Best Sports Ambassador for Arizona 2012 | Charles Barkley | Sports & Recreation | Phoenix

We've got a lot of crazy right-wingers in Arizona. You know who you are, Joe Arpaio, Russell Pearce, Jan Brewer, Jon Kyl, Ben Quayle. In the sports world, George W. Bush-loving hurler Curt Schilling used to pitch for the Arizona Diamondbacks. So it's refreshing to have a wanna-be politician (he once said he planned to run for governor of his home state of Alabama) and former big-time athlete in our midst who voted for Barack Obama. To boot, this guy appears on national sports broadcasts (he's a regular on TNT) and extols Arizona as a great place to live. Which it is, except for the aforementioned Tea Party-smooching yahoos who are, in all but one case, still representing us in government.

Valley resident Charles Barkley, while once proclaiming that he wasn't a "role model," has turned into one. The basketball hall-of-famer who came closer than anybody to bringing the Suns an NBA championship always has spoken his mind. And though he loves Arizona, he motor-mouths his disdain for Arpaio and Senate Bill 1070 when he can. He proves to outsiders that not everybody who chooses to live here is a cracker-ass moron. We hope he keeps telling it like it is and that he decides to run for office in his adopted home state someday. But before all you racist Teabaggers start fuming that he's not fit for politics because he once was stopped for drunk driving, remember that Governor Jan also got popped by the cops after having quite a few belts. Do us a favor, Sir Charles, and come to our rescue politically in a few years. Former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura got elected Minnesota governor not that long ago, and you come across as smarter and more reasonable than that that douchebag.

Professional sports championships are a rare commodity in Arizona. So much so that we not only tend to go batty whenever a team gets achingly close to grasping that elusive brass ring (read: the Phoenix Coyotes' unlikely playoff run this year) but also cherish the squads who succeed and bring home a world title trophy, like the Diamondbacks' titanic upset of the dreaded New York Yankees 11 years ago. This extends to the local fringe sports teams, who also have a special place in our hearts, even if their title-winning efforts are largely ignored. For instance, the Arizona Rampage — the Valley's semi-pro dodgeball squad — won the National Dodgeball League's open-division world championships in 2010 but never got a tickertape parade down Central Avenue. And by all rights, they should've, considering how they staged a real-life version of the 2004 comedy film Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and defeated teams from around the globe to earn the title. Winning without recognition is just one of many pitfalls of competing in a semi-pro league, as is the fact that they need car washes and other fundraisers to help pay their way to tournaments. And although the Rampage came up short defending their title at last year's world championships, team captain Bill Fair promises a return to glory in 2012. Even if most local sports fans couldn't care less, we'll still cheer them on.

We loved the 2012 Summer Olympics — mainly because we found out about so many incredible athletes in our midst. Athletes who compete in off-the-radar sports like women's weightlifting. We're talking here about Mesa's Sarah Robles, who's not going to ring up the endorsement deals of beautiful gymnast Gabby Douglas but who's distinctively the strongest woman in America. Robles was featured on an Olympic broadcast as the other kind of Olympian — the kind who labors in obscurity and had to scrounge up the money to make it to London.

She admits that at 5-10 and 270 pounds, she lacks the body type to be a media cutie-pie. Still, she strains to be the best at what she does — which has come at a sacrifice. She said on the broadcast that she was living on less than $400 a month during the months preceding the Olympics. Robles' distinction as America's strongest human without a Y chromosome came because of her three national championships in women's weightlifting. She was one of two U.S. ladies to compete in the London Olympics. She finished seventh in the her weight class (Chjna's Zhou Lulu won gold). How much poundage can this gal lift? Well, the sport is scored with two lifts, the "snatch" and the heavier "clean and jerk." Robles' personal-best total, which she achieved at the latest U.S. Olympic trials, was 569 pounds. Wow!

It's hard to imagine a woman officiating the behemoths in the National Football League. But it was hard to believe that a woman would ever officiate the freakishly tall lurches in the National Basketball Association. That was before Violet Palmer started acquitting herself well as an NBA referee in 1997. Now comes Tempe's Shannon Eastin, who's admitted she's nervous about her new role in the previously all-male world of NFL referees, but who's at the same time excited about the challenge. She got her chance as a replacement official employed by the league while a labor dispute festered with regular refs. Point being, nobody knows how long her gig will last, but like Palmer before her, she has lots of experience. Eastin's been calling BS on football players' antics for 16 years as an official, a lot of that time at the college level in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Palmer has taken her share of abuse from sports talking heads, some calling her the worst ref in NBA history with scant evidence to back that up except that the team in whatever town lost on a controversial call. And, of course, that she's not a guy. In Eastin's case, she's barely gotten started and already she's been declared a joke and a scab. Hang in there, Shannon — you're tough, and you're a pioneer.

Diana Taurasi is the best basketball player here. Forget about anybody currently on the Phoenix Suns roster; the Phoenix Mercury's Taurasi has surpassed everybody currently playing hoops in this city. We'll also forget about Taurasi's two WNBA titles, that she led the league in scoring in 2011 for the fourth-straight season, and her three national championships as a University of Connecticut Husky.

This past summer, she led the U.S. Women's Basketball Team to the gold medal in London's Summer Olympics. It was Taurasi's third basketball gold in as many Olympics, and the fifth gold in a row for U.S. women. Considered the greatest women's basketball player in history, the six-foot Taurasi was the heart and soul of the U.S. women's team in London. Her teammates described her as an inspirational leader with exceptional abilities. To take the gold, the U.S. women won by 36 points against previously undefeated France, and Taurasi's smothering defense was a major reason. She had nine points and six assists in the final. In Olympic play, Taurasi is second overall in free-throw percentage and fifth in three-pointers. Taurasi scored 22 in a U.S. rout of China in London. It was her tenacious play and infectious will to dominate that made the U.S. team great. Will the 30-year-old Taurasi do it again in four years? Yes, she vows to lead U.S. women basketballers in the next Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Have you seen that thing?! It's getting so large that in post-game interviews, we expect TNT's Craig Sager to ask James Harden what the key to the game was — and then ask his beard. He started sporting facial hair that would've made the most hirsute Al-Qaeda thug jealous while still at Arizona State University.

Now that Harden's a star with the Oklahoma City Thunder, we're surprised opposing teams don't scream that the shooting guard's out-of-control facial shrubbery constitutes an unfair advantage — it is a virtual sixth man on the court. Imagine what it must be like for opponents to be blinded by that wild, black thicket as they go in for layup — literally tasting hairy defeat. This isn't a joke: His beard has its own Twitter account and Facebook page. Okay, there's something more manly about Harden than his beard — his game. He scored 40 points against our Suns last April. (Thanks a lot, homie!) The former Sun Devil was NBA sixth man of the year in 2012, a member of this summer's Olympic basketball team in London, and a major reason that the Thunder made it to the NBA finals. They didn't win; his Olympic teammate LeBron James and the Miami Heat did. OKC faithful blame Metta World Peace (formerly Ron Artest) and "The Beard" for losing to the Heat. The Lakers' zany forward smacked Harden, concussing him. Harden recovered and played well afterward, but fans complain that his beard never never regained its past glory.

Okay, we're sick and tired of hearing what a nice guy Steve Nash is! Yeah, he's in the twilight of his brilliant NBA career and, yeah, he wanted to go to a potential championship team, and the Phoenix Suns sure ain't gonna be that in our lifetime. But, Steve, the Los Angeles Lakers! The Lakers of Kobe Bryant and Metta World Peace (the nutjob formerly known as Ron Artest), the Lakers that have been a thorn in the Suns' side since for as long as we can remember, the Yankees of professional basketball! Look, we could've understood your going back to your Canuck homeland — why not the Toronto Raptors, where we never would hear about you again? Well, you'd be on TV twice a year playing the Suns, but we wouldn't watch. Or what about your summertime home of New York City, also in the Eastern Conference. We'd only possibly have to look at your mop-head twice a season there, too.

You did provide some excitement in your years here, Steve. You gave us hope. But, despite your two league MVPs, you never brought home the Canadian bacon. They say you did all you could, that it wasn't your fault — it was penny-pinching owner Robert Sarver's and his giant, foam hand. Maybe, but you are dead to us! We hope you suffer a career-ending groin injury in a collision with "Superman" Dwight Howard (proving that the rich get richer, the Lakers have managed to grab him, too). Steve, get oooout of town, ya hoser!

Mike Smith's a big, lanky guy for a goalie — 6-feet-4, 220. The Canadian's wingspan makes him hard to score on, and this was a major reason the Phoenix Coyotes made it to the NHL's Western Conference finals last season. Many believe Smith was the main reason, Coach Dave Tippett and forward Shane Doan aside. Because of his 2.21 "goals-against" average and his .930 save percentage last season, he should have been a shoo-in to win the Vezina Trophy for best goalie, but he wasn't even nominated. This is reminiscent of the longstanding bias against this desert franchise; NHL general managers decide this honor. The Valley repeatedly is derided as the blazing Siberia of NHL hockey. Which means that nobody takes Phoenix that seriously, even in a Pacific Division-title year. Another reason Smith wasn't taken seriously, despite his phenomenal season, was that he came out of nowhere. The season before, he was warming the bench as a backup for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But goalies often appear out of the mist at about Smith's age, 30. It takes them a long time to learn their craft. What Mike must do now is have a second star-studded year so that he moves to the top of the goalie pack.

We feel sorry for Larry Fitzgerald — which is hard. Fitzgerald is considered the best wide receiver in the National Football League, he's been a pro for eight seasons, and already he ranks fourth all-time in receiving yards per game; he's been selected for the Pro Bowl six times, and he signed an eight-year, $120 million contract extension in 2011. No, it's not because he continues to wear dreadlocks (maybe they're hair extensions) after cooler celebrities have abandoned them as passé. It's because, since the famed Kurt Warner retired, Fitzgerald has been left to run around on the football field with nobody at quarterback who can consistently throw him the pigskin.

As great as he is, without a good quarterback, Fitzgerald can't get 'er done. Not that he's been any slouch, even with the Arizona Cardinals' signal-caller struggles. He had his second-best pro season last year with 1,411 yards (and eight touchdown catches). Imagine what he could've accomplished even with Chandler's aged Donovan McNabb (now retired) throwing to him. His number of receptions, though, were down to a five-year low of 80 last season (from 90 to 100 in the Warner years), which is testament to the QB stench. That is, Fitzgerald made the most of what he could get. Anybody still wondering why we feel sorry for the NFL's greatest receiver?

John Skelton is the best quarterback in Phoenix. Which, granted, ain't saying much. Problem being that the Arizona Cardinals have to put somebody under center, and there's no reason to believe — based on this preseason, his limited performance with Arizona last season, or even his time with the Philadelphia Eagles — that much-touted Kevin Kolb can power the team. The Cardinals must start John Skelton, who would be a great backup behind somebody like, um, Peyton Manning, who spurned Arizona for the Denver Broncos because he's always loved some guy named John Elway, who runs the Denver franchise.

Too bad Skelton got hurt in the Cardinals' season opener in early September against the Seahawks. Sigh. If the Cardinals didn't have bad luck, well, you know . . . And the quarterback situation is just more bad luck for the team — for which things were looking up for a minute when Coach Ken Whisenhunt came here from Pittsburgh, Kurt Warner was still at quarterback, and the Birds made it to the Super Bowl. Not anymore: With neither Kolb nor Skelton seemingly able to hang on to the starting QB position, we've got a lesser-of-two-doofuses situation. And Whisenhunt must face that, no matter what goes on in the first few games of the regular season, Skelton is less doofy. With him calling signals last season, the Cards were 5-2. With Kolb at the helm, 2-6. On the downside, Skelton threw 14 interceptions, and his largest margin of victory was six points. Touchdown passes? He had a respectable 11. Can he develop into a consistently good pro quarterback? No. Will he be better at keeping the team from sucking than the oft-injured Kolb? Yes. Truth is, the Cards have what could be a great team, a contender, but when your weakest position is QB, you're fucked in the NFL.

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