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Best Of 2014

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Best Of :: Sports & Recreation

Best Sports Legend

Doug Collins is the most astute NBA analyst around, after an illustrious college and professional playing career. Notice we didn't say head-coaching, another of his careers. He's been well-traveled there, having been forced out by the Chicago Bulls, the Detroit Pistons, and the Washington Wizards. He resigned as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers last year after a dismal 34-48 season. Now, he's back broadcasting as an analyst for ESPN on its NBA Countdown show. Though it's arguable that Collins' expertise didn't translate to NBA coaching, he speaks with great authority on TV, standing out from the many boobs he's appeared with on various networks. Collins began his pro playing career with a bang: He was drafted first in the 1973 NBA draft out of Illinois State. He went on to star alongside Julius "Dr. J" Erving for the Philadelphia '76ers and be chosen for four late-1970s Eastern Conference All-Star teams. But in his team's only trip to the NBA Finals, the Sixers lost to Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers. Injuries forced Collins to retire as a player following the '80-'81 season. He first arrived in the Valley of the Sun when he followed University of Pennsylvania Coach Bob Weinhauer to Arizona State University. Later, his pro-coaching debut was with the Bulls, when Michael Jordan was blossoming. Despite taking the team to the Eastern Conference Finals in '88 and '89, Collins was fired when the Bulls lost both times to the Detroit Pistons (he was replaced by the legendary Phil Jackson). If you ask us, Collins never got dealt a good coaching hand after Chicago. None of his subsequent teams showd much playoff championship potential. Coaching's loss is fandom's gain; his soft-spoken and reasoned approach is a pleasure to behold.

Best Path

Whether you're out for a friendly stroll or training for a half-marathon, this in-town trail is the perfect place to get off the pavement for a change. You'll find families riding bikes, friends out for a power walk, cheerful joggers, and athletes prepping for the next big race. Right in the middle of Phoenix, this great-for-all-ages path accommodates bikers and hikers alike, and what's more, shade from olive and mesquite trees makes this stretch about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of town, even on the hottest day. Running from just south of Dunlap Road to well past Bethany Home Road, this popular city trail backs onto cozy residential neighborhoods and often intersects with the canal. Cool!

Best Comeback Trail
Echo Canyon, Camelback Mountain

After a year of waiting, Camelback lovers returned in force on January 15 to the renovated Echo Canyon Trail. The short, conveniently located adventure hike, accessed near Tatum Boulevard and McDonald Drive, is one of the most visited attractions in Phoenix and a weekly, or even daily, routine for many locals. Now it's more popular than ever. Although the number of parking spaces has doubled to 135 as part of the $4.5 million project, the spaces still fill quickly each day as jubilant hikers flock to see what the city has done. Except for the parking situation, which eased as the seasonal heat arrived, the renovation generally has been seen as a success. Porta-potties were replaced by real toilets. The summit-bound trail grew slightly to 1.5 miles, with the first section receiving the most redevelopment. The path winds through scenic Echo Canyon before connecting with the old trail, most of which was untouched. Better-protected from erosion, the new trail's ready for years of monsoons and millions of footsteps — some of which could be yours.

5950 N. Echo Canyon Parkway, Paradise Valley, 85253
MAP
602-261-8318
Best Hiking Trail

If you've ever wanted to visit the moon, the landscape of the McDowell Mountains near the rock-skyscraper Tom's Thumb formation might just satisfy the craving — rolling, sparsely vegetated hills, boulders large and small. But first you have to get up there. We usually take Dynamite Boulevard, turn right on 128th Street, and head south until reaching the parking lot. Don't be fooled by the posh, resort-style entranceway at the trailhead — this is Scottsdale, yes, but it's not all easy living on the Tom's Thumb Trail. You'll ascend nearly the height of the Empire State Building over more than two miles of steep trail with switchbacks. Opened just two years ago, the new trail is smooth and mostly free of ankle-twisting rocks. It's tough, but you'll see people of all ages taking it on. Take more water than you think you'll need if the air temperature is anything close to warm, and be sure to save some energy to explore the otherworldly summit ridge for a while.

104th St. S. of McDowell Mountain Ranch Rd., Scottsdale, 85259
MAP
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5950 N. Echo Canyon Parkway, Paradise Valley, 85253
MAP
602-261-8318
Best Hiking Guide

First published more than a decade ago, this hiking and biking guide will inspire even the least-outdoorsy among us to hit the trail. Expert and frequently updated trail descriptions are categorized by difficulty, length, and popularity among hikers, and the book's topographical maps make this book a must-have for any hiker. Step-by-step directions and some really great photography help both the novice and the seasoned hiker choose which trail to take. The "History and Legends" essays, published as part of each hike description, really sets this book apart from other guides covering the National Forest Wilderness of Arizona.

Best Bouldering
South Mountain Park/Preserve

Bouldering in the Pima Canyon wash, near the east end of Phoenix's vast South Mountain Park/Preserve, requires extreme skill, not just because of the difficult routes, which are rated V0 (equivalent to about 5.10 at local rock-climbing gyms — not a beginner rating) to an insane V7, but also because of the scary landings. Bouldering typically involves rock climbing with rock shoes but no rope on routes low enough to fall off without serious injury. In this "developed" climbing area (the short climbing routes are detailed in a pamphlet published by local climber Marty Karabin and found in area outdoors shops), the routes go too high, and have wicked-angled boulders to fall on if you miss a handhold.

So why do we love it? Fact is, we've enjoyed the place many times without finishing a route — that is, we climb up only a few feet, and leave the top-outs for stronger, nuttier athletes. No shame in that — it's bouldering. The idea is to get a good pump. And that we do. The rock quality here is passable, considered "granitic" but not granite. Its boulders often have a veneer of desert varnish, which feels great to grip. Good cracks rise up high enough to practice fist jams and foot placement.

You've got to watch for the inevitable crumbly hand- and footholds. But the expansive, fun-to-explore area of dry waterfalls, varnished boulders, and arroyo sand is worth several hours of your life on a nice day. Often, you'll see some of the local hardmen and women who spend hours a day — every day — on the rock and maybe some of the overconfident klutzes who'll make you want to get your phone ready to call 911. If you spot someone staying safe and low but still having fun, that might be us.

10919 S. Central Ave., Phoenix, 85042
MAP
602-262-7393
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Best Sports Legend: Basketball player, coach, and broadcaster Doug Collins

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