PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Jerry Colangelo, the Phoenix Suns' CEO and chairman, will opine effortlessly about the state of the NBA and American basketball. But ask him about succeeding David Stern as the NBA's next commissioner and he dances as adroitly as Muhammad Ali.
"David's plan is to stay there indefinitely and we're the same age, so that doesn't bode well for being his successor," Colangelo said with a laugh. "I guess I would say this. I'd serve the NBA in any capacity I was asked to serve."
Next to Stern, the most trusted name in the NBA is Colangelo's. The Sporting News has named Colangelo NBA Executive of the Year an unprecedented four times.
If it weren't for Colangelo, Phoenix's sports scene would be nonexistent. He's had a hand in bringing practically every sports team to Phoenix, from the Suns to the Coyotes to the Mercury.
Few people in sports can get things done and fix problems the way Colangelo can. That's why USA Basketball put the Hall of Famer in charge of reconstructing the U.S. national team. That's why people are hopeful Colangelo will put a group together to buy the Chicago Cubs -- something he admitted to pursuing earlier this month. And, it's why he is supremely fit to save NBA players from their worst enemy -- themselves.
Given Colangelo's reputation and the influence he will wield over American basketball over the next few years, it seemed appropriate to solicit his opinions on all the relevant issues concerning the NBA.
Known for his honesty, Colangelo didn't disappoint. Here he tells us why the increased effort to mainstream the NBA is a good thing, why the league's marriage to hip-hop was getting out of hand, whether the NBA is criticized unfairly because of race and why the U.S. losing to Greece in the World Championships last summer was a fluke.
What's your perception of the NBA right now?
We've gone through a lot of growth pains. The one great thing about the NBA has been the ability to adjust and do what was necessary to keep everything going in a positive direction. It always starts at the top. Because we've had strong leadership and good management in the NBA, we were always ahead of the other leagues in being progressive. We were the first ones out there internationally. We really marketed our game, our sport, our players before anyone else even thought about it. With all of the raps -- and there have been many -- against our league and the other issues, I think in the big picture this league has done an incredible job over the last four decades of building and growing and creating value and interest. I'm prejudiced, but I consider it the best game out there.
So why do you think the NBA's issues and problems are always magnified more than any other sports league's?
The great appeal about our game is that you get to know the players so well. If you go to an NBA game, I mean, you see [our players]. You see them in living color, however they are. Football, you don't see anything, except the face and a pair of hands. They're covered. I understand that if you look at the NFL and the rap sheets and all the issues they've had, the NBA pales to that. But the NBA is a black-dominated sport and, invariably, the question comes up, do they get the raps because of the high percentage of black players? Well, really, that same percentage is applicable in the NFL, or close to it, and it's a nonissue. Again, I think it's the high visibility of our players. Our players are really well-known. That's not true with most NFL guys. I hate to say it, but it's only a handful that could be recognized by comparison.
Do you think today's mainstream sports consumer has a difficult time identifying with African-American athletes?
I guess I would say to you, if we're generalizing, I think the average consumer out there who follows sports has difficulty identifying with guys regardless of color because of the money they make. That's a big issue. It's hard to relate to what the average guy is making in sports. People are working in the factory trying to make $300 a week. No. 2 is, it's exacerbated if someone has any inclination to have a problem with someone's race. And when these athletes are making the kind of money they're making and they happen to be African-American, well, for those people, for that segment of the population that might be prejudiced, that's an issue. But I wouldn't indict everybody. I know not everyone feels that way.
So how have the new policies -- the dress code and the increased number of technical fouls for players who argue with officials -- helped the NBA bridge the gap with the mainstream?
First of all when you have a system, you have to have rules. You have to have regulations. And so when something goes astray -- be it a player or a fight -- how players look, how they act, if you need to deal with it in terms of discipline, you need to. Everybody has the same interests at heart. How do we continue to improve our game and the image of our players? It's by having rules and rules of conduct. As far as the dress code is concerned, we had gone so far the other way. We had let it go so much, it was less than appealing -- let's put it that way. The image that was out there regarding our players in terms of how they look, what they said, how they acted was not positive, even though it was embellished a lot.
If the NHL instituted a dress-code policy, would there ever have been any discussion about it?
One of the things that happened in the NBA, that's not true with the other sports, is that we kind of played off the hip-hop generation as a league and so did some of our athletes. We got into it in other businesses. They were doing records and doing this and doing that and the attire. That became kind of a look. And so that kind of created a little bit of a monster in my opinion. From my standpoint, you want to appeal to all segments of society in terms of fans. You want the young kids. You want kids from every socioeconomic background to be NBA fans.
Was it a mistake for the NBA to forge such a strong relationship with hip-hop culture?
I think there was some risk involved. There was so much emphasis on it. But shoe companies and people who sold a lot of product, they saw a marketplace there and they tied up with the NBA to sell themselves and the product. I would rather look at the past and say, you learn from those experiences and you go forward. You never go backwards. I think we've learned a lot of lessons along the way about who we are and how we should promote ourselves and what needs to be done as we go forward. As we go forward, I think we're in good shape.
So, given the exposure and the racial makeup of the league, how careful does the league have to be when it institutes rules that some people interpret as anti-African-American?
Well, personally, I don't see color as being a determinant in what decision is made at all. You're always aware of the potential for people to take issue with a decision when it's made. It's almost become common for people to go there right away. That's even unfair. Ninety-nine percent of the decisions that are made are based on the merits of what needs to be done. It has nothing to do with anything other than that.
How much has the return of team basketball helped the NBA's image?
In the past, we really emphasized promoting our stars. At the time, it was probably the appropriate thing to do. It's probably time to de-emphasize superstars and sell more team concept because that sells too. The more exposure and visibility a lot of guys on the team have, the better it is for them as individuals, the better it is for an organization, the better it is for interest, in my opinion, rather than putting your hopes on a star. Spread the wealth a little bit. We should balance that out a little bit. I think the team concept has a way of making that happen. I'll switch over to USA Basketball. In putting together a team, we weren't putting together an all-star team. So when you talk about the composition of the team, there is only one ball, so many scorers on the team. You need defenders, distributors, shot-blockers, rebounders, guys who are willing to accept roles. Because if you have 12 stars on the roster, it's not that easy.
But the U.S. team that was assembled does have a lot of star power.
Oh, I know that, but it's not 12. Now, the team that everyone compares every team to was the Dream Team. That happened to be a team with a lot of stars, but they were mature. They were veterans. They had been there. They had won championships. It was a different era, a different time. When that team stepped out on the floor, the opposition was in awe. So much has happened since '92 that teams internationally are not in awe. They've now established themselves as players in the NBA. And they know they can play with our guys. The times have changed. It's even more important now to have the right composition because putting a group of stars together would be even more difficult to get over the hump.
I hesitate to use this word, but what went "wrong" at the FIBA World Championships last summer?
Nothing really went wrong, and I'll tell you why I say that. One of the things I wanted to do was change the perception people had of us around the world, as Americans, as basketball players. Our image was really poor. Where we came off of in terms of the Olympics in Greece, our own fans were booing our players. Pretty sad. It was kind of overwhelming to think you could change that attitude and perception, and I had a plan. I wanted commitments for three years from our coaches and our players for the World Championships and the Olympics. I wanted our guys to handle themselves appropriately. I was concerned about what they said, what they did, how they acted, what they looked like. I told them there wouldn't be any nonsense. This is what I expect. This is the rule. When this is all said and done, I promise you it's going to be one of the great experiences of your life. If we're successful, you'll be able to look back at that and say it was all worth it.
As I look back on what happened, people were cheering for us in China, in Korea, in Japan. We were 14-1. We beat everyone by 20 or 25. We had a bad game where we did a very poor job defensively in defending the pick-and-roll against Greece. That's all that really happened. We were 14-1. We changed the attitude. We did all the things we set out to do and I feel empty because we didn't get the gold medal. When that game ended against Greece, in the locker room, I know how they all felt. We don't ever want to feel that way again as long as we're together. I think that's going to bond us even more.
Is there anything you would do differently?
There isn't anything I would do differently. It had nothing to do with the player-personnel. It had nothing to do with not having the right talent. We did a poor job in preparation in defending the pick-and-roll against Greece. It's as simple as that. And a team beat us that shouldn't have. They deserved to win because we didn't get the job done. If we played them 10 times, we'd win nine out of 10.
So what is the next step the league has to take?
I think the game itself is in good shape. We have some franchises that need some attention -- New Orleans, Portland, some of the smaller-market teams that need some help and direction. You're only as healthy as your weakest link. So bolstering some of the franchises and taking a look at the Las Vegas market and what's going to happen there, I believe a team will go there and should go there. The question is who and on what basis. Continue to grow the sport internationally. I think technology plays a big role in where we go from here. The statistic that just blows me away is we now have 300 million people living in the United States and 300 million Chinese play basketball in China.
A lot of people aren't comfortable with a franchise being in Vegas. Why do you support it?
I think the market would be a very good market for an NBA team. I think it would be very successful -- that's the reason I say that. Much more successful than some of the smaller markets we have now in the NBA.
And the gambling?
I think that, over time, that will take care of itself. I understand the hurdle. I understand what our position has been and I support it. But I think a time will come where we'll look back and say, at the time, that was the way it was, but it will be addressed.
Jemele Hill, a Page 2 columnist and writer for ESPN the Magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.