Colangelo''s success story keeps adding chapters

CHAMPAIGN – Of course, there are trades he would love to take back. Like the one that sent Dennis Johnson and a first-round pick to Boston for Rick Robey and a couple of second-rounders.

And if he had to do it all over again, Jerry Colangelo might have overruled the Phoenix Suns fans and called "tails" during a 1969 coin flip. Instead, the then-young general manager let the fans have their way, said "heads" and watched in horror as Walter Kennedy shouted "tails." The Milwaukee Bucks got to pick UCLA superstar Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Two years later, the Bucks won the NBA title.

So, Colangelo got fired, right? Nope. Thirty-five years later, the former Illinois captain is one step away from the Basketball Hall of Fame.

"I was smart enough back then to think, ''Do I want the onus entirely on my shoulders?'' " Colangelo said. "The fans made a bad call."

Colangelo, who was at the Assembly Hall on Wednesday as part of the All-Century ballot announcement, will find out the week of the Final Four if he made the Hall of Fame cut. Colangelo is one of two former Illini on the list, joining ex-coach and longtime Chicago Bulls announcer Johnny "Red" Kerr in the group of 16.

Though the inductees will be introduced in San Antonio, they will get the word earlier in the week on a secret call. Colangelo won''t lie – he is hoping to hear good news.

"You want to get the call," Colangelo said.

But he won''t be crushed if the phone stays silent. You don''t survive three-plus decades in a pro sport with a fragile ego.

"I''ve had so many blessings in my life," Colangelo said. "I don''t look to add to a list of things like that."

Humble beginnings

Colangelo grew up in Chicago Heights, in a neighborhood called "Hungry Hill."

"He really is a great story," former Illini basketball great Dave Downey said. "He literally started with nothing, and he''s ended up being one of the real leaders of professional sports, both baseball and basketball. He''s really done one heckuva job."

He had 66 basketball scholarship offers after an all-state high school career. Colangelo chose Kansas but left his first year when teammate Wilt Chamberlain turned pro early.

Colangelo came back to Illinois and became a two-year starter in the early 1960s. After college, he went to work for the Chicago Bulls, serving as scout, marketing director and vice president. In 1968, he moved to Phoenix, taking over the expansion Suns.

"I''ve always had an attitude or a philosophy that I''ve never been afraid to fail," Colangelo said. "What always motivated me was the fact that I was always competitive. I got that through sports. I was always ready for a challenge. I guess what helped me is to really believe ''I''ll take this as far as it will go. It''s a nice trip, a nice journey. And if it all ended tomorrow, I can go back to where I started from and be a happy guy.'' "

There have been failures. Despite a string of successful teams, Phoenix has been to the NBA Finals twice, losing both times. The ''76 series against the Boston Celtics still is considered one of the greatest in NBA history. The critical fifth game went to John Havlicek and friends in triple overtime.

It took a move into baseball ownership for Colangelo to finally win a title. In 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees in seven games.

"That was something I had been seeking my entire career," Colangelo said. "When it happened, I said, ''How ironic can this be? You chase it in one sport your entire life and four years in baseball, you win it.'' The baseball gods were lined up the right way. The basketball gods have never been there.

"I would like to have one more ring, and that would be for basketball."

Payback time

His last time in C-U before Wednesday, Colangelo gave the school a big check and said, "it all started here."

Colangelo wants to do what he can for his alma mater, both financially and timewise. He talked to the Illinois basketball team before Wednesday''s win against Wisconsin, reminding it to seize the moment. Bruce Weber might want him back.

"We look up to him," Illini forward Roger Powell said. "He''s a role model for what a student-athlete here should want to do in the future. He gave us motivation."

Colangelo said he believes in staying involved.

"Legacy is important," Colangelo said. "Tradition is important for programs. The more you can engage former players to come back and be a part of a program, the better it is for a program. Universities should never forget what those players contributed to the cause. And the players should never forget what the universities did for them in terms of an education and giving them a foundation."

Good company

Former Illini Jerry Colangelo is among 16 finalists for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Here is the list:

NOMINEE

COMMENT

Jim Calhoun

More wins than you''d think (667) for UConn''s underappreciated cancer survivor

Jerry Colangelo

If he leads the Diamondbacks to another title, the baseball hall might call, too

Drazen Dalipagic

Yugoslavian great named European Player of the Year three times, won record four medals at World Championships

Clyde Drexler

Longtime NBA star won''t get in for his coaching. Phi Slamma Jamma deserves someone in the hall

Gus Johnson

"Honeycomb" averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds during 11 seasons, mostly with the Baltimore Bullets

Bobby Jones

Defensive specialist from North Carolina made playoffs all 12 years of his career, helping Sixers win a title

Gene Keady

Friendly, funny Purdue power has the votes of Brian Cardinal, Bruce Weber

Johnny "Red" Kerr

Another former Illini considered for contributions as player, coach and announcer

Bernard King

Star of "Fast Break" could shoot a bit, too, averaging 22.5 points during 14 seasons

Hortencia Marcari

Former Brazilian star already owns a spot in Women''s Basketball Hall of Fame

Harley Redlin

One of two women''s committee nominees, helped Wayland Baptist women''s team to six AAU titles

Bill Sharman

Already in as a player, ex-Los Angeles Lakers leader now being considered as a coach

Maurice Stokes

Late Cincinnati Royals star had career ended early after he sustained a stroke

Dick Vitale

The Keith Jackson of college basketball cried when he heard he was a finalist

Chet Walker

"The Jet" starred at Bradley before stellar career with the Bulls

Lynette Woodard

Former Kansas star broke the gender barrier with the Harlem Globetrotters

You can reach Bob Asmussen at (217) 351-5233 or via e-mail at rasmusse@news-gazette.com.

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