BEST REASON TO BELIEVE THE SUNS CAN WIN IT ALL 2007 | Steve Kerr | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix


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.

There was talk during the summer of the Phoenix Suns trading Amaré Stoudemire for Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves in a monster deal that involved the Boston Celtics, future draft picks, and bench players from all three teams.

In another scenario, it was Shawn Marion instead of Stoudemire in the roundabout. While we could have gotten behind a deal that involved Marion (frequently a playoffs no-show) for Garnett, a 7-foot former Most Valuable Player, Stoudemire's a different story. What a mistake that would've been! For starters, Garnett's 31 and Stoudemire's 24. Seven years is a lot of mileage in the NBA.

In fact, the idea was so wrong-headed that we've got to believe that it was some kind of negotiating ploy by savvy new general manager Steve Kerr. Maybe Kerr meant to send a message to Amaré that he'd better play nice with his teammates because (dum-de-dum-dum) nobody's sacred. There was oil-and-water talk inside the Suns organization that both he and Marion didn't try to fit in last season. You know, bad chemistry.

In Marion's case, whining that he's underappreciated was frequently mentioned. But not trying to fit in is about the only negative thing anybody could say about Amaré Stoudemire, a guy who came off microfracture surgeries on both knees to return to All-Star caliber. In fact, he helped lead the Western Conference to victory in the big game with a 29-point, nine-rebound performance. For the regular season, he averaged 20 points and 9.6 rebounds a game, and for the playoffs, it was 25.3 and 12.1. Talk about the clutch producer in the postseason that Marion isn't! Stoudemire played gingerly on those gimpy knees at the beginning of last season, but by the end, he'd returned to his old form, slam-dunking over some of the tallest players in the game.

At 6-feet-10, Amaré's a little undersized for a center, but he's so dominant inside that he's made patsies of the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and even Tim Duncan. Former NBA great and TNT commentator Charles Barkley, who calls Amaré "Hellboy," has predicted that the former rookie of the year will be MVP any season now. We just hope it's the one coming up.

When we heard the Phoenix Suns had signed Grant Hill, our first thought was that he'd be another Jalen Rose. Now, we love Jalen Rose; he was a great player back in his long-past Indiana Pacers days, and he's an entertaining presence on Best Damn Sports Show Period, but he was too old and slow to play for the run-and-gun Suns. Hill's been in the NBA since 1994, six years with the Detroit Pistons and seven with the Orlando Magic, so it appeared the Suns were getting a similar worn-out package. Until we looked below the surface. Hill's had everything from ankle injuries to a life-threatening staph infection to a sports hernia, which allowed him to play in only 30 percent of the Magic's regular-season games... but this is actually is a plus.

That is why the Suns' new general manager, Steve Kerr, made signing Hill his top priority in the off-season. Though he's been in the league for 13 years, Hill hasn't worn himself out. He's spent most of his time in the weight room, in rehab, and as a student of the game. His legs still have that spring of youth in them. As proof, after sitting out his entire fourth season and being severely hampered by nagging injuries in all but one other season with Orlando, he returned last year to play in 65 of 82 pre-playoff games and averaged 14.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.1 assists. This is down from his career average of 20 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game, but it's proof that he's back from his injuries. If the Suns play him sparingly at small forward, he could be the shot in the arm the franchise needs to get past the Spurs and the Mavericks and into the NBA finals.

As a former point forward and NBA assists leader for four seasons among non-guards, he's also a ball-handler who will give Steve Nash much needed relief.

Amazingly, the Diamondbacks were up for most of the season this year. And, at this writing, were sitting in first place in the National League West. One of the reasons for success is pitcher Brandon Webb, who won the 2006 Cy Young Award with a 16-8 record and 3.20 ERA in 33 starts. This means an Arizona Diamondback was the best pitcher in the National League last year, and his record is slightly better this season. He became the second Diamondbacks pitcher to win the award. (In his prime, Randy Johnson won four consecutive NL Cy Youngs from 1999-2002.) In a game we watched on the last day of July, Webb was marvelous in shutting out the San Diego Padres 4-0. He tossed seven scoreless innings and had command of his signature sinker ball, which had given him trouble with left-handed hitters this season, but was the key to his dominance in '06. A host of young players — Chris Young, Eric Byrnes, promising rookie Mark Reynolds — helped the Diamondbacks gain success this year, but right-hander Webb was king of the hill. If the D-Backs return to the stature they held when they won the World Series in 2001, Webb will be a major reason.
How can we not love Charles Barkley? He's always said he would someday run for governor of Alabama (he used to be known as the "Round Mound of Rebound" back there at Auburn University), but we wish he'd go for that office here in the AZ.

What a soundbite he'd be! No more of that wishy-washy politspeak from the likes of Janet Napolitano. Wouldn't it be refreshing to have him yelling to the Capitol press corps, "I am not a role model!" It would be eyebrow-raising, because when have you ever heard of a wack-job politician not thinking he's indeed a role model, and don't you forget it? Honestly!

That's what we like about Sir Charles. Even when he's criticizing our beloved Phoenix Suns for lack of defense, we know he means it. We didn't say he was correct or that he wasn't drunk when he said it, but we know it was his honest assessment. He's famous for speaking his mind, like when he put himself inside 7-foot-6 Yao Ming's head on Yao's coming to America: "Whew, even white guys can play over here!" Or when he said before his All-Star Game foot-race with 70-something referee Dick Bevetta last season: "I have nothing against old people; I want to be one myself one day." In a town full of sports legends (Muhammad Ali lives here, the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky, coaches here, and every month or so we hear about a Kirby Puckett or a George Mikan dying here), Charles Barkley is our legend. He golfs (badly) here; we've seen him at our local Starbucks. He's also the only sports legend in our midst to have taken our Suns to the NBA finals, albeit in a losing effort in 1993 to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, despite his having declared to Jordan that it was "destiny" for the Suns to win.

Like we say, he's not always right. The most dominating power forward in the league during his salad days, he was named MVP for the 1992-93 season. Barkley retired seven years ago as the fourth player in the history of the professional game to rack up 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists.

And we don't just mean in the Phoenix metroplex. Anywhere! That the greatest athlete, much less the greatest prizefighter of all time, lives in Scottsdale is more a testament to our lower taxes (than places like Southern California) and our reputation as a bastion for the aged and infirm than anything else. But it's great to see the star of When We Were Kings, the brilliant documentary about Ali's famous "Rumble in the Jungle" with a young George Foreman, at charity events in Phoenix.

In case you haven't noticed him lately, the one-time silver-tongued Adonis of the ring has been humbled by Parkinson's disease. There are several names that seem to wind up on best-athlete-ever lists — Pelé, Michael Jordan, Jim Thorpe — but Ali's mentioned the most. He was dubbed Sportsman of the [20th] Century by Sports Illustrated. He's a three-time world heavyweight champion and the winner of an Olympic gold medal as a light heavyweight. Of his 56 pro bouts, he won 35 by knockouts. Think about how hard it is to be a boxing champ. Not only must you be an incredible physical specimen, especially in the weight class in which Cassius Clay-turned-Ali fought, you must be fleet of foot, more conditioned than an NBA point guard, and possess the street smarts of a drug kingpin. Ali had the best combination of that. He wasn't the most muscular fighter in the ring in his era, but he made up for it with style: You know, he "floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee."

Until his talents began to fade, opponents had trouble landing a blow to his head because of his quickness — which is why, he would brag to the likes of sportscaster Howard Cosell, he remained so "pretty." He didn't suffer his first professional loss until Joe Frazier floored him in his 32nd fight. He bounced back after that and knocked out Foreman in the "Rumble." He wound up losing three of his last four fights to Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes, and Trevor Berbick.

Though he never lost by a knockout, opponents started landing hard blows to his head in his latter fights. Whether his Parkinson's (a malady sometimes caused by sharp blows to the noggin) resulted from his boxing career is a subject of great debate.

Remember the opening sequence in Jackass: The Movie, when the superstars of idiocy push each other down a bridge in a shopping cart? Then you're close to imagining the tomfoolery on display during the Idiotarod Shopping Cart Race. The event, named sardonically after the 1,151-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, originated in San Francisco and has spread to other major metropolises like New York City and Chicago. The inaugural Phoenix race began and ended at Bikini Lounge on a beautiful February afternoon and showcased three to four team members, all tied to "found" shopping carts, pushing one cart-sitter around the streets of downtown. The fun and competitive race made pit stops at The News Room and .anti_space before Double Team and Dance Dance Armageddon took first and second, respectively, with the Renegade Rollercart Girls winning the "Best Sabotage" distinction. What can we say? Our town is filled with lovable idiots. Registration is $5 per person, $30 per team.
We've decided that playing bingo has gone past ironic to kind of sad and come back around again to some kind of post-irony level of acceptable things to do with your weekend. (And that was before that stupid television show.)

There's something inherently soothing about watching those little white balls roll around their cage while you hope your number will be called. And if you're going to gamble, we feel it's a lot smarter to buy in at a bingo game for $5 than waste hours of life (and a lot more money) at a poker table.

When the bingo itch strikes, we don't so much want to play in a church with a bunch of saggy old ladies. No, we'd much rather go somewhere we can drink and smoke while waiting for our numbers to pop up. That's why Fort McDowell Casino is perfect. It's got the biggest bingo room in the state and includes a smoking section. On top of that, there are games starting as late as 3:15 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays — sounds a little weird, but late at night in a bingo room is prime people-watching.

Thanks to the folks who run the Arizona WiffleBall League, big kids of all ages can baffle hitters with nasty, perforated plastic ball benders or go way downtown by swinging a Herculean, yellow synthetic bat.

The league is part of the 19-region Fast Plastic association, which grants division winners a spot in the wiffle national championships (this year's version was held in Austin, Texas). Don't fret if you can't recruit enough rubber-armed pitchers or bases-clearing sluggers. Just hit up the organizers and they'll match you with (hopefully) a fellow Warren Spahn or Ted Kluszewski. Tournaments are held outdoors at Cactus Park and feature round-robin duels and a home run contest. Chicks most definitely dig the long ball, and, depending on the woman, they may already dig the plastic, too.

Retro furnishings such as orange shag rugs and chrome diner tables are back in style, and vintage-style threads dominate the runways. That's why we love Glen Fair, an old-school alley with beige stucco walls and a curvaceous sign that mimics the monogramming on your dad's old polyester bowling shirt. There are league nights for youth and adults, dollar days and senior afternoons where old-timers can earn a buck or two for multiple strikes. But we think Friday and Saturday's Neon Karaoke Night, complete with groovy singers and acid-flashback lighting, is the real winner here. The swank lounge atmosphere is great for a casual, no-hassle first date. And though the live entertainment is generally off-key, there's plenty of cheap beer to dull your senses. So brush up on your Lionel Richie lyrics, throw on some bell-bottoms and go singing in the lanes.

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