This is not to say that there are no creature comforts. The winter home of the Oakland Athletics has everything a true baseball nut requires: warm sun, cold beer, a perfectly groomed field, and cozy environs with not a bad seat in the house. If you like the real thing, go Muni.
Finally, with the Fiesta Bowl's departure to Glendale's new University of Phoenix Stadium in early '07, the Insight got a real home of its own. And, man, did it make the most of it. In its first year at Sun Devil, the Insight hosted the Texas Tech Red Raiders and Minnesota Golden Gophers in what looked to be a just-okay matchup. Uh, nuh uh. The Gophers led 38-7 in the third quarter when the boys from West Texas kicked it into overdrive and cranked out the biggest comeback in NCAA Division-I postseason history with a 44-41 win.
As delightful as the game was, we old-schoolers took even more satisfaction knowing that the Fiesta's now ensconced in Bill Bidwill's $200 zillion pinball machine and the Insight's in an honest-to-gosh open-air college-football stadium, with all the tradition and rah-rah (and ready access to Mill Avenue's bars) that entails.
Here's a guy who runs about 40 miles a night on the basketball court as he enters his mid-30s, all the while shucking and jiving with the ball, passing to this teammate and that. Making the art of basketball assists look like child's play. Never has anybody who looked so un-athletic been so, well, athletic! Experts say boxers are the greatest athletes, but the way Steve Nash handles the basketball, the way he cuts through defenders is truly phenomenal.
The Suns didn't win the championship last year, but it wasn't because of Nash. He did everything in his power to push his team ahead, even getting pushed gang-style by the Spurs' Robert Horry into the scorer's table in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. That turned out to be the cheap shot heard around the world. Two Suns, Amaré Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, were suspended for the next game which would have been a momentum contest under normal circumstances and the Suns ended up losing the series. See, Stat and Three-D made a move toward the melee, which warrants an automatic one-game suspension under NBA rules. But we digress. Little Stevie jumped up from the floor after Horry's cowardly push and tried to go after the 6-foot-11 thug.
Thing is, Nash's so athletic that we'd like to see him in the boxing ring someday, and we're pretty sure that if the referee hadn't gotten in the way, and Stoudemire and Diaw hadn't made their advances, our hero would've leapt into the air and landed one on Big Shot Rob's sneering kisser. With his foot! Did we mention that Nash's even better at soccer than hoops?
Too bad the women's game isn't more universally popular. Maybe it's that two-tone ball. Or the fact that only a few of the players can dunk? In any case, it's a shame because Taurasi is the proverbial poet in high-tops, a much more mesmerizing player than men's star Nash. A few years ago, she was dubbed the greatest collegiate basketball player (male or female) of all time after leading the University of Connecticut women's team to three straight NCAA championships from 2002-04. And we'd say she's the best athlete in the women's game today. At almost 6 feet, Taurasi was the number one draft pick of the Phoenix Mercury in 2004, after being the youngest player on the women's Team USA in the 2004 Olympics that won the gold medal. In her second year with the Mercury, she was named a starter on the WNBA all-star team. She has since made three all-star appearances. In 2007, she led the Mercury to the franchise's first WNBA championship. The first player in history to break the 800-point mark in a single season (860) in 2006, she is one of a handful of players in her league who can take over a game.
And when she doesn't, she can get pissed. She got a two-game suspension this season for, um, disrespecting the refs in a loss to the Bill Laimbeer-coached Detroit Shock.
But her feistiness is a major reason we love her. She's not a superstar in her game because of skill and conditioning alone it's the 'tude that puts her over the top.
The biggest star ever in the Italian league as a player and a coach, D'Antoni has brought European athleticism to our shores in the form of the modern-day Phoenix Suns. The Suns will run all but one or two teams in the league (which took their inspiration from the Suns) out of any gym, and that makes them damn exciting to watch. While the San Antonio Spurs continue to win championships, they're just plain dull with their predictable game of tossing the ball inside to Tim Duncan. They've never captured the imagination of basketball lovers.
Now, D'Antoni would've already won his/our NBA title if not for incredibly bad luck. Superstar Amaré Stoudemire was out for all but two games of the 2005-06 season with knee problems, and we all remember that cheap shot to Steve Nash that wound up being the end of last season's championship run. If Stoudemire and Boris Diaw hadn't been kicked out of the next game, there's no doubt in our mind that the Larry O'Brien Trophy would be residing here in The PHX. So say what you will about the lack of defense on D'Antoni's teams, Mike's going to take the Suns all the way next season. His defensive philosophy of not contesting every damn shot so that momentum stays at a peak will finally prevail.
But this native of Sonoma, California, is our choice for this award because he basically hits the bejesus out of the ball, again and again. He's also surprisingly agile for such a large man and we really like this he seems to be having a genuinely great time out on the diamond. Wallace was instrumental in the Sun Devils' 49-15 record last season and the accolades came his way in bundles. Among other honors, Wallace was the Pac-10 Player of the Year, and won a spot on the U.S. National Team that played at the Pan American Games in Brazil last summer.
Not bad for a guy from a little high school in Wine Country. Safe to say that this 21-year-old has made a memorable impact on everyone who's watched him play ball here for the past two years, especially those on opposing teams.
If Murphy coaches until he's 65 (he's 48 now) and continues to win games at the same pace, he will break the all-time NCAA record for baseball victories. Just this year, he was named to his second Pac-10 Coach of the Year honor, after helming the Sun Devils to the conference championship and their best season since 2000. The irascible coach, known for his tough dugout demeanor and ball-busting sense of humor, was hired by ASU from Notre Dame 13 seasons ago, and has carried on the tradition of Winkles and Brock to keep our hometown U a national baseball power.
This winning atmosphere is more than we can say for the other men's coaches on the Tempe campus over the past several years. (Women's basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne, with a 203-134 record, rivals Murphy in coaching excellence.) The ASU team has gone to the College World Series 20 times, including this year, when Murphy's team was eliminated by UC-Irvine. Murphy's a tough coach, but it's hard to find a player who goes through his program who doesn't respect and love him once it's all over.
Last season, Mountain View became the first large school to win three state titles in a row since the defunct Phoenix Union won four from 1958 to 1961. The title marked Ernst's seventh as a head coach, including one with Chandler High back in 1976, when he was still in his 20s. Not yet 60, the lanky, professorial Ernst looks as if he's not going anywhere for years to come, a frightening notion for his opponents. His teams usually reflect his own personality rarely flashy, but fundamentally sound and doggedly determined to win, especially against more athletic opponents. Now getting close to 700 wins, which makes him one of the winningest basketball coaches in Arizona history, Gary Ernst does it the right way, demanding a lot from his teenagers on and off the court, and getting it.