Colangelo Sportsman of the Year

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:01 AM ET

Since his arrival in Toronto in February 2006, Bryan Colangelo may be the closest thing to a miracle-worker Toronto has seen since Joe Carter hit that baseball into infamy or Pinball Clemons made the Argonauts more than an afterthought.

Within 18 months, the Raptors president and general manager has turned the team from an NBA eyesore into an internationally respected organization with a division championship. He has restored hope where two years ago there was a season with 27 wins and public support that was sagging lower than some players' shorts.

He has helped an entire city forget the Great Ennui of the Jalen Rose era and restored faith where once there was only an unrequited love of that most reluctant of superheroes, Vince Carter.

HOOPS FAMILY

Born into a basketball family -- his father, Jerry, is a former GM and ex-owner of the Phoenix Suns -- he has twice been named NBA executive of the year. The first came in 2005 when he led the Suns to the third-greatest turnaround in NBA history. When he won the award this summer for breathing life into the Raptors, it made him, along with Jerry West and Bob Bass, the only people to win the award with two different franchises.

His resurrection of the Raptors also now earns him selection as the Toronto Sun's 2007 Sportsman of the Year.

Before his introduction, and in the wake of the upheaval that was Rob Babcock, Colangelo didn't know a lot about Toronto.

Oh, he'd first visited during the 1994 world basketball championship, he'd heard it was an intriguing cultural mosaic and he'd looked around when the Suns came to town. And, he thanked the country for Steve Nash, who'd helped turn around his Phoenix club. But his idea of the Allen Expressway was what opened up when some guy name Ray cut the lane.

What he did know, Colangelo says, is that the Raptors were "dysfunctional," that the franchise had to undergo a "culture adjustment" and that he had to find a way to make Chris Bosh the future cornerstone of the team.

So far, he is 3-for-3, although with a 12-10 start to this season, it is evident he is not yet quite ready to walk on water.

"People want to believe their team has a chance to win. My priority was to change the culture and attitude within and toward this franchise," he says from his corner office at the Air Canada Centre.

For years, all people heard about was that Tracy McGrady couldn't get out of town quick enough, that Vince's mom wanted a better parking spot or the Carter clan was outta here, or that nobody wanted to be drafted to a city that didn't even have televisions that come with ESPN.

Colangelo had rebuilt the Suns after ripping the team down to its foundations. He had a similar plan for Toronto, one that would take advantage of the changing demographics of a game that has grown from America's inner cities and been adopted by the world. If he couldn't give Toronto Air Canada, he would give it an air lift.

SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET AND THE GHOST OF ALVIN

There were three things Colangelo had on his to-do list: Find a way to keep Bosh, find a way to dump almost everyone else, and find time to build a snowman with his kids who had grown up in the Phoenix desert. But, not, necessarily in that order.

"You're wrestling with the notion of moving the family from where you've been 15 years. It's a gut-wrenching process but I knew it was the right decision," he says of the new world he, his wife and two children have found. "It's turned out wonderfully, both personally and professionally. There were times when we've said: 'Hey, what are we doing here?' But, generally, it has been a great acclimation. I feel fortunate to be able to say that. It doesn't always work out that way."

Colangelo doesn't talk much about his family. He says his wife prefers to be left out of the public eye and "my kids for sure," he says. His other house, the one whose foundations he would rock to the core, is fair game for analysis, though.

"Sometimes you have to take two steps back before taking one forward," he says of the wrecking ball that tore through a lineup Colangelo saw as fractured and lacking direction. "Some of the dysfunction came from lingering skeletons. We had a couple of players with injury scenarios that were taking life out of the process. That isn't to say Alvin Williams wasn't a good guy to have around. But for the other players, every day to see the guy on the training table had to have some negative effect. There were others who needed to be removed from the process."

And so, Babcock's controversial first-round draft pick, Rafael Araujo, was traded.

"I don't know what kind of player Araujo is going to be, but he needed to be taken off this team," Colangelo says. "There was too much negativity around him pulling down this franchise. This franchise needed a breath of fresh air. I tried to move in a different direction.

"It was all part of that cultural shift. In the locker room. On the court. In the perception of the fans and the public. We needed to be entirely new, to the extent of renovating the locker room. I wanted the players to feel like when they walked in there the next year that everything was different right down to the skin on the walls."

Colangelo says the Under Construction sign slapped on the franchise remains. But most of the major work, at least until the summer of 2009 when the team will have almost $20 million US in cap room open up, is likely done.

"When I got here Bosh was the cornerstone. He was the piece that we needed to build around and it's still the case. One of the priorities was to make sure he stayed.

"Second, when you look at what we needed around Chris, we needed a lot. This team wasn't very good and there was a lot of dysfunction. As far as positions go, we needed a point guard and a centre."

He traded for centre Rasho Nesterovic from San Antonio.

"A lot of people said we had a point guard in Mike James," he said. "There was controversy about letting him go but, if we were going in the direction we wanted, we needed someone else. So we ended up making the deal for T.J. Ford."

And they had their playmaker.

Then Colangelo went where no NBA executive has gone so often, so quickly. He marched across Europe like Patton on Berlin.

"I do think you have to pay attention to your market," he said. "There are some cities in the NBA, I'm not sure that some of these foreign players would feel 100% comfortable. It's like some of the players south of the border might not feel comfortable here. Well, we know the type of player who will feel comfortable here."

The move into Europe wasn't an altogether novel approach for Colangelo. His father had signed the first international player in the NBA when he picked Jeorgi Glouchkov of Bulgaria in the seventh round of the 1985 draft.

"I've scouted there, been there a lot. It goes back to that point," Colangelo says. "I've been keeping an eye on it ever since."

Regarding the signing of European free agent forward Jorge Garbajosa, he says: "We needed some adhesion to bring the team together."

That happened because Mike D'Antoni had been Colangelo's coach in Phoenix. Before that, D'Antoni had coached a kid name Garbajosa to the Italian league championship.

"He used to talk about Garbo and say: 'He was never my best player but he was the reason we won.' Well it was that kind of glue, that kind of element that we were missing," he says.

Colangelo brought in shooting guard/small forward Anthony Parker, an American who starred with Maccabi Tel Aviv. And when the Raptors won the NBA lottery, he took a flyer in drafting Italian forward/centre Andrea Bargnani first overall.

To suggest Colangelo and Son paved the road to the New World for European players might be pushing it. But the Raptors GM does note that today, 20% of NBA players come from overseas.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON, LIKE A PHOENIX ARISING

Some people run away from school. Bryan Colangelo once ran away to school.

The day he left Phoenix in 1983 for his first day at Cornell is the closest he has ever come to being the family rebel. Truth is he'd always loved being around his father, Jerry, as he conducted business as GM of the Suns, then as team owner and a sports mogul with interests that ran from hockey to tennis to the WNBA and beyond.

"I didn't resent my dad's success, like so many young ones do," Colangelo says. "If you enjoy it and have a passion for it why not embrace it? It was in my blood to do what I do."

Basketball has been his passion since grade school when he was a ball boy for the Suns. His father involved him in the business.

"Every summer vacation I'd sit and listen to him talk on the phone to agents," he says. "Whether it was at home or on vacation or summer league. I'd see every game. I grew up around it and the thought process: The ways to handle players, coaches, agents ... the myriad of issues that come across the desk every day. I can't think of a better classroom than how I grew up."

Wayne Embry, currently a senior adviser with the Raptors, was a colleague and friend of Bryan's father.

"I watched him grow up. His father and I had careers that ran parallel. I wasn't baby-sitting him but he was always around (the stadium)," Embry says. "He still talks about how he played CYO basketball with one of my players in Cleveland, Mark Price. He was always around the Suns. He got very good tutelage from his father. The blood lines worked."

Colangelo played basketball at Cornell, where he earned a degree in management and applied economics in 1987.

ESTABLISHED

"Obviously, I tried to create space between myself and my father," he says. "I tried to establish some credibility on my own. I went to school 3,000 miles away in Ithaca, N.Y. That's about as far from Phoenix as you can go."

After that, he worked four years in a New York brokerage firm, he says, "in an attempt to create my own sense as a business person outside of that shadow, outside of that web."

But in 1990, he went back to his passion. Basketball. The web. And his father. He became assistant director of player personnel for the Suns.

"No matter how much time I spent away, coming back and working for him I knew I'd always be criticized," he says. "I kind of sensed that. We used to laugh that when things would go great he'd get the success and when things go wrong I'd take the heat. But I was okay with that. I came up with the notion that I wasn't competing with him I was competing for him."

His father may have opened the door to the NBA penthouse but, he knew, only his own success would keep him there.

He became the league's youngest club president in 1999. A year later, he was named to the "40 under 40" group by Street and Smith's Sports Business Journal.

On the sidelines at Raptors games, the cameras often pan over to show Colangelo standing, implacable. He appears cool, almost detached.

Don't buy it, Embry says, laughing. Apparently, he is emotional. Excitable. Just not in front of the kids -- even if these kids are playing a million-dollar game.

"I've seen him (get excited) but in upper management you try not to express that where the players, the fans can see it," Embry says. "Underneath that calm, there's a burning desire to win. Bryan hates losing."

Colangelo explains it this way: "Whatever I'm showing on my face might be misinterpreted by those who see it. But, do I live and die with each win or loss? Yeah. I get frustrated. I'm a pretty intense guy during the game. Maybe I'm not showing it."

ROUND PEG SQUARE HOLES

Jamario Moon shouldn't be in the NBA. All the experts said so.

If one listens to the prognosticators this year, the Raptors won't play .500, won't make the playoffs, won't win the division, etc., etc., etc.

Good thing Bryan Colangelo doesn't listen so well. It's one of his best personality traits.

"It seems if I'm being told to go one direction, I'll go the other," he says. " I don't know why. (He laughs.) It's a natural tendency. It's not out of defiance. I just follow my instincts. I don't know if that's a positive trait or a negative. But I seem to swim against the stream. They zig, you zag. I don't know. I guess I tend to look at things differently."

Which explains that European thing. That out-of-the-box thinking brought Maurizio Gherardini of Italian league power Benetton into the Toronto fold as vice-president and assistant general manager, the first international GM hired by an NBA team.

Colangelo says he has two rules to live by in the NBA business: First, collect all the information available and digest it. And, second, have the instinct to ignore what it tells you and "go with your gut."

Which is how Moon became the Raptors' latest find. Colangelo said Moon's name came up in a scouting report that about 25 of the 30 NBA teams receive and, in 2006, he was listed as the 11th best small forward in the minor leagues.

NBA teams filed him under I-G-N-O-R-E. In July of this year, the report had him listed as the 14th best.

"That's kind of being lost in the shuffle. He'd actually dropped down and if that's all we'd read, we wouldn't have signed him," Colangelo said. "But Jim Kelly, our director of player personnel, had gone to see him play, so we invited him to our free-agent camp this summer."

Moon, averaging just under nine points and eight rebounds a game with a team-leading 23 blocks, has lessened the impact of Garbajosa's injury saga.

Says Colangelo: "There are times when the gut tells you different than the numbers. At the end of the day, you use all the tools you've got, but don't use them as a rule of thumb. Use them as guides. You can spend tons on scouting, statistical analysis but don't let those tools make decisions for you."

As a result, the Raptors have become the United Nations of the NBA.

"But we're not locked into just international players. Goodwater, Ala., where Jamario is from, is anything but international," Colangelo says.

PEDDIE GETS HIS MAN, ONE GM LATER

Colangelo's father was on the NBA expansion committee that bypassed Larry Tanenbaum and gave the Raptors franchise to Larry Bitove.

"Ironic," Bryan says, that he today would end up heading that same Toronto franchise for a group that includes Tanenbaum.

"As Larry likes to remind me, Jerry (Colangelo always refers to his father as 'Jerry' out of professional respect) made the wrong decision the first time." Colangelo smiles.

Destiny almost brought him to Toronto two years earlier -- before most people had even heard of Rob Babcock. "I got a call from (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. CEO) Richard (Peddie) and he was looking to replace Glen (Grunwald) and he asked if I had an interest because that was the year my father had agreed to sell (the Suns) to Robert Sarver. But I felt obligated to the Suns for two reasons: I had just literally had a conversation with Sarver and he wanted to offer me a three-year deal as general manager ... and I'd told my father not to worry about me, that I'd be fine."

He'd also just traded for Steve Nash and, says Colangelo, "I had all our ducks lined up and wanted to see it through."

So, Peddie talked. Colangelo talked. "I gave him a few pieces of information that would help him select someone," Colangelo says.

A couple of weeks later the Raptors hired Babcock. "He didn't," Colangelo says, "take my advice, by the way."

The Babcock era turned slapstick and within 18 months, Peddie was again looking for someone with a mop and bucket. "The Raptors had aging veterans and they had young kids and there was a contradiction," Embry says. "The veterans had their agenda and the purpose of the team was to develop the young players. That saddles the coach with an obligation to keep everyone happy. The aging veterans want to play to get one last contract. The kids want to play to get their first big contract and so we ended up with scrambled eggs."

All over their face.

Embry stepped in as interim GM and amazed everyone by clearing $12 million in cap room by trading the supposedly unmovable contracts of Jalen Rose and Aaron Williams while Peddie hit speed dial.

"There was a phone call that came to Jerry (Bryan won't confirm it -- but he didn't deny it either -- that league commissioner David Stern was on one end of the line) to find out whether I was available for an opportunity here. It took on a whole new life."

Colangelo and Sarver weren't getting on by then.

"Tanenbaum came out with his wife, Judy, to the all-star game in Houston," Colangelo says. "Larry was pretty persistent. He flew to Scottsdale and camped out and waited for me to make a decision. He was out there for about five days. The excuse was he was checking out one of his companies and after a few days he said: 'We've got to talk.' I flew to Toronto, met the board ... about a week later it was done."

FLIES IN THE OINTMENT OR THE ELIXERS OF LIFE?

It has not been all beer and skittles. Going against convention rarely gives a man much room for comfort. Or error.

"It's not a matter of batting a thousand," he says, "it's a matter of going with your beliefs."

His toughest decisions?

"I knew people would think I was crazy trading away Charlie Villaneuva. But," he says, "don't let fear rule your life. We felt it was the right deal to make."

Selecting Bargnani as the team's No. 1 pick in the draft, despite his bravado at the time, Colangelo says, was "a difficult decision. When there is no consensus No. 1 ... no matter what you did, there were going to be people who said you made the wrong decision. And, ultimately No. 1 picks tend to linger as far as the results -- people talk about the failures more often than they talk about the successes."

Then there was coach Sam Mitchell. New executives like to bring their own help. Again Colangelo went with his gut.

"The decision to go against conventional wisdom and keep Sam and let him coach a team that he was a part of building -- that was somewhat difficult because everyone thought it would be done a different way. I felt he deserved the opportunity to see it through," he says.

The biggest stomach-churner, however, remains unsettled.

"It was whether we should let Jorge play for the Spanish national team. Ultimately we consented when insurance was put in place," Colangelo says of a key performer who now faces surgery and an uncertain future. "But an insurance payment is not going to cure the fact we no longer have Jorge in the lineup. It remains a big issue."

ANY WAY YOU SPELL IT, IT'S STILL RAP-TURE

Unlike his former home in the desert, Toronto has snow, but, says Colangelo, at least before leaving for work now, he no longer has to sweep the sand dunes off his front step. Then, he takes his tongue out of his cheek and smiles. It's one of those southwest American jokes. You know, kind of like the Canadian one about how Americans think we all live in igloos and commute via dogsled.

Yup! Colangelo is feeling his comfort zone. With so many immigrant Canadians, whose first sporting love is soccer or hoops, Colangelo sees the Raps becoming Canada's basketball team, like the Leafs are to hockey.

"It's a great sports market," he says. "When we were winning 27 games, they were averaging 15,000-16,000 a game. A lot of teams in the NBA would love that every night. Now that we're a team on the rise, people are responding. For me, the greatest encouragement is the (Raptors) brand has become relevant in the market, again. I say 'again' because I think it was relevant when Vince (Carter) was in his prime. We've tried to find likable people, people with character. It's not just about basketball. The players we now have are the type people will want to cheer for. It's part of that culture we're trying to build."


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