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Humble beginnings for both Jerry, Bryan Colangelo

PHOENIX – It was 10 a.m. on a typical warm May morning, and Jerry Colangelo cruised down North Central Avenue in his all-black Mercedes-Benz with tinted windows.

PHOENIX – It was 10 a.m. on a typical warm May morning, and Jerry Colangelo cruised down North Central Avenue in his all-black Mercedes-Benz with tinted windows.

He's listening to faint music by Frank Sinatra on the Siriusly Sinatra SiriusXM Radio channel.

"I always have Sinatra on," Colangelo said. "The Italian neighborhood [near] Chicago I'm from, the two big names way back were Frank Sinatra and [former New York Yankees legend] Joe DiMaggio. I eventually met both of them."

A few months before he passed away at the age of 84 in 1999, DiMaggio told Colangelo that he was proud of him.

That's because the Colangelo family is perceived to be NBA royalty. Jerry Colangelo started the Chicago Bulls and Phoenix Suns franchises and the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball, and is the face of USA basketball.

If he's the godfather or king, his son Bryan Colangelo is the prince. The 76ers new president is renowned for his cutting edge thinking and aggressive roster moves. He was formerly general manager of the Suns and Toronto Raptors in the NBA. Jerry, 76, and Bryan, 51, are movers and shakers in the NBA.

Their proud Italian-American roots are similar to what a typical inner-city guy from Philly would appreciate.

Long climb

The Sixers consultant came a long way from being that kid who shared a bedroom with his sister, Rosemary, in a makeshift home in the Hungry Hill section of Chicago Heights, Ill.

As he turned his Mercedes onto East Jefferson Street, Colangelo told the story of his family. His grandparents, Giovanni and Rosina Colangelo, immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century from the village of Monteleone di Puglia, east of Naples in southern Italy.

Chicago Heights was an immigrant-filled, poor, working-class neighborhood. People either worked in the steel mill or the textile factory.

Around 1920, Giovanni built a small two-story home across the street from railroad tracks. His primary construction material was lumber from two railroad boxcars. The house had a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom on the main floor. There were two bedrooms upstairs.

That was the home Jerry grew up in. His grandparents and an aunt and uncle lived downstairs. His parents, Larry and Sue Colangelo, slept in one of the upstairs rooms. Jerry and Rosemary were in the other room until they grew older and Giovanni built a divider to give the two some privacy. But as he grew to 6-foot-3, Jerry's feet stuck out on his sister's side.

"Looking out as a kid, I used to wonder how do you get on the other side of the tracks," Colangelo said. "I used to think that way."

Returning home

When Bryan was 11 years old, Jerry was already a successful general manager for the Suns.

In his mind, it was time to show Bryan an up-close look at his tough upbringing in Chicago Heights. Colangelo showed Bryan everything from the alleys, to the playgrounds, to the baseball fields and streets he hung out on.

Around midnight, they ventured outside Bloom High School, where Jerry was a basketball and baseball standout before accepting a basketball scholarship to play at Kansas. After one semester, he transferred to Illinois after learning that teammate Wilt Chamberlin was leaving the school.

While a student at Bloom, Colangelo was regarded as one of the nation's top guards. He had 66 scholarship offers for basketball. A lefthander in baseball, he was the ace of a Bloom pitching staff that included Jim Bouton, who pitched for the Yankees, Seattle Pilots, Houston Astros, and Atlanta Braves.

While looking through a glass window, Bryan saw a picture of his father on a high school wall.

"And he said to me, 'Dad, I want to do what you did,' " Jerry recalled. "I want to go to school here."

That really touched Jerry. But he told Bryan that he had to live his own life.

No easy route

Bryan's childhood in Phoenix wasn't one of living in affluent suburbs or receiving a private-school education. Jerry and his wife, Joan, raised their children in the city. The couple still lives there.

Bryan didn't go to prestigious Brophy College Preparatory school as most kids who had parents of the Colangelos' stature did. Instead, he went next door to Central High School.

He attended Cornell University, where he was a seldom-used reserve guard on the basketball team. After college, Bryan moved to New York to work in real estate. He did some advance scouting for the Suns when opposing teams faced the Knicks. But that was it for basketball at the time.

"Then I got a call from Cotton Fitzsimmons and he said he needed some help," Bryan Colangelo said. "He was the head coach and director of player personnel of the Suns."

So Colangelo moved back to Arizona in 1991. By that time, his father was the owner of the team.

Bryan had to prove himself. He was fine with that. He didn't want to be singled out as the owner's son. So he stopped addressing Jerry as dad. Even today, Bryan calls him Jerry or JC.

"I didn't want to be in a situation where I referred to him as dad," Bryan said. "I just didn't feel like it was professional. It might have been even a little bit awkward initially for people. But I think they came to respect it."

Folks in the organization also quickly learned to respect his work.

Rising in Phoenix

In addition to a small role with the Suns, he was president of the Phoenix Arena Sports from June 1991 to June 2002. PAS ran the Arizona Rattlers of the Arena Football League and the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, teams his father owned.

Bryan's 16-hour work days played off. He was named AFL Executive of the year in 1993. The Rattlers won league titles in 1994 and 1997. Meanwhile, the Mercury reached the WNBA Finals in 1998.

"He could not have had a better template to build these really successful alternative franchises," said Seth Sulka, a former general manager of the Mercury. "There was no, 'He came in from Day 1 and got to do anything with the Suns.'

"I sat in the back office with him. He started at the bottom."

Bryan worked hard to climb up the ladder in his profession. His work ethic mirrors his father's.

"I was with the Suns when Bryan was with the Suns. So I think he's going to do a great job in Philadelphia," said Grand Canyon University coach Dan Majerle, who played for and was later a Suns assistant coach. "He's very smart, knows what he is doing.

"Anytime there's a Colangelo involved, I'm all in. So I think it was great move for Philadelphia."

Visible imprint

The Colangelo imprint is quite visible in Phoenix.

Cruising on North 34th Street, Colangelo drives past the Jerry Colangelo Branch of the Boys and Girls Club. Over at Grand Canyon, there's the Colangelo School of Business complete with a Jerry Colangelo room. His autobiography 'HOW YOU PLAY THE GAME' is required reading in a couple of classes. And he's also a consultant to the school that's going to have a Colangelo museum in the basketball practice facility the school is set to build.

One of the fastest growing universities in the country, Grand Canyon had 600 students six years ago. It will have 17,500 in the fall. Colangelo has assisted in the school's athletic transition from Division II to Division I. He hired Majerle to coach the team. It finished 27-7 this past season.

After he rode his Mercedes past one local State Farm Insurance agency here, one wondered if Colangelo was the landlord. He created JDM Partners with David Eaton and Mel Shultz around 35 years ago. They're the largest landlord for State Farm's properties in the country. They're one of the country's largest landowners.

It's easy to see why DiMiggio was proud.