Back in 1994, a man with ties to both the Midwest and the Phoenix area attended a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. He had worked his way up from assistant coach to owner of the Phoenix Suns, whom he had purchased in 1987, and he was looking to make an even bigger splash than that. At that game, the man decided to inquire to Major League Baseball about bringing a professional team to Arizona, and after a year or so of assembling an ownership group, the man was successful in getting a franchise when MLB decided to field two new expansion teams in the 1998 season.
The man successfully got public funding for a brand new 50,000+ seat ballpark in downtown Phoenix, complete with a retractable roof, natural grass field, and the most important component that any stadium in the Valley would need: air conditioning, and lots of it. The team on the field wasn’t all that great in its first year, but by 2001, they already had multiple division championships and a World Series ring to show for their efforts.
The team’s financial fortunes started to decline after that, and by the time 2004 rolled around, the man had been forced to sell both the Suns and his controlling interest in the Diamondbacks.
That man, Jerry Colangelo, evokes a wide range of emotions when he is brought up to fans in the Phoenix area. There are inevitable feelings of nostalgia and gratitude to the man who not only turned the Suns into a profitable franchise, but also got them as close to an NBA title as they have ever been, losing in the 1993 Finals to the Chicago Bulls. He also was instrumental in getting the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Valley, whose baseball scene was limited to spring training and the transplanted fans of teams like the Cubs and San Francisco Giants before Chase Field opened. Finally, there were his efforts to bring the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL to town, successfully grabbing them from Winnipeg at the conclusion of the 1996 season.
All of these efforts have endeared him to a lot of fans, but there are also reasons that some folks loathe him. There is, of course, the fact that his Suns teams were largely unsuccessful after that near miss of a championship in 1993, and his clashes with players like Charles Barkley and Dennis Johnson were also viewed unfavorably by supporters of the team. In addition, he racked up a large amount of debt for the Diamondbacks as they tried to be instantly competitive as an expansion team, and by the time he left in 2004, they were $150 million in debt. This was due in large part to the massive payroll they sported during those years, and the backloaded contracts given to players like Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson made the problem a long-sustaining one.
With all of this controversy surrounding him, it is a hardly a surprise that any plans to honor him have been met with a mix of derision and support. The latest such effort was suggested by Arizona Republic columnist Dan Bickley, who wrote a piece on Wednesday suggesting that it was time for a statue to be erected in Colangelo’s honor. He went over some of the big stumbling blocks toward completing such a monument, including the fact the Diamondbacks would have to sign off on one at Chase Field (something managing partner Ken Kendrick may be loathe to do, considering his feud with Colangelo over the years), and that the mayor of Phoenix would have to be sensitive to Robert Sarver, who has never been as popular as Colangelo was with Suns fans.
These things are all worthy of discussion, and should rightfully give anyone planning such a statue pause. Despite all of these factors, however, the city of Phoenix owes a large chunk of its sports identity to Colangelo, and even though he doesn’t own a team in the Valley anymore, he should be honored with one regardless. Whether that monument be erected outside of Chase Field or US Airways Center, or even on a random corner in downtown Phoenix, Colangelo’s legacy is deserving of being celebrated, and it’s high time that something be done to say thank you for the legacy he has given the fans of the Valley.
Of course, you may risk hurting Sarver’s feelings for honoring an owner that was more popular than the penny-pinching regime that is currently running the Suns, or you may have to massage the egos of Kendrick and others in the ownership group of the Diamondbacks, but the fact of the matter is that time heals all wounds, and those wounds pale in comparison to the great work that Colangelo did in making the Valley a sports destination.
Yes, we live in a time where the government should be cutting back rather than lavishly spending, but with the economy slowly improving, the time is right to do something that should have been done a long time ago. Without Colangelo, there may never have been an MLB team in the Valley, and fans of the team should voice their support that he be honored appropriately.