Decade’s Most: Influential
Jerry Colangelo impacted the game in more ways than any one player could.
Body draped in six feet of baggy Reebok warm-ups and a tight, white skull cap wrapped around his head, Allen Iverson and his similarly dresses friends sauntered into the old Spectrum to accept his Rookie of the Year award.
It was the first week in May of ’97; a tattooed, braided Allen Iverson was on the verge of smashing played-out stereotypes and placing his stamp on the League.
From the start of his rookie season, Bubba Chuck helped usher out the old in the NBA and forcefully bring in the new. Molds were broken. Braids became the more than accepted—for a time they became the norm. Old perceptions cracked and crumbled. Tats—previously frowned upon by fans and owners alike—popped up on arms, necks and even faces league-wide. From 1996 until the baggy, braided look and his skills started fading, Iverson was the impetus behind a changing in the culture of the NBA life and game.
In fact, based on the magnitude of his impact, it could be argued that AI was the person most influential to the game this decade. But I’m not going to do that. (If the award was for the 10-year period from 1996-2006, you’d be reading an article about Iverson right now.)
While Allen Iverson was in the process of changing the landscape of the NBA, another man was busy at work, too, changing the NBA game in many, many ways.
Bags under his eyes, carefully measured suit hiding his slight paunch, Jerry Colangelo was working hard to ensure the NBA continued growing nationally and internationally. Successfully doing so was not easy and it involved making some unpopular moves. But almost every chess piece he moved worked out for the better; almost every pawn and rooks directly helped the NBA—and thus benefited fans. And that’s why the 2004 Hall of Fame inductee, a man who never played a minute in the NBA, is the most influential man of the decade.
Jerry Colangelo first made a League-wide splash this decade in 2001, when, as chairman of the NBA’s select committee, he spearheaded four rule changes. Yes, rules are changed and tweaked every summer. But these were four especially impactful changes, as one of them legalized zone defenses and another reduced the amount of time players have to cross halfcourt from 10 to eight seconds. (The other two changes were the establishment of a defensive three-second rule, negating the potential negative impacts of the zone, and eliminating touch fouls that don’t impact the flow of the game.) As Colangelo said at the time, “this may be one of the most significant changes since the imposition of the 24-second shot clock.”
In 2001 many decried the changes, saying that the lane would become clogged and that star players’ offense would be stymied. Shaq said the zone rules “stink.” P.J. Brown said zones would “bring the game to a grind.” Doc Rivers, then Orlando’s coach, said that “I don’t think there will be more scoring; I think there will be less.”
Few—Phil Jackson, George Karl and a limited amount of others—saw the positive possibilities.
A week before the rules passed, SI scribe Phil Taylor penned a column titled, “New Rules Will Help NBA Quicken Pace.” In it he wrote, “the League…will…pass a set of rules that will merely change the face of the NBA game.” Taylor continued, laying out his view on zones, “the presence of the zone might actually force teams to resurrect the fast break. Don’t worry. The zone doesn’t mean you won’t get to see Vince and Kobe and Spree and The Answer in the open court. You might actually see more of that.”
As Taylor notes and as is evident in hindsight, the genius of the rule changes was in their co-dependence. By itself, allowing zones in the L would have led to teams clogging the lane. But the defensive three-second rule kept that from happening. For the most part, the key was clogged no less and no more than it was prior to the rule change. And to speed up the pace of the game and keep zones from slowing the pace even more, knocking the amount of seconds you have to cross the timeline from 10 to eight ensured a quickening of the NBA’s pace.
Selective memory aside, remember, the game had slowed to a snail’s pace by 1999. Add to the mix that it had become a one-on-one times five game and you can understand why Colangelo and Co. felt the need to implement drastic change. As Colangelo said in the April of ’01, “[t]he game has changed in the sense that we’ve lost a lot of fluidity. We’ve evolved into an isolation game because of our defensive guidelines, and we weren’t satisfied with the way the game looked.”
The better part of a decade behind us, the proof of the zone rule’s impact is in the stats. In 1998-1999, the last season completed before the ’00s, the 29 teams had a combined average of 91.6 ppg, with the Kings leading the League at 100.2 ppg and the Bulls pulling up the rear with an average of 81.9 ppg. As of yesterday, so far this season, the 30 teams in the League have a combined average of 99.4 ppg, with the Suns setting the tone at 109.5 ppg and the Nets at the opposite end of the spectrum with a paltry 89.8 ppg. That’s almost eight more points per team per game or two points per 2001 rule change.
Jerry Colangelo’s next big move in the aughts was another momentous one, though it may have impacted one team more than others: the Phoenix Suns.
In Jack McCallum’s “:07 Seconds Or Less,” the front jacket of the book has the following paragraph: “For years, NBA basketball was marked by a plodding, dull-as-dishwater style of play—that was until coach Mike D’Antoni, point guard Steve Nash, and the high-flying Phoenix Suns set the league on fire with their old-school, run-and-gun approach to offense.”
The preceding excerpt could have and maybe should have mentioned Colangelo as well. As long-time owner of the Suns, Jerry Colangelo was responsible for the assembly of the seven seconds or less teams. More than the personnel, he was behind the hiring of the maestro of the offense, coach D’Antoni. As McCallum writes in the book, “Jerry Colangelo—president and CEO and seminal figure in the organization; sold the team, but still involved in big decisions.”
In their first full year under coach D’Antoni (2004-2005) and in their first year in his offense that, in its simplest interpretation, requires a shot to be hoisted before the shot-clock hits 16, the Suns went 62-20 and averaged 110.4 ppg on 47.4 percent shooting—numbers not seen in the L in almost 15 years. Wherever they played, crowds bought tickets to see them. Washington, Minnesota, New Jersey. It didn’t matter; fans—and, importantly, casual fans—showed up to see the spectacle. Led by Steve Nash, the Suns were flashy; they were unique; they brought the fun back into basketball. And, at some level, Jerry Colangelo was responsible for that.
The 2001 rule changes impacted play in the League as a whole. The Phoenix Suns’ resurrection of fast-paced offense impacted fans. His third major accomplishment, his proverbial checkmate of this award, took root in April of 2005.
Actually, you could argue that his longest-lasting impact began in Athens in 2004, when the 2004 USA Olympic basketball team embarrassed themselves and David Stern. Not a year after losing multiple games in Greece on the way to a bronze medal, Colangelo was named the first managing director of USA basketball men’s senior program. His job, in essence, was to get the right players; get the right coach; get all of them to commit multiple summers to the project; and get USA basketball back to the top of the podium.
With a stacked roster, chocked full of the perfect mix of young and adult, shooters and slashers, stars and superstars, and with one of the greatest college coaches of all-time guiding them (Duke’s coach Krzyzewski), in the summer of 2008 the “Redeem Team” reached their goals, sweeping through Olympic play before beating Spain in the gold medal game, completing the task Colangelo undertook nearly four years previous—and adding an “international” section to his aughts resume.
While the casual fan may not know his name, and while the SLAM reader may think Allen Iverson more deserving, taking into account all that he accomplished for the NBA, basketball in general and his country—all while battling prostate cancer—Jerry Colangelo, was clearly the most influential man of the first decade of the third millennium. Not bad for a 70-year-old man, one who gave up ownership of the Suns while accomplishing things in 10 years that most men can only dream of accomplishing in a lifetime.
For more Decade Awards, check out the archive.