Grant Hill is a specimen. But here's how he became one. He's been in the NBA since 1994, and he hasn't played that much. As they say, he's got young legs — until he got to the Suns. He spent six years with the Detroit Pistons and seven with the Orlando Magic before getting here, and he was injured a lot: ankle injuries, a life-threatening staph infection, a sports hernia. When he was with the Magic, he played only a third of the time. Two years ago, we gave Hill our lofty Best Sports Gimp award, but we have to eat, um, a little sweat sock now that Hill has been so, well, durable over the past couple of seasons. Iron-man durable. The third-oldest starter in the NBA last year had logged 128 straight games until a heal injury sidelined him for a measly game last January. Part of the reason is that run-and-gun poobah Mike D'Antoni is long gone as coach. Our argument in 2008 was that the hard-headed D'Antoni, who insisted on playing starters nearly whole games, had worn out Grant, who was injured at the end of D'Antoni's last season here, thus giving the Suns nothing in the playoffs. Coach Alvin Gentry has developed something D'Antoni never had: a stellar bench. Thus, Hill isn't needed as much. He starts but is spelled by the younger and brawnier Jared Dudley, among others. Thus, the team gets his slashing offense, glove-like defense, and floor-general ability (along with Steve Nash, with whom he's co-captain, Hill has the coolest head on the court and is an admirable playmaker in his own right. He was point-forward back in his Pistons days). The young Suns team — Robin Lopez, Earl Clark, Dudley, and a couple of new front-court acquisitions added in the off-season, notably — need the soon-to-be 38-year-old's wizened hand.
Gary Bender is simply the gold standard of sports broadcasting in Phoenix. You're in good hands with him. He's traditionally upbeat (after all, sports is entertainment), but he isn't afraid to call out players and coaches when they've messed up. You may be saying that giving Bender, 69, the nod ain't saying much, considering the competition of play-by-play guys like the Arizona Diamondbacks' fawning Daron Sutton. But Bender would shine in any market. Indeed, he has. He started his career broadcasting University of Kansas basketball and football games. He worked for CBS Sports doing National Football League broadcasts, alongside the likes of John Madden, for 11 years in the 1970s and '80s; he spent two years in the late '80s as a play-by-play baseball broadcaster for ABC, and worked NFL games for TNT, beside Pat Haden, from '92-94. In his autobiography, Call of the Game, Bender cites Reggie Jackson's huge ego in describing run-ins he had with the baseball great in the broadcast booth: "Reggie demanded things he hadn't earned the right to demand. He wanted more attention. He insisted we adjust our way of doing things for him." Last year, Gary took a break from his regular gig on Fox Sports Arizona to broadcast a TNT game with Reggie Miller. Let's hope Reggie and Charles Barkley don't persuade the national network to steal him away. We're lucky to have a pro behind the mic in this desert of bush-league talent.
Eddie Johnson drives us nuts. He spends way too much time bragging about his exploits in the NBA, where he played for a bevy of teams, including the Suns, the Houston Rockets, and the Kansas City-turned-Sacramento Kings. He was what commentators like himself nowadays call "well-traveled." Not that Johnson was any slouch in his prime. Though he never made an All-Star team, he did score 45 points once in a game against the Clippers in 1988 and was Sixth Man of the Year as a bench player for Phoenix in 1989. But when he compares himself with some of the greats of the game today, we have to wince.Before he became a Suns assistant coach, Dan Majerle used to share color-commenting for Suns games with Johnson, and Majerle, who also had a high on-air opinion of himself, came across as retiring. Eddie, you're a well-preserved former player (at 51, an NBA elder statesman) whom today's players obviously like, but . . Stop ragging on sometimes broadcast play-by-play partner Tom Leander as a wimp who never played serious basketball. Of course he didn't — Leander's no bigger than a pygmy. You'd never pull that with your other broadcast cohort, Gary Bender. The old guy'd probably pop you one. Stop talking about yourself. Dude, you've been out of the game for a decade-plus. Nobody cares. Also stop using "rhythm" so freakin' much! Granted, "rhythm" is something basketball players need to turn in great performances, but, Eddie, you can barely speak during broadcasts without using the word. This guy's lost his rhythm, that guy's got great rhythm, the other guy needs to find some rhythm, basketball's a game of rhythm. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Stop it, before we go crazy!
When it comes to pro sports in this town, these gals wear the capes. First of all, the best woman's basketball player in the game today, Diana Taurasi, plays for the Phoenix Mercury. Among her many accolades, Taurasi's a three-time WNBA All-Star, a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, 2004 WNBA Rookie of the Year, her league's scoring leader in both average (25.3 a game) and points in a season (860), and a number-one draft pick out of Connecticut. And by the time the six-year pro is done with her career, she'll probably be the WNBA's best ever. But the unstoppable Taurasi isn't responsible for the Mercury's success alone. There've been Cappie Pondexter, who now plays for the New York Liberty; Penny Taylor; and Tangela Smith. The Mercury are, by far, the most successful (when it comes to winning it all) sports franchise in the Valley. Sure, the Suns have been to the NBA Finals, the Cardinals have been to the Super Bowl, and the Diamondbacks have won the World Series, but the Mercury have won two (two!) WNBA Championships. Two: in 2007 against the Detroit Shock, under legendary coach Paul Westhead, and in 2009 against the Indiana Fever, under coach Corey Gaines. This is not to mention the team's three Western Conference Championships in their 13-year history. They're not destined to go all the way this summer season, but they've still won two out of four trophies in the last four years. Okay, you're probably saying that the champions mean nothing because the WNBA's just a bunch of tall girls. Say it again, and Tenacious D will kick your ass.
What's the point of Dennis Erickson? When he was hired to replace embattled coach Dirk Koetter back in 2007, eyebrows raised. But not nearly enough among alumni hungry for a head coach who could bring Arizona State University the consistent gridiron glory it longed for. As we pointed out in a cover story back then, the veteran coach brought baggage, including a dozen scholarship players getting arrested at the University of Miami, where he'd been coach in the 1990s. Miami's sins became so bad that Sports Illustrated published a feature in '96 with the cover headline "Why the University of Miami Should Drop Football." He was with the NFL Seattle Seahawks by the time the NCAA stripped 34 scholarships from Miami's football program and placed the school on three years' probation, which meant it was banned from bowl-game participation during the period. The thuggery of players while Erickson was at Miami was particularly troubling since dismissed ASU coach Koetter had coddled a thug of his own, Loren Wade, whose erratic behavior escalated until he killed a former player in an argument over a girl in a nightclub parking lot (he's now serving time in Arizona). But none of this mattered to a majority of alums, who only cared about Erickson's two national championships at Miami. Okay, now ratchet forward three years and ask yourself: Was Erickson — after two losing seasons in a row at ASU (the first such sorry succession in six decades at the school) and little hope of posting a winning season this fall — a good hire? Clearly, Athletic Director Lisa Love must be kicking herself over this boneheaded blunder. Hmm, maybe Erickson didn't bring in enough sociopaths this time around.
No one, and we mean no one, invigorated the long-moribund professional football franchise known as the Arizona Cardinals more than Kurt Warner, a future Hall of Fame quarterback with a penchant for connecting on long bombs and suffering too many concussions in the process. We watched as Warner, seemingly on his way out of the league a few years ago and on board to serve as a bench mentor to then-anointed QB-of-the-future Matt Leinart, ascended to the starting role and led the Cards to the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The dude with the big-time gun was one of the best we've ever seen at downfield throwing, and with just a little flick of his wrist. But we also saw old Kurt (37 years and counting) take shot after shot from those hulks of monstrous defensemen known as middle linebackers. How many times can one guy's brains get rammed into the turf before he turns into, say, Muhammad Ali? Time to call it a day, and for real. We strongly suspect that Kurt's wife, the ubiquitous mother of seven, Brenda, will make sure that he doesn't pull a Brett Favre and come out of retirement to play "just one more year."
USA Martial Arts
Thanks to Hit Girl, the pint-size heroine of Kick-Ass, we've figured out that anyone can be a superhero given the right training. Founded by sixth-degree Black Belt and former Army Special Forces operative John Nottingham, USA Martial Arts doesn't wimp out by teaching just karate or aikido. The school's intense program combines tae kwon do, Filipino stick fighting, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, and other self-defense techniques to aid you in your endless struggle against evil (or your growing gut). If you're worried you won't be able to keep up, rest assured USA has starter classes for those who "just couldn't find the time to exercise," so even if you're a couch potato, you'll be kicking ass like Hit Girl in no time.
Fighter Combat International
Remember that old chestnut about how "if man were meant to fly, he'd be born with wings"? Try telling that to the human psyche, which seems to subconsciously craves to defy Isaac Newton's theory and break the surly bonds of gravity (as evidenced by all those freaky-deaky flying dreams you had as kid). Since commercial air travel is hardly fun anymore (unless you're pimp enough to ride first class), we suggest spending some serious scrilla in exchange for an afternoon aerial adventure at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. If the savings account is swank enough, the flight instructors of Fighter Combat International can help you kiss the sky in style while in the cockpit of pint-size Extra 300L plane. For the cost of about $485 for the basic experience, willing Wright Brothers wanna-bes are subjected to a half-hour of barrel rolls, hammerheads, and other aeronautical acrobatics. Prices get steeper from there, depending on flight length or whether you'd like to handle the controls. (Packages featuring Top Gun-like mock dogfights with simulated weapons are also available, albeit at costs ranging from $755 to $3,815.) While flight suit rentals are included, airsickness bags are optional. And sadly, Wonder Woman, your plane will not be invisible.
Trapeze U
Every kid wants to join the circus, whether he dreams of taming lions or flying on the trapeze. Unfortunately, most kids, like us, never had the balls or the skills to run off with Barnum & Bailey. But those childhood dreams aren't lost at Trapeze U, where performer and "adventure enthusiast" Dylan Phillips will literally teach you how to fly. The university is set up like a school, with pretty lenient admissions — if you're in decent health and at least 4 years old, there's a good chance you're in. For $65, you can learn the basics in a Trapeze 101 class that offers several opportunities to play toss and catch. Trapeze U also offers two-for-one Family Fun Nights and a seven-week intensive course for $350, which culminates in a circus-style show. Afterwards, all you have to do is wait for the Big Top to roll into town and try to hitch a ride.

See: a video interview with Luis Gonzalez.

Sports superstars in Phoenix have a nasty habit of choking in big-game opportunities. Not so with Luis Gonzalez.

With one extraordinarily timed swing of his baseball bat during the 2001 World Series, the Arizona Diamondbacks slugger reinforced his hero status to thousands of locals — myself included — by doing what Charles Barkley or Kurt Warner never could: He brought a major-league championship to the Valley.

And I got to witness this historic occasion firsthand after dropping $400 on eBay for a nosebleed seat inside what was then Bank One Ballpark.

Gonzo's triumph was one of the most thrilling moments of my life and the stuff of baseball lore: game seven, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, score tied — against the dreaded New York Yankees. On the mound was the Bronx Bomber's notorious Mariano Rivera, one of the deadliest closers in baseball.

Few players have scored against Mighty Mariano, especially during a Fall Classic. But when Gonzo swung for the fences on that fateful evening, he transformed a cut fastball into a game-winning bloop single. It shattered his bat and obliterated decades of Phoenicians' frustration with athletic also-rans who just couldn't grab hold of the brass ring.

Gonzalez overcame such insurmountable odds for most of his career. Before donning a D-Backs uniform in 1999, he spent nearly a decade shuffling among three MLB teams (Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros) as an ignominious utility player.

After moving to Phoenix, however, he became a sports legend, home run machine, and the most beloved player in team history. Fans like me loved his countless crowd-pleasing swats as well as his affable nature, sense of humor, charity work, and family-man image.

Gonzalez has always been approachable. He never seems to refuse giving an autograph or handshake to fans, whether he's in public with his wife and triplets or by himself at a pro wrestling event (like me, he's a longtime follower of World Wrestling Entertainment).

Despite having ended his baseball career in 2009 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he's still popular in the Valley. A sellout crowd (a rarity these days) packed Chase Field last month to watch Gonzo become the first Diamondbacks player to have his number retired. And many fans are hoping he can turn around the team's fortunes in his current front-office job as special assistant to team president Derrick Hall.

Ever the humble one, however, Gonzo tends to shirk his heroic status.

"I don't really consider myself any different than anybody else," he says. — Benjamin Leatherman

New Times clubs editor Benjamin Leatherman, who has suffered through decades of losing seasons by Valley sports teams, interviewed Luis Gonzalez on September 3 at Chase Field in Phoenix.

I live in Phoenix because I love the hot weather.

When I was a kid, I wanted to guide the airplanes in with the orange sticks, actually.

While I'm driving, I enjoy listening to the radio.

Phoenix could use more air-conditioning, more shade.

Phoenix could use less of those intersection radar light things.

Umpires are nice guys at times.

Right before I got the game-winning hit in the World Series, I thought, "Oh, my god, don't screw this up."

The one athlete (alive or dead) that I would have liked to meet would be Roberto Clemente.

The best thing about being a hero to people is when they finally get to meet you, they realize you're just a normal guy.

Right before I go to bed, I always put a bottle of water and a bottle of Gatorade by the bed.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of