Sielski: How does Colangelo size up the Sixers?

Posted: February 27, 2016

When Jerry Colangelo shakes someone's hand, he assumes that a mutual promise has just been made and that the promise will last forever.

Talk to anyone who has known him long and well, and it becomes clear how much Colangelo, the 76ers' chairman of basketball operations, prizes loyalty. In 1968, for instance, after one year as an executive with the Chicago Bulls, he became the youngest general manager in the NBA, at age 28, when the league expanded to Phoenix and he joined the Suns. He brought with him Joe Proski, who had been the Bulls' athletic trainer and remained the Suns' trainer until 2000. The two are still close friends, because once you are a close friend to Colangelo, once he decides that you deserve his trust, you tend to remain one.

"Guys who knew him 40 years ago would probably tell you the same stories of how he treated people," Proski said in a recent phone interview. "His word was always good, to players or whoever."

Over his 21/2-month tenure with the Sixers, Colangelo has drawn on a few of the lasting relationships that he's formed throughout his career in basketball. And as the team drifts through the season, mailing in a 111-91 loss to the Pistons on Wednesday night to fall to 8-49, the web of allies Colangelo possesses both inside and outside the organization can give him whatever insight he needs to effect whatever change he deems necessary.

This is a dynamic that could have a profound impact on the Sixers' future, and in surprising ways. It was easy to assume that Colangelo's arrival put Sam Hinkie's job as general manager at risk over the long term, that Hinkie is the only man in the organization who might end up with a bull's-eye on his back. But an awful effort such as Wednesday's isn't merely another indication of how poor a collection of talent the Sixers have assembled in the name of acquiring high draft picks. Colangelo might decide that it says something about Brett Brown's head coaching abilities, too - that even a team this bad should be a bit better, that a competent coach should figure out how to keep Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel on the floor together and have both of them be productive.

Yes, Brown signed a two-year contract extension less than a week after Colangelo's hiring. But two years isn't much, really, and history suggests that Colangelo's presence ought to put everyone on notice.

"I don't think he would have taken the job unless he had complete authority," said Tom Ambrose, who was the Suns' public relations director under Colangelo and who spent 37 years with the franchise. "He'll take the responsibility. He doesn't want half-measures."

It's telling, then, that Colangelo already has put two of his people in place. And if their influence on the Sixers has gone largely unnoticed by the public, it's only because he wants it that way.

In December, the Sixers hired Mike D'Antoni as an assistant to Brown. D'Antoni was the Suns' head coach from 2003 to 2008, when his seven-seconds-or-less offense became the buzz of the NBA, and in 2006, as the head of USA Basketball, Colangelo brought him on board the national team as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski.

"There's a guy right out of Jerry's mold," Proski said of D'Antoni. "The [Phoenix] players loved that guy. They'd die for him."

D'Antoni was alongside Krzyzewski during the 2006 FIBA world championship tournament, when the U.S. team earned a bronze medal. One of the players on that team was once-and-current Sixers forward Elton Brand, who, like Okafor, had played for Krzyzewski at Duke. When the Sixers re-signed Brand in January, in the wake of the revelations of those disturbing incidents involving Okafor, their ostensible aim was to have him provide guidance to Okafor and the rest of the team's young players.

What's interesting, though, is that Brand has not seen a single minute of playing time. Of all the veterans whom the Sixers might have acquired, who might have contributed something on the court, why sign one who doesn't play? The question answers itself. For all of Brand's positive qualities, for the model of professionalism he's always been, it seems his primary role is to be a reliable source for Colangelo in the locker room.

Then there's Krzyzewski, the coach whom Colangelo hand-picked to direct a renaissance at the highest level of the country's international basketball program. "They're definitely thick as thieves," Proski said. Even before the Sixers reached out to Colangelo, he'd been well acquainted with Okafor, meeting him through USA Basketball - Okafor played in three FIBA world championships - and learning about him through conversations with Krzyzewski.

"During [Okafor's] year at Duke, Coach and I were always in communication about the players, about the team," Colangelo said recently. "I'd tell him things I saw. I was at the NCAA finals, and [Okafor] came to one of our practices the year before when our [national] team was getting ready in Chicago before we went to the World Cup. So there's a little bit of a relationship there."

With Jerry Colangelo, there usually is, and it's often strong, and it often allows him to find out what he needs to know, to get what he wants for his franchise. The question for the Sixers - from the front-office personnel to the players on the floor - is how long it will take him, and who will be left standing.

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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