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.

BEST REASON TO BELIEVE THE CARDINALS CAN GO 8-8

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.

BEST REASON TO BELIEVE THE SUNS CAN WIN IT ALL

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.

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