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Jerry Colangelo empathizes with black athletes in more ways than one

From growing up poor to playing street ball, the NBA exec identifies with the struggle

With all of their NBA stars on hand, the USA Basketball team will have one of the brightest spotlights at the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics. Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson are among the 10 NBA All-Stars on the team who already have worldwide familiarity. And with the racial and social issues taking place in the United States today, potentially the most outspoken team in USA Basketball history could make some noise off the court, too.

USA Basketball executive director Jerry Colangelo told The Undefeated that in no way is he trying to silence or temper the voices on his roster as the Olympics arrive.

“No, we’re not telling them what to say,” Colangelo said. “We are saying we’re supportive. We’re in fact encouraging and they have to make their own choice. We’re not telling them what to say and what not to say.”

And why?

“Because I think it’s inappropriate,” Colangelo said.

Colangelo is the mastermind who turned USA Basketball from a disappointment to an unstoppable power with two straight Olympic gold medals and expectations for a third. The 76-year-old Italian-American also dealt with poverty and racism while growing up in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood and was once told by a mentor to change his name. Between his challenging upbringing and having two grandchildren who are half-black, Colangelo, who also serves as the Philadelphia 76ers’ adviser, is very well aware of the today’s social and racial issues and the ongoing struggles between young black men and the police.

Colangelo recently sat down with The Undefeated for an interview in which he talks about the racial, social and circumstantial challenges of his youth and today while adding some words of wisdom from his “started from the bottom” life.

There is expected to be a town hall-like meeting led by Carmelo Anthony during USA Basketball’s off day in Los Angeles on Monday that could include teammates and coaches. What are your thoughts about it?

We think it’s a great idea because we had conversations with the NBA ourselves almost immediately after the ESPYS situation. We thought it would be fantastic to do it in L.A. And I have not heard of what the latest developments are. And again, we’re just very supportive of them.

Jerry Colangelo, Director of USA Basketball, addresses the media at the USOC Olympic Media Summit at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 9, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for the USOC

What do you think about the strong voice Anthony is giving on social issues of late?

It’s great. I applaud him. It’s something that each individual has to determine for themselves in terms of what they wish to say. Everyone understands there’s a platform. It’s important to pick your audience, pick your spots so that it’s more effective.

What type of environment did you grow up in as kid in Chicago?

Coming from a poor Italian ethnic community, which was Hungry Hill in Chicago Heights, everybody went to work with a lunch bucket. They worked in steel mills, foundries, textile factories. That’s the kind of environment I grew up in. My grandfather, who was an Italian immigrant, built a house out of the remnants of two railroad boxcars, and some additional lumber. It was a small house, two levels, some small stairs. That’s where I lived. My office later on in life was bigger than the space I grew up in.

It was a tough neighborhood on the other side of the tracks and the tracks were right there. And I used to think as a kid, ‘How do you get on the other side?’ That used to go through my mind. I don’t know why, but I learned … Whoever I am, I got that foundation right there in that neighborhood. I saw what hard work was all about, what family was all about. Passion, work ethic, the whole thing, because I saw it.

I grew up two doors away from the saloon. That’s how I lived. We didn’t have pipes that were in the walls. Our pipes were exposed. When I was a young kid, I used to deliver all the Chicago newspapers. The two morning papers, the Tribune and the Times, the two afternoon papers, the Daily News and the Chicago American. And then the local paper, The Chicago Heights, twice a week. Today, I could still remember which house gets what paper.

How did you go about delivering the newspaper?

I had a bike. Sometimes I walked, but it was all in the neighborhood, so it wasn’t a big deal. But I still remember when I took my old man’s car when I was like 12 because it was so early in the morning. I sideswiped a couple of cars. I saw everything. I saw guys who got shot in the neighborhood because it was a tough neighborhood. And it was. So that kind of prepared me. Now, what I recognized early on is that I had a little bit of ability in sports and vicariously people in the neighborhood were kind of living their lives through me knowing whatever success I was having. They were right there as part of it. I always felt an obligation to those people going forward.

How did you overcome the challenges of your neighborhood?

You don’t necessarily want to leave the neighborhood or leave your buddies and all of that because that’s how you grew up. But on the other hand, you spend your life going back to the story about the railroad tracks. How do you get on the other side? You got to step out. I did have confidence in my own ability to compete. And one thing I found as I was kind of moving along is that I was never intimidated by people who had it, who had money, or guys in high school who had cars and nice clothes and all that.

The equalizer for me was the ball field, the courts, and that’s where I thrived. A combination or growing up in that environment and being blessed with a little bit of ability, and competitive desires I had took me one way rather than being satisfied with status quo. That’s basically what took place. The more I saw, the more I was exposed to, the more comfortable I felt in any setting.

Did you almost take the wrong path during your youth?

I never got in trouble, I mean real trouble. Could have been because I knew what guys were doing and was sometimes being asked to participate. But, not me. You know, I always went away from it. It’s bad stuff, for sure. I just knew it wasn’t good. It wasn’t for me.

What do you recall about the time you took your then-young son, Philadelphia 76ers general manager Bryan Colangelo, to your old childhood neighborhood?

When my son was growing up, I wanted to throw him out of the house and on to the streets so he could see what it was like. And I took him back to Chicago when he was 11. He was 2 when we left. So I brought him to the old neighborhood. I wanted him to experience it, and I took him down to my old house. All the places we used to play, the alleys, the old house.

Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo poses for a portrait circa 1960’s.

NBA Photos/Getty Images

We ended up at the high school gym [at Bloom Township] like at midnight and he sees my name up on a wall and all that stuff. And he says to me, ‘Dad, I want to go to school here. I want to do what you did.’ I said, ‘Bryan, that was my life. You got to live your own life.’ But it touched me.

Not only were you a standout basketball player, but you could pitch as well. Did you almost become a professional baseball player instead?

I had offers to sign as a pitcher, and the only thing I wanted was enough money to buy my mother a house. That’s all I wanted. I would have given up everything, college, if I could have got $50,000, I would have just signed it. My life would have gone in another direction. I don’t think I was a better baseball player although I had a shot. I had a shot being a left-handed pitcher. But, again I was very competitive.

But, I did get offered [$25,000] by the Dodgers … And, they said to me that I was going to AAA and I didn’t buy it. I couldn’t get what I wanted. Meanwhile, I had hurt my arm anyway, and I knew it, they didn’t, because I had overpitched.

Can you talk about initially going to the University of Kansas to play with Wilt Chamberlain and then departing quickly to the University of Illinois?

I liked Kansas because of Wilt. So what was my choice? It was Wilt because I figured now I didn’t get the high school [championship], we got to win a NCAA championship. So I go to Kansas to play with Wilt. I get a locker next to him, get to know him … And one night we’re out having a few beers, and Wilt says, ‘I’m not coming back.’ I said, ‘What?’ This was my first semester. So I just said, ‘Dude, I came all the way out here just to play with you and you’re going to leave?’ And he signed with the Globetrotters.

So, I walked in to see Dick Harp, who was the head coach at Kansas, and he had replaced a legend, Phog Allen. So he was in a tough seat anyway. And this was his first year, and when I went in to tell him I wanted to transfer, boy, he was all over me. He said, ‘You’re never going to make it, you’re a quitter,’ blah, blah, blah. He just kind of put me down big-time and I just took it. And I said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry you feel that way, I hope I can prove you wrong.’ And, I walked out. Called the coach at Illinois, he says, ‘Hey, we want you. We’ll take you.’

Back during your scouting days with the Chicago Bulls, then-New York Knicks scout and later legendary coach Red Holzman told you that you will succeed because you were a good listener young in your career. What did you take from that?

The lesson is being a good listener. Be a sponge. Surround yourself with people that have been there and done it. I can’t tell you how many young people I’ve told that story to, to be helpful. A lot of young guys come into it feeling they’ve got all the answers. That’s not true.

What was it like scouting black colleges in the 1960s?

I felt very comfortable. I never had any issues. I never had any problems. We had black people living in our neighborhood. I grew up with blacks. I played with blacks in terms of high school basketball. I didn’t feel anything. We were just guys, and we were players. And, so for me I felt comfortable. Didn’t matter where I was. I would go to these schools where I might have been one of three or four white people in the building. It didn’t bother me. I never felt intimidated.

What is your old Chicago neighborhood like now?

A lot of Hispanics. When you think about it, back in my day, like in the ’50s growing up, the Hispanic influence had not hit yet. And so, that’s really changed. In our neighborhood, it’s now like a war zone. The house that I grew up living in, over 15 years ago they named my street that I grew up on, 22nd Street, ‘Jerry Colangelo Road.’ They put a marker in front of this house, ‘Boyhood home of Jerry Colangelo.’ And they just tore it down. This year it had to be torn down. The whole neighborhood is just like a wasteland.

What is your thought on all the violence in Chicago now?

It’s sad. I’m really sad. I used to feel as comfortable as you can imagine playing basketball. From Chicago Heights to the Southside, to 39th and Wentworth and play on the outdoor courts every weekend. The top players in the Midwest would show up on those outdoor courts, chain nets. And, you know, within the basketball world it’s a community unto itself. And, I think for the most part people kind of look out for one another.

What was it like for you when you started to go play in black playgrounds in Chicago?

I was anxious to play and get a shot.

Did you get treated poorly at all?

Certain guys. But guys who knew me were pissed off at the other guys who were maybe not acting the way they should’ve.

Basketball player Amare Stoudemire with Phoenix Suns part owner Jerry Colangelo November 14, 2005.

Basketball player Amare Stoudemire with Phoenix Suns part owner Jerry Colangelo November 14, 2005.

Justin Jay/Getty Images

Did any of the black players talk disrespectfully to you when you first started playing in their neighborhood?

A little bit. But that’s OK. It’s respect. It’s about getting respect. You show respect. Keep your mouth shut. Do what you need to do. And, once they saw that I could play …

You have 13 grandkids, two of whom are half-black. What do you think about the world Keon and Jordan Okyere are living in now?

Great kids. I love them a ton and one of them is going to school at Arizona State … I’ve lived in that world a little bit, if you know what I mean. So when I see all the stuff that’s happening, the racial tensions, I worry about them a lot in terms of what life is going to be like for them going forward. Who knows? It’s scary. To me it’s really scary.

Have you talked to them about the recent killing of young black men from police officer shootings in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana?

Yeah, we’ve talked. I’m very open with them. The fact that we live in a world that still has a lot of issues in terms of a racial divide. They’re 50 percent both ways, so they’re in a unique situation. We just want them to be aware of their circumstances, who they are, how that all fits in and how it plays out. So it’s something that has to be addressed and discussed with them. And we’ve done that. We’ve been very up-front.

Is it sad that you have to have that conversation?

This is life. An old-timer in the neighborhood when I was a kid said to me — he was like a father, a guy who took young guys under his wing, he was an immigrant — he said to me one night in broken English, Italian, ‘You see that star in the sky?’ I go, ‘Which one?’ Mike points and says, ‘It’s better to be on that star for one day than never get there at all.’

Then he said to me one night, ‘We’re going to have to change your name.’ He said, ‘If you’re really going to make it, your name, you know people are prejudiced about Italians, and Colangelo is going to be an issue for you. So you ought to change your name to Cole.’ I said, ‘Mike, I’ll never change my name. I have too much pride in my heritage,’ and so on, and so forth. We all experience some of that. And I didn’t hide it. You know, growing up the way I did, people looked at us on the hill. You know, poor people working the mills. The lunch bucket crowd. The Italians. So you get over it.

How proud are you of being where you are now considering where you came from?

I feel blessed that God had that plan for me. And so, yeah, it’s surreal. The life I’ve led, the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve gotten to know, the success, etc. It’s hard to figure out because I look at myself and I say, ‘Why me?’ And it’s went by quickly. Let me put it that way.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.