Bryan Colangelo, the Raptors’ impulsive, extravagant general manager, has finally accepted the business necessity of recruiting star players. Unlike the current roster of no-name Europeans, stars sell tickets and jerseys and TV ads. Most important of all, stars win games
By Eric Andrew-Gee | Photography by Markian Lozowchuk
Bryan Colangelo watches Raptors games from the concrete tunnel that leads to the home team’s locker room. He never sits; he paces, totally absorbed, his face—flinty, grey eyes narrowed, cheeks creased with exhaustion, jaw tense—like a war mask. From his intimate vantage point of the Air Canada Centre court, Colangelo evaluates the players that he, as Raptors president and general manager, has hired at great expense—some $60 million in paycheques a year—with the exclusive goal of winning basketball games. And, more often than not, Colangelo watches his team lose.
At first, Toronto couldn’t get enough of the Raptors. The early seasons were awful, but the novelty of an NBA team was enough to sell seats. And then, in 1998, they traded for a shooting guard from the University of North Carolina named Vince Carter. From the moment Carter arrived in Toronto, he was a sensation. His nickname was Vinsanity, for his superhuman slam dunks, but the word also applied to the affliction that gripped Toronto’s sports fans. By the 2001–2002 season, the Raptors had the fourth highest attendance in the NBA. That year, 40 out of 41 home games were sellouts. Prince, then a Toronto resident, was a fixture at the ACC. Susan Sarandon, Samuel L. Jackson and Vin Diesel took in games, and Justin Timberlake played at a Raptors charity event. Forbes valued the Raptors at $249 million, double what they were worth before Carter arrived.
The trouble with building a team around one player is that, if that player blows out his knee, as Carter did repeatedly in his last three seasons in Toronto, your team devolves into a loose assemblage of unmotivated, middling players. The team missed the 2003–2004 playoffs, management and coaching staff were fired, and Carter, who was eager to leave the floundering franchise, decamped to the New Jersey Nets. The next two seasons were dismal, and attendance plummeted. The losing was starting to feel endemic. And, without Carter, the team lacked an identity.
MLSE placed its faith in Colangelo—as GM of the Phoenix Suns, he had built one of the most successful teams in the NBA, led by the great Steve Nash—and lured him to Toronto with a five-year deal worth an estimated $4 million (U.S.) a year. It was an exorbitant contract for an NBA general manager, four times what he had been making in Phoenix. Colangelo was thought to be worth the price tag, and then some. He was a visionary, a brilliant strategist. Everything he touched turned to gold.
Six seasons later, the Raptors are near the bottom of the NBA rankings, dispirited and maligned by fans, but Colangelo, standing alone in his tunnel, isn’t troubled. To hear him describe it, the descent was all part of a new plan to rebuild the team with stars in the making like Kyle Lowry, a furious Sonic the Hedgehog–like ball of energy and an aggressive scorer whom Colangelo lured from the Houston Rockets. The Raptors GM has one year left in his contract. This season, if he has his way, the team will be reborn.
Colangelo grew up basketball royalty. He was born in Chicago in 1965 to Jerry and Joan Colangelo, and to understand anything about the son, you have to know something about the father. Jerry was raised in the rough, working-class Hungry Hill section of Chicago. His childhood was spent in a house built by his Italian immigrant grandfather from the spare lumber of two railroad boxcars. A gifted high school basketball player, Jerry received 66 scholarship offers and became the first member of his family to go to college.
In 1968, when he was just 28 and working in the Chicago Bulls’ front office, Jerry was asked to move to Arizona and become GM of the expansion Phoenix Suns. He’s still with the team, currently as chairman. In his 40-plus years with the Suns, including over a decade as owner, he became one of the most respected executives in NBA history.
Bryan was two when the family moved to Phoenix—there is not a single moment he can remember when his father was not powerful and famous. While Jerry worked long hours in the offices upstairs, Bryan hung around the Suns’ stadium, sweeping floors, retrieving loose balls during practices, snagging rebounds. As a teenager, he starred on his high school basketball team. In 1983, he was named the school’s best-dressed male, the beginning of a lifelong reputation as a dandy. He also drove his own Ford pickup, a hulking thing with big wheels that his mother hated. The licence plate read “SUNS SON.”