If nothing else, this was the year the Valley of the Sun churned out more pop culture icons than any other year in its shortish history. We laid claim to Phoenix native Max Crumm, who won a lead in the Broadway revival of Grease on the NBC hit You're the One That I Want. Then there was Jordin Sparks, the Glendale teen who took top honors on Season Six of American Idol. (Want details? Click on Megalopolitan Life.)

But first, there was basketball star John Amaechi, the former center who, early this year, became the first NBA player to publicly come out of the closet. He was here, he was queer, and we're still getting over it — our pride, that is, in having scored such a coup. Okay, so Amaechi (who spent five seasons with four different teams) was already a sports star, but people who don't follow athletics (read: most gay people) hadn't heard of him before he announced that he likes other guys. And, okay, so Phoenix didn't make him gay (at least we don't think so, anyway), and his connection to our hometown is relatively slender: He owns a vacation home in Scottsdale.

But we want to lay claim to John Amaechi (not to be confused with '40s movie star Don Ameche, who also lived in Scottsdale until his death a few years ago), because he's made some strides for gay rights; because he's one of only six professional male athletes to openly discuss his sexuality; and because his autobiography, Man in the Middle, was a bestseller. Plus he's kind of cute. We're proud!

Eric Byrnes has had a career year. Last we noticed, he was batting .307 and continuing to dive like a madman for flyballs in left field. He goes all out at all times! We're saying, we would've given Byrnsie (last year's winner of the Best Cool New Player on the Sports Scene) something much more imperial, except for those rumblings . . . And that hair!

First, it was a contract year for Byrnes, in that he was up for a new one, and because of his huge accomplishments on the field in '07, he expected to cash in. If not with the D-Backs, then somewhere else. Athletes don't last forever, and they have to make the most of a career year. Just before deadline for this item, we heard that Eric's agent and D-Backs management had finally come to terms. Thus, Byrnsie's here to stay — which is good because Byrnes is one of those players who adds swagger to a team. For Lou Gehrig's sake, he batted third (Micky Mantle batted third!) practically all season!

But back to the reason for this blurb . . . that unbelievable hair! Byrnes cuts his curly blond locks himself, just washes (we think) and lets them go. He says so all the time when the guys on Best Damn Sports Show Period — on which he appears frequently — rib him unmercifully about his goldilocks. The look goes along with the jeans with a hole in the knee and the faded T-shirts he favors when not in uniform. This is why, when he takes off his baseball cap, he looks as if he just stuck his tongue in a light socket. Now, Byrnes had a lot of competition for the Best Sports Hair Best-Of around here, notably from Suns captain Steve Nash. But as we gazed at Nash's shaggy mullet all winter — a far cry from the shoulder-length locks or the buzz-cut he once sported — we decided he didn't measure up to Eric.

Dammit, he's worked as a fashion model! Our own girlfriend would drop us in a millisecond for one night alone with him. We keep telling her there's no chance; he's happily married with a new baby, to which she recites the old joke about NBA athletes: "What's the hardest thing about being on the road so much as a professional player? Um, telling your wife you'll miss her."

Bell's amazing! He's got a reputation as one of the biggest badasses in the league. He's a tough defensive player who wasn't afraid to throw Kobe Bryant to the floor, even though it led to a suspension. Some call him psychotic! And yet there's not a blemish on that pretty face, not a chip in that Pepsodent grille. Maybe it's because nobody's actually punched Bell in that handsome kisser — yet — even though every single player he's guarded sure wanted to. Many have had to be restrained by teammates.

On a squad filled with guys who could win the good sportsmanship award every year — and who're mostly pug-ugly (Shawn Marion resembles a space alien, Steve Nash looks a little inbred, Boris Diaw's like a lanky leprechaun) — Bell stands out. Bill Laimbeer of the old Detroit Pistons "Bad Boys" is the last player we remember who's this consistently mean. Laimbeer was bigger and tougher (he had six inches and 60 pounds on Raja), but we get the impression that Bell's angry at all times on the court. Look at that eat-shit-and-die grimace he's always wearing! If he wasn't so damn good-looking, he'd scare us to death.

One morning when we lived in L.A., we were jogging through our neighborhood in short pants when we came upon a hulking black man (shoulders about a yard across in a gray T-shirt and black suit pants) leaning against a very large Mercedes-Benz. When we got closer, he turned toward us, and we had a glimmer of recognition.

But not until he flashed a gold-toothed grin and uttered, "How you doin'?" in that lispy, high-pitched voice. It was Iron Mike! We wheeled around and extended our sweaty hand. We'd always wanted to shake the mitt of one of the great heavyweight champions of all time.

He seemed a very nice guy. This was at a time before Mike had gone to prison for rape in 1992. It was long before he'd dined on Evander Holyfield's ear in 1997.

Ratchet forward to 2003 to present, and here's Tyson training at Phoenix gyms, attending Phoenix Suns games, getting pulled over for a traffic violation (with dope in his car), and filing for bankruptcy, though he owns a Paradise Valley home. Okay, he's a joke now (he's got a large face tattoo, for the love of Joe Louis!), but it wasn't always so.

The product of a troubled youth in Brooklyn, Tyson was fighting as soon as he was talking. That lisp attracted bullies, and soon Tyson became the toughest kid in school (he was kicked out for brawling). He became famous as a professional for knocking out his opponents. He KO'd his first 19 pro challengers inside six rounds. He won 44 of his 58 pro bouts by knockout. Tyson was the only boxer to ever knock out the legendary Larry Holmes. He was the youngest heavyweight champ ever at 20 years old, and estimates of how much he earned during his career top out at $300 million. At 35, his quest for another championship ended when Lennox Lewis knocked him out.

He's retired from the competitive ring but still makes bank doing exhibition bouts around the country. We saw him at a Scottsdale mall several months ago, and he was looking pretty much the same as he did on that L.A. street when he was at his peak — except for the face tattoo.

The thing about Phoenix Coyotes Coach Wayne Gretzky is that he's always been so damn squeaky-clean. Then, along comes wife Janet Jones-Gretzky and her gambling proclivities. Now, we're not much for keeping wives in line (impossible task), but the most prolific scorer in National Hockey League history sure didn't control Janet as well as he did the puck during his illustrious career in Edmonton and in L.A.

Also, didn't the former two-bit actress (Dirt Nap, A League of Their Own) — whose biggest role ever has been as hockey-legend armpiece — know her husband's image would be tarnished by the company he keeps at home? Especially when a family member bets on sports.

The good thing is, Jones allegedly bet at least $10,000 on football games, not hockey games, according to New Jersey authorities. The gambling investigation targeted suspended Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet, and we've got to wonder what the hell Jones was doing mixed up in the same sordid mess as her husband's assistant — speaking of the company one keeps?

Authorities say Jones violated no laws and may merely be called as a witness against others. Tocchet's admitted to promoting and conspiring to promote gambling in New Jersey in the form of two guilty pleas. Not long ago, he was sentenced to two years' probation. Here's hoping that the Great One keeps his wife on a tighter leash — and not in any kinky way — because we' d hate to lose him. He's just what the Coyotes need to someday gain respectability.

We wish we could say that Loren Wade was the reason Dirk Koetter's no longer head football coach at Arizona State University. But, sadly, Koetter's dismissal had more to do with his mediocre win-loss record. This newspaper reported in detail how Koetter had coddled thugs on the ASU team, and Wade was the best example of the ex-coach's philosophy: As long as you're valuable enough to the team, you can get away with... well, anything short of murder. Which is exactly what Koetter let his star tailback do.

There were several warning signs that Wade was a timebomb about to explode. He had threatened ASU gymnast Trisha Dixon and soccer player Haley von Blommestein, his girlfriend, over a period of weeks, and Koetter let it go. Wade was too important to Koetter's need for a winning season to suspend from the team before a violent crime was committed. With knowledge that Wade had possibly threatened Dixon's life, ASU allowed Wade to practice three times with the team in 2005 before he brandished a pistol at Brandon Falkner outside a Scottsdale nightclub. One witness said he was holding the gun gangster-style. The weapon discharged (Wade said accidentally), but the result was that ex-ASU football player Falkner was dead. Wade apparently acted in a jealous rage because Falkner had been chatting with von Blommestein minutes before.

Wade was sentenced in Maricopa County Superior Court this summer to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder.

The Big Unit? More like the Busted Unit. All right, whose freakin' idea was it to bring back Randy Johnson to the Arizona Diamondbacks? What has this former world champion baseball team become, a charity for cranky, worn-out pitchers?

The 43-year-old Johnson — who ranks up there with Ty Cobb historically as one of the biggest jerks in the game — maybe had one good year left. And this season was it. Now he won't be back until next season? Well, we guess the D-Backs are stuck with him, no matter how decrepit he'll be by spring training 2008. When the New York Yankees are through with a player, that should tell you something. They're the most successful franchise ever, and they didn't get that way by running a rest home for old and infirm pitching greats. When you're used up, you're out! But the D-Backs front office just had this compulsion to bring back one of the stars of the team's 2001 World Series campaign in the midst of rebuilding the lineup with young talent.

Look, we're not saying Randy Johnson wasn't the bomb. He was! He's a future Hall of Famer who's got the third-most strikeouts in history. With 284 wins, he's a five-time Cy Young Award winner. In his prime, he could throw a fastball more than 100 miles per hour, and his signature pitch was a blistering slider. Batters felt like the proverbial Davids when the height of the pitcher's mound was added to Johnson's 6-feet-10. We all watched him throw a perfect game (his second) in 2004 against the Braves.

The only reason to keep Johnson around at the money he commands — $9.15 million in '07 — would be to see if he could break Nolan Ryan's 5,714 career strikeout record, or to see if he could become one of the elite pitchers to win 300 games. And with the herniated disc problems he's faced over the past few years, those feats could take more seasons than even a ridiculously charitable team is willing to finance. But more than that, we deserve a consistent winner here again, and the Unit's no longer part of the recipe for that.

We saw a story the other day that said Barry Bonds memorabilia was sitting on the shelves unsold in the midst of the season he broke Henry Aaron' s career home run record. Sad commentary on the former Arizona State University prodigy turned slugger for the San Francisco Giants. In a national pastime that's had its share of jerks, Bonds even surpasses assholic Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks as the biggest among active players. In a year when he broke Aaron's season total of 755 round-trippers, he couldn't have been hated more by his teammates. Not so much for the steroid scandal in which he's enmeshed but because of his arrogance.

Unlike other Giants players, Bonds had personal trainers in the clubhouse and even had his own easy chair there. He could be openly derisive to fellow players. Even imperious. He played when he wanted and took himself out of games when he wanted. Even his manager wasn't allowed to question Bonds. But this was nothing new; he sneered at fans and at the press through much of his career. He's never even entertained the notion that he chose to become a celebrity and, therefore, owes his riches to his public.

Though steroid use in the majors has been played up by the sports press as a major scandal, we couldn't care less. Sports is entertainment, and if performance-enhancing drugs help players be more entertaining, then so be it. Comic George Carlin once half-joked that athletes should be required to take steroids, to (ahem...) level the playing field. Carlin hit on the problem with performance-enhancing drugs. How can the playing field be anywhere close to even when some players use and others don't? Is Bonds' record as valid as Aaron's because Barry beefed up from the skinny young man he was at ASU to the hulking best power hitter of all time? We were a kid in Atlanta when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record, and Hammerin' Hank couldn't have been more revered for his achievement. He was loved and respected by teammates and fans — even though the Jim Crow South wasn't that far in the past.

Too bad Barry Bonds' achievement was greeted with little more than a yawn this year because of Bonds' shrugging his steroid-enhanced shoulders at Hank's legacy of sportsmanship, as well as at us fans.


Ken Whisenhunt

Hey, we said it last year when the Cardinals drafted Matt Leinart out of USC and acquired Edgerrin James from the Indianapolis Colts. The Cardinals are gonna go 8-8! We guarantee it!

Yeah, it didn't happen, and, yeah, a .500 season ain't nothin' to brag about. But for the lowly Cardinals, it would've been a grand first step. Now we have real reason for hope, with the moronic Dennis Green finally kicked out of Bidwill Land and new coach Ken Whisenhunt in harness as his replacement. Funny thing is, the Cards could've had better than an 8-8 season with Leinart and James aboard, if not for Green's dumbass coaching decisions. Who can forget the Chicago debacle, when our men in red and white blew a 20-point lead in 22 minutes and lost to the Bears, and Denny lost his mind at the postgame press conference in front of a national audience?

We predict that we won't be seeing any of this crap from Whisenhunt, the former offensive coordinator for the Steelers who engineered an unlikely Super Bowl XL victory for Pittsburgh after the 2005 regular season. Known for his well-timed trick plays, Whisenhunt is a proven winner, and a coach who has that tough Steeler veneer. He's just who's needed to bring second-year QB Leinart, arguably the best young signal-caller in the league, into much-anticipated prominence. Whisenhunt worked through the off-season to develop a personal relationship with his players, and we think his hands-on approach to football will pay dividends. Green was such a pompous ass that he seldom spoke directly to his players, preferring to pass along criticisms through his assistants. The players hated him.

The biggest question, as always with the Cardinals, is the offensive line. A few minor moves have been made by Whisenhunt, but last year's line would've been good enough to get the team into the first game of the playoffs. With Whisenhunt, the Cards shall overcome. We pray.


Steve Kerr

You might argue that there are too few new faces in the Phoenix Suns organization, despite the signing of veteran swingman Grant Hill, but there's one that shines bright: that of natty new general manager Steve Kerr. The former University of Arizona star's already signed Hill, and we predict Hill will be the edge that the Suns need to go higher in the playoffs and win a championship. A former run-and-gun guard himself, Kerr's in the best position to understand what and who's needed to make Coach Mike D'Antoni's system run to perfection.

Kerr has long been one of the best minds in basketball, which could be seen from his deft commentary on TNT (daft when it came to his "Steve Wonders" segments). The Grant Hill signing aside, it remains to be seen if he can make the monster trade that will make the Suns a dynasty-in-the-making, but we believe he can, either this year or next. Those who argue that Steve Nash has only one more good year must not be watching him play much — he runs rings around guys 10 years younger. Kerr has some time, and he understands — as a player who won four NBA championships in a row — how a machine like Nash operates.

Plus, there's no reason he won't do something in the clutch to give the Suns the charge they need during the next regular season. Kerr was one of the greatest clutch players in history, you know. He made the game-winning shot in Game 6 of the Chicago Bulls' championship over the Utah Jazz that gave the Bulls back-to-back championships. He won the three-point shootout at the 1997 All-Star Game. After Kerr was traded to the San Antonio Spurs, he helped eliminate the Dallas Mavericks in the 2003 playoffs with four clutch three-pointers. He retired that year as the league's all-time leader in three-point shooting percentage for a season (.524 in 1994-95) and career (.454). Always cool under pressure — there's hardly ever a hair out of place — Kerr's the ingredient that's been missing from the Suns' cocktail. D'Antoni was handling the GM duties last season, and he was a miserable failure at it (head coaching and GM-ing are impossible for one guy to do)!

Nothing much happened in the off-season, and the team was pretty much in the same position it'd been in a year before. The blond bomber — who's a long-time pal of owner Robert Sarver and thus has his hand in Sarver's wallet pocket — will change all that in 2007-08.

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