BEST PRO COACH 2007 | Mike D'Antoni | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix
Who else?! He's the man who's transformed pro basketball from a low-post slog-fest to a run-and-gun showcase. He's the reason the NBA's fun to watch nowadays and becoming the most popular sport in the world (except for football, um, we mean soccer). We've always wondered how a sport that's not even the most popular in its own country (real American football is), can be the second-most-watched in the world, but Mike D'Antoni's why!

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.

Though Brett Wallace lists his favorite movie as The Natural, his unorthodox swing at a baseball is anything but. For starters, he kicks his front foot in the air as a pitch comes in, as he keeps his back foot anchored to the ground instead of in the normal pivot. It all adds up to something that would not be described as beautiful. Then there's his body, all 250 pounds or so of it, with legs as big and solid as the trunk of a saguaro.

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.

ASU's softball program had been wobbling under the sports radar for a generation before Clint Myers took over as head coach last year and immediately led his team to the College World Series. Myers was blessed right out of the chute with Katie Burkhart, a statuesque left-handed pitcher with a potent riseball and a nasty changeup, who was entering her sophomore year as a Sun Devil. Those who never have seen a fast-pitch game should understand this: It's all about the pitching. Diamondback great Randy Johnson's best year isn't even in the same, um, ballpark as what Burkhart accomplished in the past two seasons — 65 wins, 833 strikeouts and enough personal honors to fill a trophy case. Though she's an intense competitor on the field, the broadcasting major from San Luis Obispo, California's teammates love her for her great sense of humor and gregarious personality. Her coach loves that, too. But he loves her riseball even more. Before she's through at ASU after next season, Burkhart surely will break every pitching record at the school. And she may even get a few more wins over archrival University of Arizona, which we're guessing would mean more to her than any personal trophy she might ever earn.
Arizona State University's storied baseball program has had three great coaches: Bobby Winkles, Jim Brock, and Pat Murphy. But Murphy may wind up being the best.

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.

For the longest time, Mountain View was known as a football school. But those days are gone. Not that the Toros pigskin program has bitten the dust (they finished second in the state last season), but the accomplishments of Ernst's recent basketball squads have led pundits to properly pull out the D word — as in dynasty.

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.

So the mother of his child claims he's not a great dad? So he had the bad taste to date Paris Hilton after he got dumped girlfriend, Brynn Cameron (a University of Southern California women's basketball star), pregnant? So he has a cameo in one in a long line of dumbass Adam Sandler movies? So he was clocked speeding four times on the 101 loop (who hasn't been)? Matt Leinart's just what we've needed around here, a bona fide celebrity jock, the kind of guy whom The Bachelor (or, more likely, Age of Love) would kill to get. He's got the gleaming chompers and stubble to prove it!

But what's going to make the 6-foot-5 Leinart really famous is what he'll do on the football field this year. Even under ridiculous Coach Denny Green, Leinart had a good (now, we didn't say great) first year in the NFL. He set a rookie record for passing (405 yards) in the Minnesota Vikings game. Then (oops!) he went a dismal 13-for-32 passing against the worst team in football, the Oakland Raiders. Overall, he threw for 2,547 yards and 11 touchdowns and finished with a 4-7 record.

But we're telling you — the best is yet to come. The Heisman Trophy winner and quarterback of a national championship team was an NFL rookie last year! Leinart is set to take the league by storm — his first game this season notwithstanding. He vows he's gotten his Hollywood-itis under control and is focused on playing football for the hometown boys. The other Cardinals love the guy, which is saying something for a second-year player. He's got charisma, but it's more than that. The hardened pros around him, including veteran running back Edgerrin James, realize he's come to play, and that — based on his extremely solid performance last year — will only get better under a good coach and behind an improved offensive line.

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.

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