Not so long ago, a ticket to a Sun Devils b-ball game had all the value of Confederate currency circa 1866. But those were the dark days when the Devils were the perennial lapdogs of Lute Olson's Arizona Wildcats. The worm began to turn in 2006, when the hopeless Rob Evans was replaced by Herb Sendek, late of the North Carolina State Wolfpack and the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference. Sendek was the ACC Coach of the Year in 2004, which is kind of like saying that, for one shining season, he was the best college basketball coach on the planet. By all rights, he should have pocketed the equivalent Pac-10 hardware for 2007-'08, when he took the new-look Devils to a 21-13 record, a berth in the National Invitational Tournament, and two — two! — wins against UofA. Suh-weet. The '08-'09 squad may yet net him the award — and, much more important — a berth in the NCAA tournament, because Sendek's two top players, phenom guard James Harden and team anchor Jeff Pendergraph, rejected early entry into the NBA to return for one more campaign. As for you, dear bandwagon-jumper, you're the beneficiary of the Devils' many moons of mediocrity. Wells Fargo Arena single-game tickets start at about the cost of a Starbucks Mocha Valencia. Behind-the-bench courtside? They can be had for as little as $20. You just have to try a little harder to get 'em than you used to.

Best Spectator-Sports Smokin' Deal, Women's Division

Phoenix Mercury

Ours is a basketball town, and our WNBA franchise is the first pro-basketball team in Valley history to bring home a world championship. Ponder that for a sec. The Phoenix Suns have been scratching and clawing for 40 years, but a gang of burly chicks that's barely a decade old steals their thunder.

That's gotta sting for Steve Nash, the Big Cactus, and crew, what with their still-throbbing pride from that first-round playoffs ouster last April. For the rest of us, not so much. We here in Phoenix just like a winner. We don't care who it is, or what they do. If there's a "W" in there somewhere, we're all for it. Makes our chest swell up real nice.

It's even nicer when we can wallow in victory at a nice price, and the Mercury have always offered a square deal. Pro team, check. Led by a superstar who transcends the limited appeal of her sport (Diana Taurasi), check. Ten bucks for a decent view at one of last summer's Mercury games. Check.

Ten bucks? Hell, that's what a beer with a decent buzz costs at a Suns game.

Best Place to Spot Spring Training Players Off the Field

Don & Charlie's Steakhouse

Don & Charlie's
Courtesy of Don & Charlie's

Hoping to see some spring training major-leaguers off the field? Best odds are to hunker down between the Giants' stadium in Old Town Scottsdale and the Oakland A's' stadium near Papago. With only four miles between the two stadiums, the concentrated area of high-end restaurants and shopping in this quadrant is prime hunting area. Fans in this zone are nearly bound to run into a major-league hitter, his wife, or even his manager.

Among the hottest stakeouts is Don & Charlie's Steakhouse. It's old news that Cubs manger Dusty Baker and ESPN voice Rick Sutcliffe are practically fixtures at Don & Charlie's, which sits just minutes from the Giants' stadium in Scottsdale. Other likely places to spot a major-leaguer include the P.F. Chang's across from Scottsdale Fashion Square and in Fashion Square itself.

Those seeking autographs can drive over to the Oakland A's' Papago Park complex, where fans can position themselves to rub shoulders with MLB players walking from the clubhouse to the field.

The Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix
Courtesy of Bistro 24

If you're tired of seeing the Suns lose, but you still want to see an NBA star in person, we've got just the place for you. We have it on insider knowledge that most visiting NBA teams and some NFL teams stay at one and only one hotel in Phoenix — the Ritz-Carlton at Camelback and 24th Street.

We've seen Phil Jackson in the bar, and we hear this is where Kobe Bryant gets his breakfast in bed when visiting Phoenix. Shaquille O'Neal may have even enjoyed the spa treatments here (before moving to Phoenix himself).

A single room can cost $1,200 a night at the Ritz, but you need not be an overnight guest to buy a drink at the bar or eat brunch in the restaurant — both of which are on the first floor. So next time you're bored and you know a visiting NBA or NFL team is in town, head to the Ritz. You might just bump into somebody famous.

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.

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