Even when owners and players clashed about salaries and salary caps, one man always had respect on both sides of the table.
Jerry Colangelo has long been one of NBA Commissioner David Stern's most trusted confidants, yet liked enough by players that he got almost everyone he asked for when he built the U.S. national basketball team program.
And now he's ready to share some of what's made him so successful — and maybe help little Grand Canyon University realize its big-time athletic dreams.
The Phoenix school announced Tuesday the formation of the Colangelo School of Sports Business, and the namesake plans to be involved.
"People need to be encouraged, be given opportunities, and I have a lot I can share with my experience over 40 years," Colangelo said. "And so, you can (only) learn so much out of textbooks. A lot of it is in the trenches, a lot of is being around people who have done it."
Colangelo certainly has, responsible for much of Phoenix's professional sports history since arriving in 1968 as the expansion Suns' general manager. Some of it will be on display in the school's arena, where it envisions hosting Division I sporting events in a few years. Colangelo will donate medals, trophies and other items from his personal collection — maybe even the baseball that was hit to win Game 7 of the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks.
"From a local standpoint, there's an incredible history of what's transpired and I've got a lot of stuff to support that story," Colangelo said.
Colangelo has moved beyond the Phoenix sports scene, selling the Diamondbacks and later the Suns, with whom he still holds a largely ceremonial title. But his roles as chairman of USA Basketball and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame board have kept him active..
The private Christian university, founded in 1949, believed Colangelo's contacts could help facilitate a move to college sports' highest level. Schools can no longer make the jump to Division I as an independent, they must be invited to join a conference.
"Jerry knows and has lots of credibility with conference commissioners, with athletics directors, with university presidents, and we think he can help us as we're making our sales pitch to different conferences about who we are and what we could bring to a conference," said Grand Canyon University CEO Brian Mueller.
Colangelo, though, was more interested in the business school, so resigned the Grand Canyon board position to focus on that. He'll do some lecturing, help line up guest speakers from around the sports world, and each year, an outstanding second-year student will be mentored by him.
"Through experience, through my journey, I can share what things worked for me and how circumstances led from one thing to another," Colangelo said.
"The only way you become a candidate for these top jobs is by being well rounded and having work experience and creating expertise in different areas, and that prepares you in case you do get that opportunity."
Colangelo says pro sports was "Mom and Pop in terms of scope" when he started with the Chicago Bulls in the mid-1960s, when the franchise value was $1.25 million, the team payroll was $180,000 for 12 players, and coaches and general managers topped out around $15,000.
Now, the NBA brings in $4.3 billion in revenues, and owners have locked out players while they fight over how to divide it up. But Colangelo still relies on personal communication, the same way he did then while negotiating the league's first sneaker deal, with Converse, in Chicago.
That's why he doesn't share the concerns coach Mike Krzyzewski recently expressed about the impact a season-long lockout could have on the Americans' Olympic title defense. Colangelo has been talking to players and agents, and they all tell him there's no way they're passing on London if the lockout is ongoing.
"There has been no indication from agents or players who are part of our national team that they would not be playing," he said. "Quite to the contrary, the calls and communication that I've had is that they all are in, they all intend to play."
For now, he's focused on the Grand Canyon project.
"I'm going to have an involvement, it's not just a name," he said.
The school will host the first game in its new arena next month against Arizona State and aspires to be a Gonzaga or Marquette, a small, religious school but a basketball power. Its goal is 12,000 students on campus in three years and 1,000 in the sports business program major, created just last year, within five years on campus and online.
"The first thing Jerry has, I think, is a tremendous amount of credibility with every significant audience," Mueller said. "He was really well respected by his fellow owners, very well respected by the players, because of the way he dealt with them and the relationships he was able to build with them. He's very respected by the fan base, and so he's got a lot of credibility with all the important constituents.
"But the other thing was Jerry's well known, especially around here, having built as a businessman, having built really high quality organizations. We can use him not only as somebody who's got a great record and lots of experience around professional athletics, but also as somebody who from a general business perspective knows how to build great organizations."