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Enough, already it's time to get out of the rock gym and climb outdoors. We know indoor climbing walls are fun, but they are to climbing what stationary bikes are to cycling. And there's no better first climb to conquer than Praying Monk. Camelback Mountain is right in the middle of the Valley, meaning that if you really screw up, there are plenty of hospitals and a nearby fire station filled with friendly, trained mountain rescue professionals. But don't worry, the toughest part of your day will probably be finding a parking spot in the tiny lot at Echo Canyon, off McDonald Drive. The Monk is a freestanding, leaning tower of ancient congealed mud, tinted red like the rest of Camelback. A short scramble gets you to the Monk's plateau; the often-shaded, boulder-strewn cubby at the base is a good place to don your climbing shoes. The east face route is bolted so you don't need much gear, just one rope and some quick-draws, which are two carabiners connected to a bit of sewn webbing. Life on the "sharp end" of the rope, as leading is sometimes called, can be a bit unnerving because there's no rope already fixed at the top to catch you when you come off the rock. But the bolts are close together, and you won't run into any life-or-death decisions. A lead fall here, unlikely as that is for a competent climber, would be perfect practice for a more serious climb. You will, however, be mesmerized by the exposure. Your heels will stick out over a hundred feet of air as you look for embedded pebbles to grasp for finger-holds on the orange-pink, not-quite-vertical face. Gym rats should take a good look around as they go up this is real climbing. A pleasurable, free-hanging rappel brings the climbing party back down to earth. You've now graduated from lead school. Next stop: K2.
Back in the day, the Valley's pro athletes were, well, human. Every month or so, one of them would drive drunk, or very fast, or kick someone's ass, or pinch someone's ass, or stalk their ex, or get caught with some dope, or blow, or say something racist, or sexist, or profoundly stupid, or knock somebody up who wasn't their wife, then be late on paternity checks, then hit their wife, then violate the restraining order, then get back together with the wife who then shows up at every friggin' playoff game with their child so the cameras can adore them ad nauseam, then . . . oh, you get the point. But with all this "character counts" crap invading local locker rooms, every one of our stars is starting to act like Luis Gonzalez. All right, already. We get it. You're a family man. Without any real sin or criminality, we have to go with the best violation of the rule book. This honor goes, hands down, or, hands on, to Raja Bell, who, at the precise moment in Game 5 that everyone in Phoenix wanted to do the same thing, leveled the Little Lord Fauntleroy of the court, Kobe Bryant, with a hit so flagrant, so beautifully premeditated, that it seemed to wash away the decades of Phoenix subjugation at the hands of the hack-happy ref darlings from Hollywood. Of course, beating both the Lakers and the Clippers in seven games also helped wash away that pain. Now, though, we obviously need such a hit next year in the conference finals, then the NBA Finals. Amar? Welcome back. Now hack some Shaq.
Kurt Warner seems like a good guy, and he certainly came to the Arizona Cardinals with great credentials as an NFL quarterback: a Super Bowl ring. The fact that he was injured much of last year may have had a lot to do with why the Cards turned in such a terrible season, and it led to criticism that he's washed up. But who knows what might have happened if he had been healthy? When he worked for the St. Louis Rams, Warner was criticized for his religious beliefs, and he criticized right back. "I actually had [Rams] coaches say I was reading the Bible too much and it was taking away from my play," Warner told the Baptist Press back then. "It was okay when we were winning, but now I was [messing] this thing up?" The fact that he had completed 400 yards passing and won Super Bowl XXXIV had been quickly forgotten. Well, we in Phoenix can embrace Warner's Christianity as long as he produces on the field. We are sick of having to blame everybody from God and the Bidwills on down for our team's dismal performance. If he doesn't, we can only hope that the Lord strikes him down with another injury early, like He did a couple of years ago when Warner was with the New York Giants. That allowed rookie phenomenon Eli Manning to take over, and the Giants got a lot better. Here, if Warner is removed by the higher power, there's what in all likelihood could be a new rookie phenom, Matt Leinart, to take the helm. We know Kurt would agree with us when we say: God's Will be done!
Now, how could we give this coveted award to anybody but the Phoenix Suns, who made it to the NBA conference finals twice in the past two years? Hell, there's no other team that's come close to doing that since the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series in 2001, and now they suck (okay, not as bad as they did last year, but still . . . ). Hope springs eternal for the Cardinals, with lots of glitzy acquisitions, but they are owned by the Bidwills and coached by Dennis "the Excusemeister" Green. We predict a .500 season. As for the Coyotes, well, who watches hockey in the desert, for Wayne Gretzky's sake?! So back to the Suns: They've got the reigning MVP of the league over the past two years in Steve Nash, one of the two or three best point guards in the history of the game; the resilient Shawn "The Matrix" Marion, who scores and rebounds like a madman; and Amar Stoudemire, who we hope will return to his old form this year after two knee surgeries (before he went out, the best sports minds in the land predicted he'd be a future MVP). Then there's Raja Bell, our favorite "dirty" player who's a crack defensive specialist who can put it in the hole; flying Frenchman Boris Diaw, who played three positions, dished out assists second to Nash on the Suns and was voted the most-improved player in the league in 2005-06 after warming the bench the year before for the lowly Atlanta Hawks; and Argentinean Leandro Barbosa, arguably the fastest guy in the NBA who led the league for much of last season in three-point accuracy. But the real reason the Suns won the most games in the NBA two seasons ago, and were able to make it to the conference finals last year with Stoudemire and fellow big man Kurt Thomas injured for most of the season, was Coach Mike D'Antoni, now serving as assistant coach and offensive guru of Team USA. We're saying, Stoudemire and The Matrix were around pre-D'Antoni, and the Suns were a doormat team. It took his charming yet firm West Virginia ways, plus a fast-paced savvy honed as a championship playmaker and coach in Italy, to make the Suns a real contender. Okay, so Steve Nash helped a little, but Steve says it's all because of "Coach," and we believe him. D'Antoni's saying this could be the Suns' championship year, and though we've heard it all before we believe that, too!
Yeah, we've heard about Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash's work ethic. About injury-riddled center-forward Amar Stoudemire's future as the most dominant player in the NBA. But when it comes to bringing it home night in and night out for the Suns, there's only been Shawn Marion. The sportscasters in town talk about the "underrated" Shawn Marion, the "overlooked" Shawn Marion. Not by us. The man produced 60 double-doubles last season! He averaged almost 22 points a game and almost 11 rebounds during the most minutes per game among any of his teammates. He's a big cat, who runs an average of about 20 miles a night on the court and never complains! And when there were serious trade talks regarding the Suns, Shawn Marion was always the guy whose head was reportedly on the chopping block. One fantasy had Marion getting traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Garnett. More than one scribe wrote that the Suns really didn't need Marion, since Boris Diaw had enjoyed such a productive season, and Stoudemire was on his way back from surgery on both knees. The lineup could be: Stoudemire at power forward, Kurt Thomas at center and Diaw at small forward. Bullshit! Let's deal with these claims: Diaw has had one good season, and he may well turn into the great player that sports prognosticators believe he can be, but he can't be counted on like The Matrix. He had great nights and he had terrible nights; no consistency. As for Amar, did you see how he wasn't yet fit to play for Team USA this past summer? Remember how he tried a comeback for three games last season, and suddenly his other knee had to be operated on? Others who have had the same surgery have never returned to their peak form; take the Philadelphia 76ers' Chris Webber, for starters. Stoudemire still didn't have his old leaping ability when he was practicing with Jerry Colangelo's Team USA players. It wouldn't surprise us if he never got it back, so what are we left with in Phoenix for offense? Our man, Shawn. We know, Marion was also declared unfit to play for the USA squad because of a minor injury, but doctors say there's no damn doubt that he will easily return to where he was last year by the time the Suns start preseason. Hell, he played with a sore ankle for half of last season, and that never stopped him. There are great athletes in every sport, but few experts would argue that Marion isn't in better athletic shape than anybody in this town. The Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald may run a distant second, but there's only one Matrix.
Diehard Sun Devil football fans still remember the 2004 season, when then-freshman Rudy Burgess, filling in for ASU's decimated running back corps, pounded and punished Stanford defenders on his way to a 34-carry, 186-yard Herculean performance that left him immobile for two weeks. And after that come-from-behind victory, any casual team follower knows that without the big-game showings of the 180-pound sparkplug in pads, the Devils wouldn't have hoisted the 2004 Sun Bowl or the 2005 Insight Bowl trophies (the ASU quarterback won the MVP trophy in each case). During the 2005 season, the Brooklyn native became the only NCAA Division I-A player to gain more than 600 yards rushing and 600 yards receiving not bad considering the pass-happy Pac-10 and that Burgess came to the desert exclusively to play wide receiver. In 2006, the junior will attempt to become a football novelty, adding the position of cornerback to an already crowded playmaking rsum. As for that elusive bowl game MVP trophy, ASU backers hope Tempe's version of an unappreciated football hero by the name of Rudy earns it during the BCS national championship game.