"Now that's extreme!" a young Camelback Mountain hiker shouted to his buddies as he watched us free-solo climb up a cliff. Now, we don't free-solo — which means rock-climbing without the aid of ropes or a partner — to hear such accolades. But it made us feel damned cool, even though the cliff we were on wasn't really extreme, by the standards of experienced rock climbers. We're not experts (never climbed El Capitan or spent the night on a "porta-ledge"), but we've attained a skill level that allows us to free-solo comfortably on some climbing routes. The cliff at Camelback that psyched the onlooker is one such route. It's the north-facing corner near the top of the first saddle on the Echo Canyon trail. The cliff is just one way to the top of the Headwall climbing area, which includes the popular Rappel Gully route (see "Best Place to Learn Rappeling") a few yards south. While many climbers rope up for this section, we've seen just as many "free" it, as we typically do. Needless to say, this kind of activity can be dangerous — even death-defying. But it's also liberating and focuses your mind like nothing else. Just watch out for loose rock and remember the number-one rule of free-soloing: It's all up to you.
Phoenix Rock Gym
Why have we belonged to the Phoenix Rock Gym for the past 18 years, you ask? It's not just the walls, which are about 30 feet high and covered in fun, gripable, plastic climbing holds. We don't go just for the world-class bouldering rooms and respectable lead-climbing room, either. Nor for the awesome employees, personable customers (most, anyway), and Cheers-like (sans alcohol) ambiance. Of course, it's for all those reasons. The PRG — which was the first climbing gym to open in the Valley — also plays host to a couple of climbing competitions each year. Usually, we leave those to wiry young folks who don't even remember that the Great Outdoors was the only way to climb in the Valley before 1992.
Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center
Housed inside a modern facility that includes a full-service fitness center and a small high school (Jess Schwartz Jewish Community High School) are two regulation hardwood courts that get as much use as any others in the Valley. An open-door policy allows hoop junkies to get out of the blistering sun and off the hard-on-the-knees concrete into an air-conditioned, well-lit gym where the ball can be (but isn't always) fierce and the level really high. Even the various adult teams in organized leagues that take over a few nights a week usually will find a place for a wayward player looking for a place to show his or her game (and there are a handful of hers on hand who can handle the rock with the best of them). Our prediction: You may never want to play in a city park again.
Chaparral Park
It's Saturday morning and the weather is finally cooling down. Swimsuit season may be waning, but a weekly game of pickup basketball may let that six-pack stick around for a few more weeks. Chaparral Park is on 100 acres, has a 10-acre lake and a free-form public swimming pool. The well-lit basketball courts near the community center are open from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. The courts are sometimes multi-use, but we're sure if you toss in a couple lines from Love & Basketball, the other players will know it's your turf.
Kiwanis Recreation Center
Summer in the Valley of the Sun — to put it mildly — sucks to high hell. Almost all outdoor activities must be done at night if you want to avoid being miserable, and tennis is no exception. Luckily, the courts at Kiwanis Park in Tempe have lights, which stay on until 10 p.m. Of course, even summer nights here are hot, so you'll probably still work up a sweat. That's no problem if you're playing at Kiwanis, because the tennis courts are located right next to a community pool.
Kiwanis Recreation Center
We give extra props to this outdoor facility because of everything around it — tennis and volleyball courts and shaded picnic areas. But it's all about taking some hacks, working out the kinks (no small task), and getting some rips in before facing the real deal, whether it's a guy throwing gas in a baseball or fast-pitch game, or someone lofting a yellow ball toward the plate in a slow-pitch game. We prefer the quick stuff: the ball getting on you in a jiffy and that good old hand-eye coordination having to kick in, or else. Good challenge here, as the machines generally throw strikes (a good thing) and the friendly employees are quick to remedy things when they don't. When you're done for the day, you can sit under a tree in the park and mull over how you're going to rake like Ichiro Suzuki as someone tries to throw it by you at the next city league game.
Goodyear Ballpark
Goodyear's sparkling $108 million ballpark may not have the glitz of the other new-in-2008 Cactus League ballpark, Glendale's Camelback Ranch, but it's really grown on us. While the Glendale stadium, which has similarly modern brushed-steel styling, hosts two of the Cactus League's most prominent teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, Goodyear's park pairs smaller-market teams with a more natural affiliation: the two Ohio franchises, the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds. The spirit of cross-state cooperation, along with tons of family-friendly amenities, including a Wiffleball field, to entertain the children, give Goodyear's park a more homey, lived-in feel than other increasingly sterile stadiums. Buckeye State natives no doubt get off on hearing the state's official rock song, "Hang On Sloopy," played between innings and playfully teasing each other about their equally woeful NFL franchises, but there's a little something for everybody at this park. Even for West Valley folks, it's a haul to get there, but the folksy atmosphere is well worth it. Dare we say it's a throwback to the Cactus League's fondly remembered good old days?
We are suckers for a sharpshooter, and senior guard Corey Hawkins more than lured us into the fold. The dude's range is remarkable, and he frees himself for open jump shots by driving the lane with abandon. Corey simply was the best boy's basketball player in Arizona last season, and set an all-time Arizona scoring record for his four-year career, topping current NBA pro Mike Bibby's previous mark (set at Phoenix Shadow Mountain). Like Bibby, Corey is the son of an NBA great, Hersey Hawkins, who served as an assistant coach at Goodyear Estrella before taking a gig last season as director of player development with the Portland Trail Blazers. He sure developed his son as a very good one, as ASU fans will learn in the upcoming season when Corey dons a Sun Devils uniform as an incoming freshman.
You lose your best player and team nucleus to the first round of the NBA Draft. Then, your four-year starter and team leader gets picked early in the second round. Left behind is a crew of unproven underclassmen. Season over before it begins? Not when Herb Sendek coaches your squad. After the NBA scooped up James Harden (the number-three overall pick in the 2009 draft) and Jeff Pendergraph, preseason prognosticators pegged the 2009-10 Sun Devils to finish at or near the bottom of the Pacific 10 conference. Instead, Sendek led ASU to within a game of the conference crown, a close-but-no-cigar run at the NCAA tournament, and another win over rival UofA. Sendek's job well done was so amazing that he won this year's Pac-10 Coach of the Year.
Everything was topsy-turvy when the ASU Sun Devils baseball team took the field in January for its first regular season game. School honchos unceremoniously had dumped the team's longtime, highly successful coach, the fascinating (we do miss the guy!) Pat Murphy, and asked longtime assistant Tim Esmay to stop the bleeding on an interim basis. We know Coach Esmay, who is blessed with a calm temperament and a terrific squad of sluggers and scrappers who broke hard from the starting gate and never stopped until they were knocked out of the NCAA baseball tournament in the first round. The Devils were ranked as one of the best college teams in the nation for much of the season and struck fear in the hearts of every team they played. Congrats!

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