SI Vault
John Walters
January 29, 1996
Super Bowl host city Phoenix, like the rest of the 48th state, is sizzling, with more visitors, new residents and big-time sports events than you can shake a cactus at
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January 29, 1996

Barzen Arizona

Super Bowl host city Phoenix, like the rest of the 48th state, is sizzling, with more visitors, new residents and big-time sports events than you can shake a cactus at

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"It was idiocy not to draft the holiday," says Colorado football coach Rick Neuheisel, an Arizonan familiar with narrow political defeats (his dad, Dick, lost the 1972 Tempe mayoral election by four votes). "A lot of people said no because they felt challenged: 'O.K., we'll show you what we got.' "

They made their point, but they would have to ratify a second proposal for a King holiday before Tagliabue would restore Phoenix to the short list of Super Bowl host cities. Phoenix is no more racist than other cities, perhaps just a little more vanilla-flavored. "I had only been in town a month," says Colangelo, who migrated to the Arizona capital from Chicago, "and the local Italian-American group named me Italian of the Year. Tells you how many candidates there were."

"You've got a winner in town." Who said that? Who, that is, besides former Arizona Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan, who went 12-20 in the two seasons after he uttered those words in 1994? Well, it seems to have been said by everyone who ever packed up somewhere else to make Arizona his new home: Wyatt Earp, former Arizona State football coach Frank Kush, the fictional Alice Hyatt on the TV show Alice (who warbled, "There's a new girl in town/And she's feelin' good!"), the Suns' incorrigible Charles Barkley, the incarcerated Charles Keating....

"I do believe that we all get an opportunity in life," Colangelo says as he relaxes in his fourth-floor office at palatial America West Arena. Just outside his window, ticket scalpers in the nation's first legally zoned area for scalping practice their craft. "Like a lot of people, I found mine in the desert." In 1968 Colangelo brought, as he likes to say, "a wife, three kids and eight suitcases to a city deemed too Western" for an NBA franchise. He has fashioned an empire in the sand. Besides running the Suns, he is a minority owner of the NHL team that will move here next season and a managing partner with the Diamondbacks, who will begin playing in '98.

Since the 1988-89 campaign the Suns have won at least 53 games each season, and their 408 victories (as of Jan. 18) are the most in the NBA for that period. Only two years before beginning this run the Purple Gang had been riddled by a drug investigation (five players were indicted, though none was convicted) and the death of center Nick Vanos in a plane crash. It was then that Colangelo, the Suns' general manager, bought the team and purged it of all but two players, guard Jeff Hornacek and center Alvan Adams.

Today Colangelo, 56, is the most powerful sports personage in Arizona. He is tailored suits in a state that adopted the bola tie as its official neckwear. Some in the local media refer to him privately as J.C. Superstar for the manner in which he throws his weight around. Many citizens were not thrilled when Colangelo Jerry-mandered, without voter approval, a .25% county sales-tax increase to finance a domed baseball stadium and then sold the rights to the name of the facility to a corporate sponsor for $2 million a year. Even in Phoenix the name Bank One Ballpark (the BOB?) is not easy to warm to.

My motto is: Do it my way or watch your butts!
—NATHAN T. ARIZONA, in Raising Arizona

Nathan T. Arizona, the unfinished-furniture king and father of quintuplets in the 1987 film send-up of the state, boasted that his furniture chain, Unpainted Arizona, could beat anyone else's prices 'or my name isn't Nathan T. Arizona." Actually his name was Nathan T. Huffheinz, but as he explained, "Would you buy furniture from some place called Unpainted Huffheinz?"

A blustery braggart given to disingenuous proclamations—where have Arizonans seen that before? Buddy Ryan was not Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill's first mistake, simply the most conspicuously ill-tempered. After a 1994 game in which the Cardinals" three-time All-Pro offensive tackle, Luis Sharpe, was carted off the field with a season ending knee injury, Ryan was asked to assess his team's overall health. "Ain't nobody out that matters," he said.

In '88, when Bidwill moved the team from St. Louis to Phoenix, Arizonans who had long pined for an NFL franchise were so happy that they forgave the owner for a then league-high $38 average ticket price. But they were not so quick to forgive him for the team's losing records the first six years, and season-ticket sales declined sharply. That's when Bidwill turned to Ryan, the Nathan T. Arizona of football coaches.

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