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While not particularly challenging in a technical sense, the National Trail is one bad mutha if tackled from beginning to end and back. The round trip is approximately 20 miles, the equivalent of walking from 48th Street to 51st Avenue and then turning around and doing it in reverse. The best approach is from the east end, at the Pima Canyon trailhead off 48th Street in Ahwatukee. From there, the National gains about 500 feet in elevation, placing you on the main line atop the mountain. On your journey, you'll pass some of the trail's major landmarks The Tunnel, Fat Man's Pass before hitting another ascent, this one a moderately difficult 500- to 750-footer that takes you to the very top of the range near the Antenna Array. After you stop to catch your breath, head toward the Rock Shelter on the next peak over. Once there, it's clear and mostly level sailing along the South Mountain spine, a section of the trail that offers dazzling Valley panoramas amid a pristine Sonoran Desert landscape. The National's west-end terminus is at the San Juan Lookout, which offers an up-close-and-personal view of the snaggletoothed Estrella Mountains.
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.
Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder Eric Byrnes is crazy. That's the first thing any knowledgeable baseball fan or professional ballplayer will tell you. He makes crazy plays in the outfield, he's crazy on the base paths, he has a crazy sense of humor. He just follows his own wacky muse. After all, Byrnsey played for the Oakland Athletics, and the antics of that team are infamous. How could he not be crazy, coming from the A's? Actually, Byrnes paled in comparison to the fruitcake behavior of left-handed pitcher Barry Zito, but on the Diamondbacks (a team of dullards, Luis Gonzalez's penchant as a playa notwithstanding), Byrnes stands out. He's a breath of fresh air. First of all, he's one of the best interviews in baseball; he's always game to dissect his team and teammates on The Best Damn Sports Show, Period. Second, he's a hunk, which is why his face adorns those D-Backs billboards around town, along with fellow good-looking members of the Rainbow Coalition, catcher Johnny Estrada and second baseman Orlando Hudson. Third, he's a hell of a base-stealer, which is something the team had been lacking with Craig Counsell on the disabled list. He entered this season with 40 steals in 46 attempts as a major leaguer. Last we heard, he had stolen 18 bases in 19 attempts, a league-leading percentage. His .280 batting average ain't too shabby, but his all-around Johnny Hustle flair is what makes him special. He's got that swagger that the Diamondbacks so desperately need to attract fans, from the way he runs, to the way he stands in the batter's box, to the way he unbuttons those top three buttons on his uniform jersey. We liked him better when he wasn't playing center field, because then he was always jumping into the stands for foul balls (the wall's way too high for that in center at Chase Field), but he still exudes the cool confidence that makes us want to believe that our boys of summer might possibly contend. Someday, you think?
Come on, he dated Paris Hilton! He quarterbacked the University of Southern California Trojans to one national championship and nearly a second, winning a Heisman Trophy in the process. When everybody thought he'd come out of college to a fat NFL contract a couple of years ago, he opted to stay at USC for his senior season. Though that didn't turn out exactly like he wanted (Texas beat USC to claim the national title), he remained the toast of Hollywood for another year. He was seen at all the posh Tinsel Town parties, at all the glittery L.A. nightclubs. Now he's bought a lavish home in Ahwatukee and signed a contract with the Arizona Cardinals that guarantees him $14 million and could pay him $51 million over six years. He's scheduled to play backup to the aging Kurt Warner in Coach Dennis Green's offense. Yeah, sure! Our prediction is that Warner will last about as long as he did when he was playing ahead of then-super-rookie Eli Manning, and Leinart will be the starter within a few games. In any case, just look at him! At 6-foot-5, he's a raven-haired hunk. He's got a great smile, and he's supposedly a very nice guy. Girls all over the PHX are swooning over the major dude. It will be a treat for the ladies just to see him standing on the sidelines, notepad in hand, in those tight football pants, even if he doesn't play a down. A lecherous female friend of ours says only Raja Bell of the Suns gives Matt a run for his money in the looks department, but our vote goes to Leinart because we've already given Bell, who also works as a model, another award.
We know, we know . . . Steve Nash, National Basketball Association most valuable player over the past two years, has cut his flowing locks. No, he's done more than that he's shaved his pate. Those pictures of Little Stevie Wonder (sorry, that's what sportscasters have taken to calling him) running around on soccer fields this past summer as he off-seasoned in the Big Apple were frightening. Steve, you look like a Nazi skinhead with your scalp shaved. Do us a favor: Before the start of the 2006-07 season, please, please grow your hair back! If you start now, you will be close to where you were at the end of last season. Because, Steve, the ladies love you with hippie hair. We love you with hippie hair. You tried the clean-cut look when you kicked off your career in Phoenix, and look where it got you traded to Dallas, where you had to hang out with that Kraut. Now you're back, and you've won the league's highest honor for the past two years. Who knows, it could be bad luck to show up at U.S. Airways Center with nothing but head stubble. Or you could lose all your strength. Dude, remember Samson! Also, we don't know if anybody's told your Canadian ass, but we're expecting an NBA championship this year, and if this hair thing queers the deal for us, well . . . Canada's not a big enough country to hide you from us.
We almost fell over dead when Edgerrin James signed with the Arizona Cardinals. But there he was holding up his red and white number 32 jersey and grinning at the camera with that grill of gold teeth, dreadlocks hanging around his face. James is among the top running backs in the NFL these days, and we just couldn't see him playing for the lowly Cardinals, but there was no mistaking that metallic grin. He made life so much easier for quarterback Peyton Manning at Indianapolis, where he starred for seven seasons, before signing his four-year, $30 million contract with Arizona. Check out these stats: The four-time All-Pro has rushed for 9,226 yards in his pro career. Once he gains 183 yards for the Cardinals which should happen in his second or third regular-season game he will surpass Earl Campbell as number 20 on the all-time rushing list. To say that James follows the beat of a different drummer would be a freaking understatement! One of his best friends is rapper Trick Daddy. He's installed a huge plasma-screen TV next to his Cardinals locker. In Indianapolis, he had the same arrangement, and his locker became the focal point of the Colts' post-game partying. He's a joker who reads voraciously. Some have called him bipolar, but in a "good way." His nickname ain't Edge for nothing! Naturally, he's not much for the routine that football teams insist upon for their players, often skipping out on voluntary off-season workouts to hang out in his home in Miami, where he hits the nightclub scene with regularity when he's not playing sports with ghetto kids in his nearby hometown of Immokalee next to the Everglades. Last we heard, he was looking for digs in the PHX, and we hope he finds them. If we can keep Edge in town, maybe the Cards can contend.
There's an old saying about teams like the Arizona Cardinals, who for 18 years played in cavernous Sun Devil Stadium in front of thousands of fans disguised as empty seats: The stadium was vast, but for the most part, the team on the field was only half-vast. But hold on to your seats things may be looking up for the local NFL team. With the recent opening of Cardinals Stadium, the new $455 million, 63,400-capacity venue on the west side of town, the future appears to be much brighter. The stadium is state-of-the-art, having recently been named by Business Week as one of the top 10 sports facilities in the world. It's the only stadium in North America to have both a retractable roof and a retractable playing field. The field itself is an engineering marvel: Weighing 18.9 million pounds, it sits in a tray resting on 13 rail tracks and 542 steel wheel assemblies. Since the field is made of natural grass, it remains outside the stadium to get sunlight until the night before a game. Then the wheels start turning (at 11.5 feet per minute) to travel the 741 feet the field will move until it's in position, a process that takes 65 minutes. The roof panels are translucent, which allows plenty of light into the stadium, even when the roof is closed. And perhaps the best thing about the new stadium, as far as Cardinals fans are concerned: It's air-conditioned. Of course, with a new facility also comes a certain amount of economic impact, and Cardinals Stadium is ready for its national close-up. Beginning January 1, the stadium becomes the new home of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, to be followed the very next week by the first-ever Bowl Championship Series title game. Some other key dates: The Rolling Stones will play a concert here this November 8, and Super Bowl XLII will be held at the stadium on February 3, 2008. With a new home, as well as a few key personnel acquisitions in the off-season, there does seem to be cause for optimism for this year's Cardinals. For the first time since the team relocated to Arizona from St. Louis, every home game is sold out. That means that every single Cardinals game this season will be broadcast on local television. For, like, free! Maybe soon there will be a new saying in these parts: Today, Glendale tomorrow, the world!
Since 1997, the folks running Hohokam Stadium have kept the price of the lawn seats at five bucks. Five bucks to watch the Cubbies, for God's sake! Five bucks to watch the ebullient Cubs fans before the Cubs have been able to begin losing any real games, when Cubs fans are still happy-go-lucky drunks rather than the sour drunks, like Mike Royko back in the 1960s, like Mark Grace back in the '90s, like Cubs fans for the whole glorious 1918 season, which itself was unusually short because of World War I. Simply, Cubs fans are the best. (No, we're not from Chicago; don't even much like the place.) And while cities throughout the Valley scramble to make these spring training fields look like the best of the major league fields, the only thing that matters are the fans. Great fans in a dump beat, say, Diamondbacks fans in Chase Field. Hohokam has Cubs fans in spring. 'Nuff said. The only downside of Hohokam, though, is quite serious. Old Style is served there, but it is served in plastic cups, as though one were at a country music festival outside Cedar Rapids. At Wrigley Field, the Old Style comes in wax cups, something longtime aficionados of "Dog Style," as we called it in college, say makes the beer the best in the world. We always just bought the crap because of the price. But if Cubs fans say so, we say so. Get some wax cups, and Hohokam truly will be Heaven on Earth, a garden of love and hope, before the snake of each doomed season must arrive in Eden.