Best Class Act in Local Sports 2008 | Suns point guard Steve Nash | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix

What can we say about Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, except that he's like a really fine wine: aged to perfection. Last year, it looked as if he'd slowed down a little, but that was because his dunderheaded former coach played him as if he were a 24-year-old. That's just not any way to treat a fine Cabernet. He needed to start the game, naturally, but be given more than just a few minutes at the end of the first and third quarters and the beginning of the second and fourth. Jeez, the geezer (for an NBA point guard) averaged 36.6 minutes a game. Only the much younger Amaré Stoudemire and the tough-as-nails Raja Bell averaged more.

But would Little Stevie complain about now-departed coach Mike D'Antoni's riding him like a favorite whore? No way! You never heard the cool-as-the-other-side-of-the-pillow Canadian whimper a note. Even when his ailing back was obviously killing him. Hey, we're not saying Nash isn't in great shape — for a player who will be 35 next season. Running 20 miles a game in the NBA is hard work for anybody. But no matter how hard he worked during a game, no matter how disappointed he was after a loss, Nash always stopped to talk with the media, sign a kid's program, or pose for pictures for his favorite charities.

Indeed, Nash gives himself extensively to good causes. The Steve Nash Foundation offers grants to programs helping poor, neglected, ill, or abused children. He is the sponsor of the Steve Nash Youth Basketball League in British Columbia, is involved with GuluWalk, which helps children in war-torn Uganda. And, with Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, was among NBA players who played a game in China against the country's national team that raised millions of dollars for Chinese children. Heck, he even financed a new pediatric oncology ward at a hospital in Paraguay, his wife's home country. Like we say, the man's a class act.

We're kicking ourselves lately for giving Mike D'Antoni last year's coveted Best Pro Coach award. We marveled at his run-and-shoot offense, how he had brought a fast-paced European style of play (he was a star player and coach in Italy) to the NBA. Well, the experiment with his brand of small ball is over, and it failed miserably at bringing a championship. Time for a change. Enter Shaquille O'Neal. It was D'Antoni and owner Robert Sarver's idea to bring Shaq to Phoenix, so was it too much to expect that D'Antoni would conform the team to his new starting center's abilities? Was it too much to expect that he was a good enough coach to work Shaq into the offense and still have great fast-break possibilities with the other speedy members of the squad?

The jury is now in, and the verdict is that Mike definitely wasn't good enough. In fact, he sucked. He stubbornly refused to do anything except run his fast-paced offense, with Shaq as an afterthought. Let's not even get into the fact that D'Antoni also hard-headedly refused to play more than seven or eight team members regularly, leaving promising rookies to rot in bench oblivion. Let's just talk about how he couldn't work Shaq into the offense without bringing the team's offense to a grinding halt (and an exit from the playoffs in the first round). Now, we know a lot of you will say it was O'Neal's fault, but you're dead wrong, Jethro. Shaq did everything he was paid to do: score and rebound in double figures. Sure, he's lost a step, but he's still arguably the best true center in the game. He definitely added a measure of what the Suns desperately needed: D!

Okay, we're sure you've all heard what happened: GM Steve Kerr and Sarver met with D'Antoni at the end of the embarrassing first-round loss in five games to the ancient Spurs (whom the Suns dominated during the regular season) and practically begged him to stay. Kerr just wanted D'Antoni to stress defense a wee bit more (he even suggested hiring a defensive specialist as an assistant coach) and to go a little deeper on the bench. You know, develop some younger players, because guys like Steve Nash, Shaq and Grant Hill ain't going to be around forever. Hello! Not that much to ask of a coach who had failed to deliver, who had had just completed his worst season as a head coach here.

But you know what? The mule-headed West Virginian just couldn't cotton to anybody suggesting a few obviously needed changes — even the guys who paid the fathead his fat salary. So he bolted at first opportunity for the New York Knicks. The New York Freakin' Knicks! The worst team in the NBA, with a roster of the biggest losers in pro sports. Our prediction: The New York media will chew the mustachioed cracker know-it-all a new one — because if he couldn't cut it with the talented Suns roster, he certainly won't with a bunch of overpaid whiners.

Amaré Stoudemire's a specimen: 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, all muscle and tattoos. A puma in short pants. He can jump out of the gym, gimpy knees or not. As far as sheer athleticism, nobody on the Phoenix Suns can touch him. Few in the NBA. Certainly nobody in Phoenix sports. Stoudemire's a guy who came off microfracture surgeries on both knees to return to All-Star caliber. There's no reason that he can't be the NBA's Most Valuable Player, especially now that Shaquille O'Neal's arrival in Phoenix has allowed Amaré to go back to his natural position of power forward, particularly now that the Suns have moved on to a head coach, Terry Porter, who stresses defense.

It will help immensely that Porter and general manager Steve Kerr have hired Bill Cartwright as an assistant coach. Cartwright's specialty will be handling the team's big men, Shaq and Amaré, principally. He will be able to relate to them, too — been there, done that. Amaré's always been capable of thundering dunks and moves under the goal. He even perfected a long-range shot from the top of the key last season. Scoring has never been his problem (he averaged 23 points in 2006-07). Defense has always been his Achilles' heal. Hey, it's not that he hasn't had his moments; he's been adept at a magical steal under the basket that turns into a fast break basket for one of his teammates. He averaged a respectable nine rebounds in the '07-'08 season. It's just that he's lacked grit as a defender.

All that's about to change. His athletic gift is about to bloom into full-fledged NBA dominance. Something Kerr told us last season comes to mind: "Amaré truly wants be a great player." So he's always had mind and matter; next season, he'll have the coaches to show him the way.

Diana Taurasi may have the college records and may be considered by hoops experts to be the best WNBA player ever, but she certainly didn't show it in last season's league championship against the Detroit Shock. She wasn't bad, but you know who was great? Cappie Pondexter. Maybe it was because Taurasi was double-teamed, maybe it was because she let her temper get the best of her (read: foul trouble), but Pondexter was the reason the Mercury brought the title to Phoenix. A sparkplug for the team from her guard position all season, Pondexter was so good in the finals that she was named series MVP. In the clinching game, she scored 26 points and added 10 assists.

Pondexter's the first to say she couldn't have done it without Taurasi and forward Penny Taylor, but she's too modest. Her athleticism, demonstrated by her speed and ball-handling skills, put the Mercury over the top against coach Bill Laimbeer's favored Shock. Said former Mercury coach Paul Westhead, who has since split for an assistant coach's job for the Seattle SuperSonics: "Cappie proved surely in the playoffs that she was the key player for us." At 5-foot-9 (one of the smallest players in the league), Pondexter's always been a killer. She's been a WNBA all-star during all her seasons as a pro, a scoring leader at Rutgers, an international basketball star with Fenerbahck Istanbul, and a member of the USA women's Gold Medal-winning team in Beijing.

This year, injuries hampered her, and the team didn't make the playoffs. But, our prediction is that she'll be back at full strength next year.

We predicted last year that the 2007 Cardinals would have their best season in modern times (with 8 wins and 8 losses). Damned if we weren't on the money! And we said this success would be inspired by new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, he of Pittsburgh Steelers grit and grime as offensive coordinator of that team's championship in Super Bowl XL. Now, Whisenhunt is a shrewd operator. He used sleight of hand (trick plays) and an aged quarterback to have a respectable first season with the Cards, but do it he did! Thing is, except for incredibly bad luck (sometimes you think the team is, indeed, jinxed), the Cards would have been 10-6; Whisenhunt's boys in red and white lost to lowly San Francisco twice.

The reason the new coach had to use dinosaur QB Kurt Warner was that star-of-the future Matt Leinart suffered a broken collarbone in the fifth game of the season. But Warner played admirably (and he's played admirably in the early-going this season). This year, our prediction's that the wily Whisenhunt — with the help of a stellar defense he's put together — will take the team to that 10-6 season and a playoff berth.

Disappointed? Yeah, we know all you long-suffering fans want the team to not just get in (but win!) the Super Bowl, but who're we kidding?! The former X's & O's whiz for the Steel Curtain, no-bullshit and turf smart though he certainly is, can work only a minor miracle for this team. After all, they're the Cardinals, and there's good evidence that they're, indeed, jinxed, all the way back back to the time when they were the Pottsville Cards in 1925 and grasped tightly to a championship that wasn't won on the field ("Here's Why the Cardinals have Sucked Forever," Robert Nelson, January 11). Their dismalness over the years got the superstitious fans among us conjuring up the Pottsville Curse bugaboo. Though not up there with the Curse of the Bambino (Boston Red Sox) or the Curse of the Billy Goat (Chicago Cubs), the P-Ville Curse certainly would explain why our Red Birds have often resembled Dead Birds.

Female coaches, along with women's sports, so often get overlooked, even by us. And we're supposed to be an "alternative" publication. Not this year, baby: We're giving our Best College Coach nod to the incredible Charli Turner Thorne, the winningest coach in Arizona State University history. Yeah, you heard that right, in freakin' Sun Devil history, with a record of 225-145! In addition to that, she's fourth in the Pac-10 in most career wins. That all means that Turner Thorne has taken the team to the NCAA tournament six times. The 22-11 record for 2007-08 was the fourth consecutive 20-win season for Turner Thorne's squads. And if that weren't enough, she led the team to a school-record 31 victories, 16 Pac-10 wins, an Elite 8 berth and a ranking of 10th in the Associated Press national poll a year earlier. Turner Thorne is known worldwide for her round-ball prowess; she was assistant coach of USA Basketball's U21 World Championship team that won the gold medal in Moscow last year. With accomplishments like these, which bring in top recruits, we predict that it won't be long until the Stanford graduate and former Northern Arizona coach brings a national championship to Tempe.

Not long ago, the question was, would the ASU women's fast-pitch team ever beat archrival Arizona in a regular-season game, much less win the conference championship and, gasp, the 2008 NCAA College World Series? After all, it was the Wildcats who were two-time defending national champs going into this year's Division I playoffs in Oklahoma City. Even after ASU had swept Arizona in its three-game season series this season, most fast-pitch pundits still viewed the Sun Devils as pretenders to the crown worn so often by their hated opponents to the south. But come next season, ASU will be the defenders, not the pretenders, after sweeping through the field (which included Arizona) and winning the whole enchilada, thanks in large part to the remarkable, five-win pitching performance of senior southpaw Katie Burkhart. Head coach Clint Myers deserves huge kudos for taking a program that famously underachieved again and again under his predecessor and climbing with his young charges to the very top of the women's fast-pitch ladder.

Best Reason to Believe the Suns Are Still a Contender

Suns GM Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr has long been one of the best minds in basketball, even if he did sign ancient center Shaquille O'Neal to a run-and-gun team last year. We thought that was a bad move from the start, but we realize that the Suns were never going to win a championship with the small-ball Shawn Marion squad. And, frankly, Marion was an overrated pain in the ass. Good riddance!

Kerr knows that one thing the charismatic Shaq will do is put fannies in the seats at U.S. Airways Center. But we digress . . . Kerr's putting together what may be the best Suns team in a long time. He's added crucial elements, like a big man, in Robin Lopez, who can come off the bench to spell both O'Neal and Amaré Stoudemire. Did we mention that Lopez, out of Stanford, is a defensive specialist? And Kerr's added a point guard of the future, Goran Dragic. The 6-foot-4 Slovenian, the second-best point guard in the '08 NBA draft, will actually be able to replace Nash some day. Kerr also grabbed swingman Matt Barnes from the Golden State Warriors.

These are major moves, along with the hiring of coach Terry Porter, who will stress D — unlike his predecessor, whose system was a flashy failure. We want a championship, dammit, before a couple of Suns become AARP members! Last year, with the aforementioned stubborn Mike D'Antoni around, Kerr couldn't shine. But his off-season moves will make the Suns, with aging stars like Nash and Shaq, shine again. We smell a championship trophy — or is that Amaré's jock strap?

The great hopes for the Diamondbacks this year have been a couple of pitchers: Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, the team's All-Stars in 2008. After winning the 2006 Cy Young Award with a 16-8 record and 3.20 ERA in 33 starts, Webb has gone on to be arguably the best pitcher in the National League. At press time, he had a 21-7 record (the NL's first 20-game winner, he started the season with nine wins in a row).

Haren, acquired from the Oakland A's last December, had a 15-8 record at press time, and in the 2007 season with the A's, he was one of the top 10 pitchers in the American League — winning 15 games, striking out 192 and sporting an ERA of 3.07.

The two pitchers provide the best one-two punch of any pitching staff in baseball. In the All-Star game, they combined for three scoreless innings. Webb might have started if he hadn't pitched a tough game a few days before and needed the rest. In the 2007 All-Star Game, Haren did start for the American League (because of his incredible performance in the first half of the season) and led it to a win. The Diamondbacks offense, despite occasional spurts, has continued to be a disappointment this season (and not just because of injuries to key players like left fielder Eric Byrnes), but the team's best two pitchers have been stellar.

Best Reason to Believe the Diamondbacks Will Someday Win It All

Manager Bob Melvin

Bob Melvin toiled for eight major-league franchises as a player, including the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the San Francisco Giants, but was never much of an offensive player. A backup catcher during his career, he finished his playing days with a batting average of .233 and 35 home runs. But he has been a hell of a manager in his still-young career. He won 93 games as manager of the Seattle Mariners in 2003 but was let go after the next season, when the team lost 99 games. Shit happens!

He returned to the Diamondbacks, where he'd been bench coach, in 2005 and led the team to the National League West Championship last year, going on to manage the D-Backs to a sweep over the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series, only to see his team swept by the Colorado Rockies in the NLCS. But it was a marvelous journey, one that earned Melvin National League Manager of the Year. The poorest offensive team in the National League would never have gone as far as it did without "The Mad Scientist," which is what broadcaster and former D-Back Mark Grace dubbed Melvin because of his frequent juggling of winning lineups.

He did a whole lot last year with a team of promising youngsters and only one real star, Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Brandon Webb.

This year, he had a few more stars but (at press time) was seemingly less successful. Melvin has a quiet intensity on the field that inspires the confidence of players and fans. We pray (as we always do when in comes to the D-Backs) that the Mad Scientist can connive a way to get us into the World Series — someday. Bob, go back into the lab and conjure up a potion.

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