Jaycee Park
Less than a mile away from the concrete of downtown Tempe sits a seven-acre green neighborhood park -- and home to some serious rim-rocking pickup basketball. True, the courts at Jaycee Park are sparse (just two), but the competition is the real deal. On Thursday evenings, be prepared to wait 30 minutes before taking on the winning team to a game of "15 by 1's." Bright lights surround the court and stay illuminated until midnight. Jaycee Park is accessible by one of downtown's free shuttles as well as bike-friendly paths. Other amenities include a sand volleyball court, a softball field, an off-leash dog run area and numerous coal barbecue grills. If your game thrives on the indoor hardwood, the adjacent Westside Community Center offers free open gym hours every Sunday from 3:30 to 5:45 p.m. to adults ages 18 years and over.
According to hometown ballers, the only basketball game in town -- even when the Suns are playing at home -- takes place on Sunday nights at Encanto Park. With the aged Veterans' Memorial Coliseum as the backdrop, play alongside the best local talent from the high school, college and neighborhood levels during the Sunday jam session. The games have a playoff-level intensity, where grandstands located at the side of the court are filled with up to 100 curious onlookers. Back in the day, it wasn't surprising to see former Suns players Kevin Johnson and A.C. Green.

Today, the urban legends are locals trying to improve their game on one of Encanto's three full courts. The complex, which also houses volleyball and racquetball courts, is open Mondays through Fridays from 5 to 10 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Equipment checkout is available, and admission is always free.

BEST PLACE TO WATCH AMARÉ STOUDEMIRE PLAY FOR FREE

Scottsdale Community College

Scottsdale Community College Football Stadium
It's no secret that pro athletes love to get their recreational, off-season game on (sans paycheck) in the Valley. You'll frequently find NFL players like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and ex-Cardinal Simeon Rice hooping it up inside the student rec center at Arizona State University or the LA Fitness at Town & Country Shopping Center, respectively. Major Leaguers Nomar Garciaparra and ex-Diamondback Curt Schilling train in seclusion in Tempe. But you don't need a student ID or a health-club membership (or a pair of binoculars) to see the Sun King -- Phoenix's own Amaré Stoudemire -- abuse the rim at Scottsdale Community College. Six nights a week (Monday through Saturday) during the NBA's off-season, Stoudemire's been known to show up for hourlong pickup games with current and former Suns players, including Maciej Lampe (whose personal trainer is working him out at SCC), Jake Voskuhl and Tom Gugliotta, as well as current ASU baller Kevin Kruger, former Sun Devils Ike Diogu and Tommy Smith, and even local high school phenom Jared Bayless of St. Mary's. With all that talent on one court -- and free admission -- SCC's gonna need a bigger gym.
The Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix
Courtesy of Bistro 24
If you can stand to vacate your lucky armchair on Saturdays and Sundays, you'll be rewarded handsomely -- if not with a win by your favorite pro or college football team, then at least with a pigskin party fit for an MVP. The Ritz's Executive Football Club boasts three big-screen plasma TVs, laptop computers for fantasy geeks, an all-you-can-eat "tailgate buffet" and complimentary drinks during the first quarter of each game, all for just $20 admission to the hotel's posh, mahogany-soaked Esplanade Club. You can even buy "season tickets" (for $500) and have a say in which games are shown each week. Just be sure not to show up in a wife-beater and boxers.
Encanto Park
Our out-of-state buddies love teasing us about how the only bodies of water we have around these parts are the various "fake lakes" dotting the arid local landscape. "Back where we come from, ponds don't need to be filled with recycled toilet water," they exclaim, before deluging us with their various fish tales. Despite the contempt, our so-called friends would be surprised to know there are actually some decent angling experiences around the Valley, particularly at the 7.5-acre central Phoenix urban lake at Encanto Park. Folks gather during the early morning and late evening hours to engage in the age-old battle of man against beast, attempting to lead catfish, bluegills, sunfish, bass and carp to their doom using shimmering lures and nontraditional bait like hot-dog chunks, shrimp, or bits of corn. The more compassionate fishermen release their catches back into the drink, while others harvest their prey while licking their lips in anticipation of a seafood dinner. It ain't The Old Man and the Sea, but it'll do nicely.
Desert Botanical Garden
Every fall and spring, thousands of folks flutter over to this desert sanctuary to join the butterflies in an orgy of color and movement. Inside the pavilion, surrounded by native foliage and blooming wildflowers, the humans observe the butterflies in all their glory. Those really in the know can tell the Sleepy Orange from the Painted Lady, and the Southern Dogface from the Common Checkered Skipper. Adults and small children seem to be equally enchanted by the moment. Last spring, we watched a hyperkinetic 9-year-old instantly slow to the speed of a chanting Tibetan monk as the butterflies surrounded and landed on him. A magical place. On October 1, the garden's Mariposa Monarca exhibit opens -- you can dance with the butterflies 'til November 6.
If you're motoring into Phoenix from Los Angeles after the mind-numbing negative space of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts -- or even just returning from a visit to the West Valley -- this perspective of downtown and uptown with the Phoenix Mountains and Camelback Mountain looming to the left is simply breathtaking. This elevated stretch of eastbound 10 is one of the few spots from which our Valley looks like a true metropolis and like the fifth-largest city in the U.S. The nighttime view is just as stunning, with lights shimmering like freshly cut diamonds on black velvet; but our favorite time of all is summer sunset, when the feverish sun casts its dimming rays on the reflective glass of the buildings, and that singular desert mist hovers over the mountains like a soft blue shroud. There aren't too many things to like about either Phoenix summers or Valley freeways, but here's one.
Fun Services
We love a parade, but we love a carnival even more -- you know, an old-fashioned, cheesy cake walk of a good time. But where to find the accouterment? We discovered rows of old cardboard boxes stuffed with carnival goods at Fun Services, an oddly named warehouse of a party store in Tempe.

The store stocks all the best traditional party goods -- enough paper goods to throw a palm-tree-themed party for 100, confetti in all sorts of shapes and a large costume shop with clown gear galore. But our favorite part was the back warehouse, which you have to ask about. When you do, a staff member will helpfully offer you paper and pencil to record your purchases, and leave you alone (there's no air conditioning back there, so who could blame her?) in the dim room, stocked with Santas waiting for the right season and the aforementioned boxes of carnival goods.

We dug for what seemed like days, never reaching the end but stuffing our basket with harmonicas, oversize sunglasses and kewpie dolls in assorted poses. We found blow-up guitars and oversize, glittered "microphones" for a sock hop, and enough plastic crap to satisfy our carnival cravings for good.

Whatcha doin' next Saturday?

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