No, he never taught a blind and deaf Helen Keller how to “read.” But he did take over the expansion Phoenix Suns in the late 1960s and build them into a legitimate NBA power, twice winning the Western Conference and coming close to a championship with a team that was almost always respectable.
That made him an institution in the Valley of the Sun, so he even switched over to baseball and was instrumental in bringing the Diamondbacks to Arizona, ultimately winning the 2001 World Series.
Colangelo went back to his first love and took over the reins of USA Basketball, which was in disarray with players loathe to make a true commitment to the cause, and the rest of the world seeming on the verge of catching up. Since “Jerry’s Kids” have been wearing the red, white and blue – with Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski effectively calling the shots the last nine years and the Spurs’ cantankerous Gregg Popovich now waiting in the wings – Team USA has dominated the hoops world.
But now comes the real test for the 76-year-old Colangelo, who says he was pretty much minding his own business 10 days ago when Sixers owner Josh Harris came calling. That’s the genesis behind the chain of events that led to Colangelo being introduced Monday as Philadelphia’s “special advisor to the managing general partner and chairman of basketball operations.”
And as if to show him exactly what he’s up against – or perhaps make him wish he could wake up and pretend it was all just a bad dream – his new team welcomed him to The City of Brotherly Love by getting embarrassed 119-68 by Popovich’s Spurs. As if the most lopsided home loss in franchise history wasn’t bad enough – and in truth the game really wasn’t as close as the score indicates – consider that Popovich gave Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili the night off.
It was sort of like beating a guy up with one hand tied behind your back while on crutches.
Then again, there are many who would say the Sixers haven’t been fighting fair for a couple of years. Not only have they been taunting all those NBA bullies to pulverize them, they have also taken a perverse joy in it, letting the draft picks pile up as the losses continue to mount.
Clearly, Colangelo is here to change that perception. Whether Harris, who made his fortune buying depressed businesses on the relative cheap, revitalizing them, then selling them for huge profit, simply got sick and tired of seeing his investment’s value continue to plummet with no end in sight or something else is at play remains to be seen.
There has been at least one report claiming this is the work of Commissioner Adam Silver, seeing one of the NBA’s cornerstone franchises being turned into a laughingstock, the constant butt of talk show jokes. Between all the losing – now 38-148 after Monday’s debacle since Harris came in and installed mad scientist Sam Hinkie as his general manager, including an NBA record -tying 0-18 to start the current season – and the recent string of police blotter revelations about prize rookie Jahlil Okafor – Silver allegedly decided something had to be done.
The question is will he really be the one calling the shots? At least for now, Harris is saying Uncle Jerry is here strictly to help Hinkie get things going in the right direction, but Sam will remain the man when it comes to making decisions.
At the same time, Hinkie insisted, “This is a really good day for the Sixers,” and that he welcomes the opportunity to use Colangelo as a sounding board and learn from him.
The truth, of course, is likely entirely different. Why would Colangelo take on such a monstrous challenge unless he would be the one ultimately pushing the buttons? Why would Harris, who has never expressed the slightest doubt in the so-called “process” – once calling the team’s 19-63 season in 2013-14 a “huge success” – suddenly feel the need to shake things up?
Perhaps it’s because when he looks ahead to the time the franchise might finally be ready to compete for more than just ping-pong balls, he has come to the realization that attracting players here might not go as smoothly as he once figured. While Hinkie may have been simply trying to follow his perceived guidelines, he has burned a lot of bridges along the way.
Hinkie has continually spurned overtures from agents seeking a landing spot for their clients, especially a team in desperate need of veteran help with the cap space to pay market value. Beyond that, he has infuriated them by taking on such players strictly as disposable contracts, which has resulted in Philadelphia acquiring the following: Travis Outlaw, Ronny Turiaf, Javale McGee, Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Thompson and Gerald Wallace, with McGee (six games) the only one to ever suit up.
Then there was the K.J. McDaniels incident, where the 2014 second-round pick refused to sign one of Hinkie’s four-year minimum rollover deals and demanded a one-year contract. When he started performing beyond expectations in his rookie season – likely meaning he would be in line for a huge payday – Hinkie instead sent him packing to Houston at the trade deadline, enabling him to keep the payroll down.
All that ill will may have at least in part prompted this move. Now the Sixers have one of the most revered names in the sport working on their behalf, even if it will be out of his home in Phoenix. In addition to his connections and good will he has built in close to a half-century as a coach, GM, executive director and owner, Colangelo can serve as the public face of the Sixers, something the clandestine Hinkie has been loathe to do.
No,it doesn’t mean prospective free agents Kevin Durant. Mike Conley, DeMarDeRozan, Nicolas Batum or Al Horford are coming to town. More than likely, no one’s coming to a team that will be coming off its third straight dreadful season, even if there are a few attractive pieces in place and likely more on the way.
But it may put an end to the prevailing theory this is a sinking, rudderless ship. That is especially so if the one popular guy connected to the franchise – embattled coach Brett Brown – can hammer out a new deal, as he discussed prior to Monday’s game.
“We are in deep discussions on my contract,” said Brown, who welcomes the opportunity to work with Colangelo, whom he has known for years. “This is where I want to be.
“To go through what we have all gone through over the past two years and the first third of this year and still be passionate about seeing this through, I dream like everyone else.”
Even Colangelo acknowledges this dream is still a few years away from possibly coming true. It would help if Joel Embiid’s chronically busted foot would finally heal. It might be nice if Eurostud Dario Saric decides to come over next season as his father promises rather than wait until 2017 when he would no longer be bound by the NBA’s rookie wage scale, as his agent may convince him to do.
And then there’s next year’s draft, where the Sixers figure to be all in for LSU’s Ben Simmons, the presumed consensus top pick. Getting the ping-pong balls to cooperate is something they can’t control, though, nor the fact that that Lakers’ pick they own if it fall outside the top three seems destined to remain with what will be soon be Kobe Bryant’s former team.
But if there’s one thing Colangelo knows, it’s patience.
“I’m not crying for patience,” said Colangelo, who conceded getting a veteran presence around such a young team to make sure Okafor and the rest of the kids don’t do something else dumb is one of his first goals. “But with the reality of where the team is today, it’s gonna take time. Hopefully the payoff will come. And if the payoff comes, it will be more than worth it.”
Will Sixers fans agree? Clearly this is some sort of olive branch being offered to appease them, since watching their beloved team has become hazardous to their health.
“The fans don’t owe us anything,” declared Colangelo. “We have to earn the respect of the community by how we conduct our business. There’s work to be done, but when I took over USA Basketball, there needed to be a cultural change. It took a little bit of time to go into effect, but now it’s rolling and they all want to play.”
So let the mission begin, a mission even Helen Keller could see has been going nowhere until now.
Just don’t tell that to Jerry Colangelo, the miracle worker.
Even though this figures to be his toughest one yet.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writers Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.