By Malcolm Kelly, CBC Sports Online | Feb. 28,
Bryan Colangelo, named NBA executive of the year last season, succeeds Rob Babcock, who was fired Jan. 26 following Toronto's 14-29 start. (Getty Images)
Whatever personal reasons were behind Bryan Colangelo's surprise decision to abandon the Phoenix Suns and take over the Toronto Raptors, there's one it most certainly was not: trying to get out from under his father's shadow.
The younger Colangelo has never felt he was under it in the first place.
Jerry Colangelo is a legend in Arizona – first general manager of the Phoenix Suns in 1968, hall of famer, owner of the club, the man who brought Major League Baseball to "the Valley," and on and on. The Arizona Republic named him the most important local sports figure of the 20th century.
When the father brought the son, fresh out of Cornell University in 1987 with a business management and applied economics degree, into the Suns' organization as a scout, it smacked of base nepotism.
Critics waited for either a disaster or for Bryan to disappear into the background, never to be seen again.
Neither happened. Bryan wouldn't let it.
There was, first of all, the question of what to call his father. It's Jerry, or JC.
"That was a strategic decision on my part several years ago," Colangelo told the Associated Press. "I just think it's more unusual to say 'Dad' in a board room than it is to say 'Jerry.'
"Even at home, it's JC."
Over the years, Bryan Colangelo moved up to assistant director of player personnel, vice president/assistant general manager, vice president/administration and general manager, and finally president and general manager.
Along the way he made dozens of trades and player moves, always on the phones, looking for the angle, the better player, the stronger financial position under the often-confusing salary cap rules in the NBA.
In his 11 years at Phoenix’s helm, there were eight winning season, four times with 50 or more wins, and once (last year), in the 60s, at 60-22.
The first 10 years can be seen as something of a learning experience. Colangelo is, after all, the guy who traded a younger, less dominant Steve Nash, to Dallas for Martin Muursepp and Bubba Wells, at the 1998 draft.
And the one who sent Jason Kidd to New Jersey for Stephon Marbury in 2001.
And the one who went through Paul Westphal, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Danny Ainge, Scott Skiles and Frank Johnson as head coaches before finding one he liked in Mike D'Antoni. That last name became Coach of the Year.
All the lessons began to come together in 2004, when Colangelo made a deal that left many in the desert wondering if he had lost his mind.
On Jan. 5 of that year, he traded star guard Marbury and the oft-injured Penny Hardaway to the New York Knicks for forward Antonio McDyess, with a bunch of parts thrown in by both sides.
Colangelo was basically giving up on the season to clear cap room for free agency that coming summer, one that would bring back guard Steve Nash (destined for league MVP) and his new backcourt mate Quentin Richardson.
Now, Colangelo had made a career of shuffling bench players in and out, sometimes at breakneck speed, and he also hadn't been afraid to dump a star or two along the way. But Marbury seemed a bit much.
Now it seems brilliant. The Suns improved to 62-20 last season and made the Western Conference semi-finals, after going 29-53 in 2003-2004. It was the third-fastest turnaround in league history.
And it earned Colangelo the Sporting News NBA Executive of the Year.
"Each time he was given more responsibility, he accepted it with open arms, and he showed he could handle anything thrown his way," said his father, on the award. "On a personal note, I'm very proud of what he's accomplished – the fact that his peers in the league think so highly of him, and that he's being recognized for the job he's done."
If you looked at the Suns' lineup in the playoffs last spring, the effects of Colangelo's reign were all over it.
There was Shawn Marion, drafted in 1999 over the howling of critics who wanted Duke's Corey Maggette instead.
There was Joe Johnson, picked up from Boston, where he had been a bust, for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk, in 2003.
There was Amare Stoudemire, taken ninth in 2003, whose availability seemed to come as a surprise to everyone but Colangelo.
And there was Nash and Richardson, the latter signed to an offer sheet that required three weeks of waiting to see if the Los Angeles Clippers were going to match. That's an eternity for most general managers, who tend to get anxious after about three hours.
But Colangelo waited them out.
"He was the first guy who got the ball rolling," said his coach, Mike D'Antoni. "He was the one who had the plan.
"When he made the trade, he got it going. He stood up to a lot of criticism. It was a gutsy call. The season went even more south after that, but he stood there and did what he needed to do."
Asked if he felt, at the point, he had finally proven himself, Colangelo said "I've felt that way for a while. So I guess to be recognized officially that way, it's great."
What the Raptors are going to get is a guy with the reputation of actually getting along with his staff and with those he hires to handle personnel and scouting. Oh, say newspaper accounts from his past, he'll argue, He'll storm. But the next morning, he's back, ready to work again, no questions asked and no grudges held.
And tough? End with this story:
In the summer of 2003, the Suns were looking at Stoudamire to come straight out of high school and play as a six-foot-10 power forward/centre, and were wondering if he was going to be tough enough to handle it.
So Colangelo brought him in for a workout, and set him against Lee Benson, a skilled 29-year old athlete who had exactly what the boss was looking for – he had spent nine years playing pick-up ball in a federal prison.
Stoudamire passed with flying colours, even at one point knocking a gold tooth out of Benson's mouth with an elbow
With files from Associated Press and the Arizona Republic