JERRY COLANGELO drew some quizzical looks during a board meeting several years ago when he made an impassioned plea for better services for the homeless.
Participants wondered why the president of the NBA Phoenix Suns, a man with a taste for Hugo Boss suits and Mercedes automobiles, was taking up the cause of street people.
It came out later that Mr. Colangelo had spent a chilly night in the scruffy section of Phoenix, helping a church outreach program distribute blankets and coats.
Colangelo declines to comment on the episode, calling it a personal matter. But it exemplifies how Colangelo's role has gone well beyond that of a boardroom-bound basketball mogul.
And Colangelo's rise to prominence as a businessman and community kingpin parallels this Southwestern city's own leap into the "big leagues" and its coming of age as a regional hub of commerce, arts, and professional sports.
Arguably, Colangelo has become as familiar a face to Arizonans - and every bit as influential - as the state's governor or Phoenix's mayor. His backing of a community project virtually guarantees success.
"He has become both a major business leader, if not the major business leader in town, and the principal nonelected spokesman for the whole community," says former Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard.
Today, Colangelo has a fortune estimated as high as $25 million. But he came to Phoenix, nearly three decades ago as an employee.
He was wooed here from his hometown of Chicago to be general manager for the Suns back in 1968. At the time, he was the youngest man in the NBA to hold that job. Using his earnings from several successful real estate ventures, in 1987, Colangelo made the leap from employee to owner by leading an investor group in a $44.5 million buyout of the team. He then helped turn the franchise into one of the most financially successful properties in the NBA.
But it was Colangelo's decision to build the Suns19,000-seat arena downtown, rather than in outlying areas where land was cheaper, Goddard says, that represented "a tremendous statement about his foresight" in urban development.
As the team's president and chief executive officer, Colangelo also presided over the Sun's decision to bring superstar Charles Barkley to Phoenix, who helped put the team in the NBA finals in the 1992-93 season.
That near-victory opened fans' hearts - and investors' wallets. Colangelo has capitalized on this goodwill and is currently hoping to replicate his good fortune with other sports enterprises.
He spearheads the investors who last year snatched a professional baseball franchise for metropolitan Phoenix, beginning in 1998. And recently, he had a hand in relocating the National Hockey League's Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix, who will start playing here in the fall.
Colangelo's ascendency has been helped by his longevity and good timing. His rise coincides with the passing of the city's "old guard" from political circles.
Timing, too, was critical in landing the baseball franchise, he admits. He says the Suns' success "made it much easier for me to raise the money to do so. Baseball ownership was quite interested in having us in, because of our proven track record."
While few would find fault with Colangelo's community activities, his business deals have drawn criticism occasionally. Currently, some Phoenix residents are balking at footing the bill for bringing major-league baseball to the "Valley of the Sun." Construction of the 48,000-seat stadium is being financed primarily by a temporary quarter-cent county sales tax. Although the tax was created long before Colangelo got into the project, the plan riles some residents.
"If those rich and famous want a baseball stadium here in the Valley, let them pay for it out of their own pockets," said George Brooks Sr. of Tempe at a county meeting.
Colangelo counters that the presence of a major-league team is likely to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the area.
The desire to bring jobs to the city and improve the quality of life here is clearly a driving motive behind Colangelo's activities. His community involvement puts him on the boards of many civic organizations. It's about giving back to the community, he says: "I am very sensitive about my grandchildren growing up in a safe environment."
He is devoted to his family, and is known to remind others about the importance of family when civic or commercial interests conflict with such events as children's school graduations. He blames many of society's woes on the breakdown of the family structure.
Growing up in a modest Italian neighborhood in Chicago, he had a poor relationship with his father, he said in a 1994 interview: "I wanted to give my children what I did not have."
As a youth, he delivered newspapers, caddied, stocked shelves at local neighborhood grocery stores - anything, he says, "to keep busy and to earn a dollar."
"When you deal with the real world at an early age, you become street-wise, because you are expected to handle your share of responsibility," he says.
Margaret Mullen, head of the Phoenix Downtown Partnership, says Colangelo "has far more street sense than anybody else I have dealt with, which makes him more capable of understanding the common citizen's thought process. That's probably why he is a marketing genius."
In 1993, when the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra almost failed to meet its payroll, Colangelo made a few well-placed phone calls and raised nearly $400,000. Ms. Mullen recalled Colangelo telling her at the time, "I don't think I have ever been to a symphony, but I know it is important to have one."
Despite his influence, Colangelo says he has no interest in running for a political office. "I am in a position to be as effective in our community ... exactly where I am."