He looks like your quirky disheveled cousin who's supposedly on the edge of making a big breakthrough in the software industry. But he's not. Instead, this Canadian import took the town and the NBA by storm last season en route to winning Most Valuable Player honors. Everyone in town knows that the dude is a miracle on the hard courts -- his presence was largely responsible for one of the biggest team turnarounds in league history. But Nash also is the rare pro athlete with a definite mind of his own, and we like that. During the 2003 All-Star Game, he showed up wearing a tee shirt that read, "Shoot baskets not people." Nash explained that he thought the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq was way off-kilter. Thankfully, his game sure wasn't.
Now, we can certainly understand how a rich, young African-American celebrity would relish living in Blacklanta, the capital of Buppie America, but for Phoenix Suns shooting guard Joe Johnson to choose playing for the lowly Atlanta Hawks -- when he could get the same mega-money ($69 million and change over five years) playing for our elite pro basketballers -- is just plain crazy.

We hear that a major reason JJ wanted to go is that some of the Suns players treated him like a bumpkin. See, he doesn't favor the blang-blang of Suns players like star center/forward Amaré Stoudemire, and it's true that JJ has trouble getting a coherent sentence out of his country-fried mouth during postgame interviews. As for Stoudemire vs. Johnson, there was the much-publicized incident in which a snarling Amaré asked JJ during a playoff game if he planned to play "fucking defense?!"

Seems Joe's shy little feelings were damaged beyond repair. Whatever . . . JJ's reasoning must have been clouded by way too much time in the Arizona sun, because he'd have to be suffering from baked-brain syndrome to prefer playing for the worst team in the NBA last year rather than take a little ribbing from certain members of our title-contending purple-and-orangemen. JJ, where was the love for the city and franchise that made yours a household name? Our hearts are as broken as the Salt River bottom after Old Sol has dried up those monsoon puddles.

Ike Diogu won over untold fans during his three wonderful years as the best college basketball player in these parts (hey, now, Arizona Wildcats fans), and it wasn't just for his uncanny ability to stick a ball through a hoop. We liked Ike because he wasn't a suck-up or a stuck-up, but a put-up, a team guy who won the respect of everyone around him by dint of a relentless work ethic and desire to win. Unfortunately for ASU, Ike decided to take his talents to the next level after last season's dismal team record. This strong son of Nigerian immigrants was chosen as a "lottery pick" in the NBA draft by the Golden State Warriors, a selection that turned him into an instant millionaire.

Sure enough, our fondest memory of Ike came on the floor of the Wells Fargo Arena, where the Sun Devils play their home games. But it wasn't about him dunking a basketball, blocking a shot, or using that big butt of his to move an opposing player out of the lane. No, we'll remember most that moment last December 21 when the ASU women's team upset powerful Connecticut at the arena. Ike, who was in attendance as a fan, danced onto the floor and joyously jumped up and down with dozens of other ASU students. That was Ike, blessed with athletic skills and an inner grace that elude all but a few of us -- and a hell of a decent guy to boot.

By day, Richard Rodriguez is a mild-mannered airplane mechanic for Timco Aviation. After nightfall, however, the 50-year-old Phoenix resident transmogrifies into his sensational alter ego known as Rattler Man. If you're wondering just who this snake-themed superhero is, you're obviously not going to enough Arizona Rattlers games. But fear not, foolish mortal, Rodriguez is.

Dressed in an elaborate costume consisting of a full-body skeleton suit, shoulder pads, spiked collar, rubber snake headdress, scepter and fangs, he's been attending more games -- both home and away -- than he's bothered to count, firing up the fans and players of the Valley's Arena Football League franchise for years now.

There was a recent scare among the "Pitizens" -- a.k.a. the fan base of the two-time ArenaBowl champions -- that the Valley's favorite footballers were headed out of town, but new majority owner Bob Hernreich quelled such rumors when he announced back in July that the team would continue to slink around America West Arena for years to come.

Some say it was smart sports management that saved the day, but we'd like to think it was Rattler Man.

Surprise Recreation Campus
Stand out in the thick haze of dust on a patchwork Little League field in the Milwaukee Brewers' abandoned spring training facility in south Chandler, and you'll learn to appreciate just how cool the Surprise Recreation Campus really is. While East Valley suburbs such as Chandler lag behind in providing quality sports facilities (not to mention quality sports events) for its residents, the West Valley, particularly Surprise, has done a phenomenal job of creating a centralized recreation park worthy of a fast-growing, outdoor-oriented population.

The Surprise Complex includes not only the gorgeous main stadium and 14 fields for the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals spring training season, but also 57 acres of parks and fields, a library, a five-acre lake, and the city's administrative offices. It is more than a place to watch and play sports; it's the progressive heart of a new city, a thoughtful common ground for the common good -- one that should be a shining model for the rest of the Valley.

Peoria Sports Complex
The Peoria Sports Complex is like a megaplex for baseball. Over here, you can watch Ichiro and the Seattle Mariners getting primed for the upcoming season. Over there, Khalil Greene and his Padres compadres are taking infield. And in most any direction, Padre and Mariner hopefuls are practicing some baseball fundamental on some gorgeous field under some beautiful springtime sky. What sets the Peoria Sports Complex apart, too, is parking and access to food. Yes, it's much like a shopping center. But there's a reason shopping centers are popular. You will find parking, you will be in your seat in 10 minutes, and you will have a menu in your hand within 15 minutes of the last out. Spring training games, and spring training afternoons, are supposed to be easy. In Peoria, they still can be.

BEST PLACE TO SPOT SPRING TRAINING PLAYERS OFF THE FIELD

Babe's Cabaret

Babe's Cabaret
We conducted a wholly unscientific survey to determine the best place to spot baseball players in town for spring training. Of the three guys (and trust us, these are men in the know) we asked, each said the same thing, before the question was even complete: Babe's.

We won't tell you who we've heard hangs out at the Scottsdale topless club, who gets lap dances, who gets drunk, who gets crazy. We won't even tell you which teams they play for, although you do know that Scottsdale Stadium's just up the street and around the corner, and Phoenix Muni's not far, either. You know us, we don't want to make trouble. We're just in the business of providing information.

The answer to the question: Babe's.

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.

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