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!
Phoenix College has dominated the state and national women's junior college fast-pitch softball scene for so long that the other local schools seem to be an afterthought. To put it kindly, the South Mountain C.C. Cougars never had been a factor in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference until this season. Coming out of nowhere, the Cougars upset number-one seed Mesa C.C. to win the regional championship and a coveted berth in the national championships in Normal, Illinois, where they knocked out in the first round. Scrappy utility player Wo-Wo Vasquez, out of Phoenix North High, was one of several keys to the team's surprise success. Led by head coach Kristina Graham Schmallen, the unheralded South Mountain team did themselves and their community proud.
First of all, we don't consider baseball players real athletes. They're in a skill sport that doesn't require a lot of running and jumping. (We said "a lot.") Hitters in the sport are more like golfers than basketball players — hand-to-eye coordination being the mark of excellence. So, Justin Upton is no Steve Nash. But he is the best professional baseball player in town — a superhero in his sport — and he's destined (yeah, we'll predict this) for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. That is, he's becoming among the greats at seeing and hitting a major-league fastball. Upton was an All-Star last season, and he didn't make that cut this year — he's not on pace to repeat the .300 batting average, 26 homers, and 86 runs batted in he racked up in 2009. But the Arizona Diamondbacks have sucked in 2010, and Upton's prone to frustration during a long season on such a bad team. But his stats are still respectable (a .273 average, 17 home runs, and 69 RBI at press time), and he still bats in the best hitter/power-hitter spot in the lineup (third). Once the D-Backs improve — and they will, next season, now that they've gotten rid of their ridiculously incompetent general manager and manager — look for Upton to return to All-Star form and become one of the best hitters in the game. He was promising from the start: When the former Virginia high school star, was called up to the D-Backs in August 2007, he was the youngest player in the majors at 19. In 2008, Upton hit a 484-foot round-tripper that was the second-longest in Chase Field history. Baseball's in his genes: His brother B.J.'s a star for Tampa Bay. Justin's the nucleus of the team, somebody to build around. It's not his fault that this year's D-Backs, well, sucked snake.

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