise from $750,000 to $1.2 million. Executives and others doubted whether he could make a professional franchise succeed in Phoenix.
But Colangelo proved the naysayers wrong, and before selling the Suns to Robert Sarver in 2004, developed a successful franchise that fans have embraced since the team first took the court in Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
But the ball didn’t always bounce Colangelo’s way, even though the Suns twice reached the NBA Finals.
Colangelo recalled the infamous coin flip in 1969 to determine which team would inevitably land UCLA standout Lew Alcindor, who would later become known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Suns had asked fans in local newspapers which side of the coin to pick, with “heads” prevailing.
As the story goes, the coin landed “heads” on the commissioner’s hand, before he flipped the coin over and called “tails,” ultimately allowing Milwaukee the opportunity to draft Jabbar and giving Suns fans endless opportunities to ponder how many championships the team would’ve won.
After bringing Arizona its first championship in 2001 with a World Series victory over the New York Yankees, Colangelo sold the team in 2004 to a group of investors, a tumultuous and bitter deal that still has the Diamondbacks in a financial mess.
However, Colangelo said he doesn’t regret how he operated the team during that seven-year span, where the goal was winning a championship immediately and paying players in deferred contracts vs. establishing a more traditional five-year plan to build slowly.
Now, Colangelo says he’s taking on a new challenge, one at the request of Gov. Jan Brewer.
Colangelo will soon co-chair the Department of Commerce and plans for the state agency to become privatized in January and become known as the Arizona Commerce Authority. He said it’s his goal for the agency to compete with other nearby states for job creation in the hopes of improving the local economy.
“The only way we can succeed and compete is to be on the same page,” Colangelo said of gaining support from government officials and the public about the venture. “Give us the tools and we’ll get things done.”
Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.