Best Imagination 2009 | Todd McFarlane | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix

For many comic book artists, it would have been enough to be the guy who breathed new life into Spider-Man. Not Todd McFarlane, a Canadian we're happy to say now calls the Valley home. He didn't rest 'til he'd built an empire — complete with a wildly successful series that spawned an animated TV series, a full-length film, a line of action figures. Along the way he opened a toy store, directed music videos and designed realistic sports action figures for the NBA, MLB, and NHL. As Spawn reaches issue 300, we're delighted to report that McFarlane is back to the drawing board — writing and illustrating the comic himself, just like the old days.

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Long ago, Big Surf meant school was out and the beach — such as it was — was open. We wee Gidgets and mini Moondoggies pulled on our snorkels and grabbed our boogie boards and headed to Tempe to enjoy America's original water park, which was a fake "ocean" with a giant wave machine buried in its big, wet belly.

Today, we take our kids there. Big Surf Tempe is 20 acres of body slides, tube slides, speed slides, water basketball and volleyball, and children's play area. That wave pool is still there, only now it's grown to hold more than 2 million gallons of water on which beachgoers can body surf or just splash straight into its watery depths on one of Big Surf's 15 water slides. Elsewhere, beach bunnies will find several themed areas, one with little-kid water features that won't frighten the younger set, like the Tahitian Twisters, a pair of smaller but still swell slides that scaredy-cat moms will like, too.

At summer's end, Big Surf panicked the masses by announcing it was going out of business. We now hear that's not true; we're crossing our fingers and toes that we'll be able to hang 10 next year.

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Tucked away behind State Route 143, near Sky Harbor airport, Pueblo Grande isn't easy to find — but it sure is worth the search. This half-museum, half-archeological park transports visitors back nearly 1,500 years to the crumbling capital of the ancient Hohokam civilization.

We suggest starting with the 10-minute video introduction to the prehistoric ruins before grabbing one of the museum's giant umbrellas and heading outside. Follow the winding red path to see what remains of the ancient Hohokam village, the mysterious "platform mount," irrigation system, preserved adobe compounds, pithouses, garden, and ball court.

The air-conditioned museum is a welcome respite from the hot sun and offers an overview of what it may have been like to live as a Hohokam in the Salt River Valley centuries ago. Interested in archeology? Here, you can learn some of the basics. Whether you're an ancient-history geek or just looking for a way to spend a hot summer's day, it's definitely worth the $6 entry fee.

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Forget about T.O. (that would be Terrell Owens), Randy Moss, Chad Ochocinco, Steve Smith. Andre Johnson, okay?! Larry Fitzgerald, he of our very own NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals, is the best wide receiver in the professional game today. He's big, he's sure-handed, he's money.

Everybody liked to marvel at aged Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner's renewed prowess last season, and it was something to behold. But, without Fitzgerald, Warner wouldn't have bridged that gap between above-average and good/great. Fitz is a QB's dream: a big, 6-foot-3, sticky-fingered wideout with huge leaping ability who rarely misses a pass in his vicinity. And who, when he gets his hands on the pigskin, advances it up the field because he's so freakin' hard to bring down.

Look at his incredible post-season, which wound up with the Cardinals (the Cardinals!) going to the Super Bowl. During the NFC title game, which the Cards won 32-25 over the Philadelphia Eagles, Fitzgerald became the first player in history to catch three touchdown passes in a conference championship game. In the post-season, he set a record with 546 receiving yards, 30 receptions, and seven TD catches. The fact that the Cardinals eventually lost 27-23 to the Steelers in the Super Bowl had nothing to do with Fitzgerald (it was about the defense's inability to hold a lead): He caught two touchdown passes in the game.

During the 16-game regular season, Fitzgerald led all NFL receivers in efficiency. He caught 96 of 154 passes for 1,434 yards and 12 TDs. His longest regular-season catch was good for 78 yards. He edged out the Houston Texans' Johnson who caught 115 out of 170 for 1,575 yards and eight scores.

The dreadlocked former ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings is a bull. After last season's Pro Bowl, in which the former University of Pittsburgh standout caught two TD passes and was named the game's Most Valuable Player, it was discovered that he'd been playing with a broken thumb for more than two months.

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Tourists and locals alike are still ranting and raving about DBG's spectacular exhibition featuring the gigantic glass sculptures of Seattle-based artist Dale Chihuly. Though the exhibit had traveled internationally before it came to the Valley (we had seen it at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis back in May 2006), Chihuly created a number of site-specific installations just for the Desert Botanical Garden. The knockout works competed mightily with a number of pieces installed on the canals of Venice, Italy.

Depending on the time of day or evening, each one of Chihuly's jewel-colored glass tableaux, scattered over the entire acreage of the garden, would take on a different persona. What appeared to be alien desert life forms during the day would turn into entirely different, brilliantly lit creatures at dusk and again after dark. We're just sorry Chihuly's exhibit, which took months to mount, isn't a permanent fixture of DBG, though we're told that the garden may be keeping several pieces permanently.

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Muhammad Ali was the greatest athlete, much less the greatest prizefighter, ever. Beyond legendary. The Scottsdale resident moved to the Valley after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and is seen at a plethora of charity and sporting events around town, including at the NBA All-Star Game at US Airways Center earlier this year.

Ali was the proverbial poet in boxing gloves, thanks to his precise punches, fancy footwork, and claims (until the end of his career) that no opponent could touch his "pretty" face. It was his smooth tongue, as much as his prowess in the ring, that made him famous. Many younger sports fans know him for his star turn in the legendary documentary When We Were Kings, about Ali's famous "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman (long before Foreman got fat and hawked grills). The documentary showed Ali at his pinnacle, when he backed up his infamous braggadocio with in-the-ring perfection. Before the fight, he enlisted the citizens in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to his cause. Locals roamed the streets repeating, "Kill him" (meaning Foreman in the ring) in their native tongue. Biographers believed the Ali-generated hype surrounding the fight got inside the head of the more physically powerful Foreman, and Ali won the bout in the eighth round after knocking Foreman to the floor.

Termed, during his prime, the "most beautiful male athlete" in history, Ali today has been humbled by his disease. He is never shown attempting to speak in public. A shame, since he was a master of the clever putdown in his day. He once said of opponent Joe Frazer: "He's so ugly that he should donate his face to the U.S. Bureau of Wildlife." About another opponent: "I'll beat him so bad he'll need a shoehorn to put his hat on." He was also a master of self-aggrandizement: "I'm not the greatest; I'm the double greatest"; "Not only do I knock 'em out, I pick the round"; "I'm so fast that, last night, I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark." Sometimes he was just plain funny: "My way of joking is to tell the truth. That's the funniest joke in the world." "My toughest fight was with my first wife."

The Valley's own Charles Barkley, the NBA legend-turned-sportscaster, also is a master of the one-liner, but he stole Ali's act.

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Steve Nash is a good guy. And he's all we've got in this basketball-crazy town. He's the only superstar left on the Phoenix Suns.

He's a two-time NBA Most Valuable Player and the anchor of our professional basketball club. Sure, he's getting some miles on him. Point guards probably run 20 miles a game, and Nash is more frenetic than most — darting, weaving, passing, falling back for a long jumper. Putting the team on his back. Whenever there's a timeout, he can be seen flat on the floor, giving that gimpy back a rest from all the team weight he carries. At 35, he's wearing out as a professional athlete (he recently got a rich, two-year extension on his already-lucrative deal, and we'll be surprised if he can play at an elite level for that long).

Fact is, Nash is an internationally known athlete. He's the pride of Canada, practically a Canadian saint. Yeah, we know the Canucks aren't allowed to canonize anybody — not even Wayne Gretzky (who's still the most popular athlete ever in the 51st state). Despite us thinking the Suns should move on from geezers (by NBA standards) like Nash, we still love him. He exudes niceness. He's always out there building stuff in impoverished neighborhoods, posing with cancer patients, handing out Suns memorabilia at schools, giving pointers to kids on playgrounds.

Nash went to China to join Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' 7-foot-6 center, in helping Chinese orphans (Nash's idea, natch). Nash persuaded several NBA superstars to travel to Beijing to play in a charity game (just before training camps started). Nash chartered the plane that flew them there. The game raised $2 million for various Chinese charities.

Lots of NBA players don't like each other; many are thugs. But, thug or not, nobody has a bad thing to say about Saint Steve. All you hear are words like "humanitarian" or "generous" or "caring" or "socially responsible" coming out of their mouths. "A genuine great guy," Shaquille O'Neal said, long before he donned a Suns uniform. (It was when Nash edged Shaq out for MVP.)

There's no doubt that Nash has lost a step or three, but let's talk about superstar stats: In addition to his back-to-back MVPs as a Sun, he's been an All-Star six times, first-team NBA three times, he's ninth all-time in assists, has never missed more than eight games in a season, boasts 90 percent shooting from the free-throw line, 43 percent from three-point range, and more than 50 percent from the field all five years he's been in Phoenix. When you couple his career 15-point-per-game shooting average with his 8-assists-per-game average, he's not only destined for a banner in the rafters of US Airways Center (alongside Charles Barkley and Cotton Fitzsimmons), but a spot in the NBA Hall of Fame as one of the greatest point guards ever (pretty good for a scrawny player from tiny Santa Clara in California).

That he's such a mensch, too, makes us glad he's staying around for a couple more years.

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There have been a few great Arizona Diamondbacks during the team's short existence: pitchers Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Brandon Webb, and Dan Haren; hitter Luis Gonzalez. But "The Kid" may turn out to be the best of them all. That's our prediction, anyway, and a growing number of baseball professionals are also shouting the praises of Justin Upton.

Upton, 21, played in his first All-Star Game this season, and we're sure it won't be his last. He's the best all-around hitter on the team, batting .303 at this writing, with 24 home runs, 27 doubles, and 75 runs batted in. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he's becoming a bona fide power hitter. He was third in the National League in slugging percentage at .536, second among outfielders.

When the former Great Bridge High School shortstop from Chesapeake, Virginia, was called up to the D-Backs as an outfielder on August 2, 2007, he was the youngest player in the majors at 19. Four days later, he almost became the youngest player ever to hit a homer, a triple, a double, and a single in one game. He missed by the single. The next season, on July 6, 2008, Upton hit the second-longest homer (a 484-foot shot) in Chase Field history.

While his hitting has never been suspect, his fielding early on with the Snakes left a lot to be desired. He often botched seemingly easy catches, costing his team runs and games. But the problem was solved this season, with Upton making miraculous catches in right field and nailing runners with his precise throws.

Baseball runs in Upton's family. His brother is Tampa Bay center fielder B.J. Upton. During the 2009 season, Justin and B.J. became the first brothers in MLB history to win player of the month honors in the same year. Justin's National League award came for May when he — after breaking out of a slump that had some sportswriters posturing that he should be sent back to the minors — hit .372 with seven round-trippers and 21 RBI. B.J.'s American League honor came in the next month.

In a game where getting a hit a third of the time almost assures a player entry into the Hall of Fame, Upton is a comer. At his tender age, he's so far been spared major injury. He's already virtually assured himself a career spot as a starter in the majors, and if he continues to prosper, he's the one current D-Backs hitter who can make it to Cooperstown.

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In the 1989 Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, the confused ghost of a 1910s-era baseball player walks around a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield, and asks, "Is this Heaven?" Costner's character, Ray Kinsella, responds, "No, it's Iowa."

Well, walk around Phoenix in mid-March and you may find yourself asking that same question. For baseball fans, March in Phoenix means one thing: spring training. There aren't too many places on the planet where someone can see future Hall of Famers Manny Ramirez, Randy Johnson and Alfonso Soriano take the field . . . on the same day.

Baseball offers its faithful a timeless element of grandeur in the spring ritual, and no place is that more evident than Phoenix. Over 1.5 million fans came to the Valley last year to watch the 14 teams that call Phoenix their springtime home.

From Scottsdale to Goodyear, from Peoria to Chandler, the Valley has nine spring training facilities for teams like the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Cleveland Indians. Given Phoenix's status as a "destination city," almost nobody in Phoenix is actually from Phoenix; spring training offers many Valley residents a chance to see their hometown teams in their new hometown.

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