Best Sports Media Move 2018 | Dan Bickley | Fun & Games | Phoenix

Chicago native Dan Bickley once had a press-row seat for Michael Jordan's career with the NBA Bulls. These days, Bickley is the closest thing Phoenix has to a sports media superstar, at one time flourishing in print, online, on TV, and on radio. He even has his own rock band. So when he announced his decision to leave his columnist job at the Arizona Republic to go full-time at Arizona Sports 98.7, it seemed natural that he used a basketball analogy. "The industry has become just like the NBA, where the best players don't flourish on talent alone," he wrote about the move. "They understand the importance of joining the right team." The Bickley brand now includes an expanded show with radio partner Vince Marotta from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.weekdays on 98.7 FM. His award-winning column appears exclusively on Whether he will be selling his own line of sneakers remains to be seen.

Okay, maybe we'll stop giving this award. Last year, we named the Cardinals' David Johnson as the best male athlete, and he was injured and out for the season before we even published Best of Phoenix. And now, the same thing has happened this year. The Suns' super shooter Devin Booker was our pick, and he didn't even wait for the season to start before getting hurt. We learned on September 9 that Booker may be out indefinitely because his injured shooting hand may require surgery. We don't know when he'll be back, but his play on the court has proven that the Suns 21-year-old baby-faced assassin is a future superstar in the NBA. He averaged a career-high 24.9 points last season. He won the NBA's three-point shooting title during All-Star Week in February. In 2017, he became the youngest player ever to score 70 points in a game. He was also only the sixth player to score 1,000 points before turning 20. The others were Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Tracy McGrady, and Dwight Howard, superstars all. Only James, Durant, and Carmelo Anthony scored more points before turning 21. Booker also just received a five-year, $158-million contract from the Suns, so they expect him to be around for a long time. However, we promise we won't ever, ever consider him for this honor again. If we do give it out next year, we already have a winner ... the newest star of the dreaded Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James. So what if he has no connection to Phoenix? All the more reason we're fine with him sitting out a season.

We're not even sure why we have this category. The outcome is never in doubt. Diana Taurasi isn't just one of the all-time greats in metro Phoenix, she's one of the greats anywhere. ESPN ranked her as the best women's basketball player ever. She's the WNBA's all-time leading scorer. She has been first team All-WNBA nine times. She's won NCAA championships, a WNBA championship, and Olympic gold medals. She's averaged almost 20 points per regular-season game for the Mercury and 21 in the playoffs. NBA legend Kobe Bryant refers to her as the "White Mamba." But in her 14th season in Phoenix, at age 36, she's been more like another superstar, LeBron James, playing her best at a time when she should be considering retirement. Apparently, that's not in her thought process: She's signed a contract with the Phoenix Mercury through the 2020 season.

We're going to trust Deandre Ayton's denial of receiving a $100,000 recruitment bonus from the University of Arizona. He seems like an honorable young man. And even if he did get the cash, the product of Phoenix's Hillcrest Prep Academy earned every penny of it with his performance on the basketball court during his one season with the Wildcats. The 7-foot freshman averaged 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds, and almost two blocked shots per game. He also shot 61.2 percent from the field as he earned first-team All-America and Pac-12 Player of the Year honors in 2018. Of course, we foreshadowed all this last year by naming him the Best Teenage Athlete Destined to Become a Millionaire. Ayton was then selected by the Phoenix Suns with their first-ever No. 1 pick in the NBA. When that happened, he said, "I saw the reaction on my mom's face and it was just priceless." Well, actually, it was worth at least $8 million, his first-year salary, plus as much as a couple of hundred million for his shoe deal with Puma.

These days, the Diamondbacks present outfielder David Peralta as something of a fashion icon. Before the season, they featured him in a series of GQ-like photos. He was also the model for the team's Hawaiian shirt giveaway for Father's Day. He even has his own T-shirt line, The Freight Train. But seven years ago, the only new clothes he could afford were emblazoned with the Golden Arches. In 2011, he had been out of baseball for almost two years after two shoulder surgeries ended his career as a left-handed pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Undaunted, he was determined to reinvent himself as a hitter and outfielder. He had a tryout with an independent league team in Texas, but he lived in Florida and couldn't afford the trip. He took a job working double shifts at McDonald's to finance his journey, and the rest is one of baseball's great Cinderella stories. He made the Diamondbacks as a reserve in 2014, batted over .300 the next season, and in 2018 the 31-year-old is having a breakout season, among the team leaders in home runs, RBI, hits, batting average, and OPS. Along the way, he became a husband and a father — he and his wife, Jordan, have a 1-year-old daughter, Sofia, which means he'll soon be ordering Happy Meals for his little girl instead of serving them.

Never mind that Sports Illustrated quoted FBI wiretaps of a phone conversation between University of Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller and an agent discussing a $100,000 payment to top recruit Deandre Ayton. Never mind that a UA assistant already had been fired after he was charged by the feds with bribery and fraud. And never mind that another star player was suspended for using drugs. Miller kept his job by blaming the messenger. "I'm outraged by the media statements that have been made and the acceptance by many that these statements were true," Miller said in a fiery press conference in late February. (Sports Illustrated stood by its story, FYI.) But if Miller felt vindicated, maybe the basketball gods thought otherwise. The heavily favored Wildcats lost their first game in the NCAA tournament, 89-68, to the University of Buffalo, a 13 seed. And just minutes after the stunning defeat, Ayton, who denied receiving the payment, announced he was leaving UA for the NBA, where he will make $100,000 for each game of his rookie season. Guess karma's not a bitch for everyone.

The Valley is rife with new sports coaches, a sure sign that our teams haven't been playing very well. Arizona State University basketball coach Bobby Hurley is the dean of the major-sports coaches after completing just his third (and first winning) season with the Sun Devils. Torey Lovullo is in his second season as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Rick Tocchet just finished his first season as head coach of the Arizona Coyotes with a last-place finish in the NHL's Western Conference. The Cardinals have just gotten started for their new head coach, Steve Wilks, and the Suns are about three weeks away from their debut under Igor Kokoskov. ASU, meanwhile, shocked the college football world by upsetting Michigan State University in new head football coach Herm Edwards' second game. Edwards was hired right off the set of ESPN after not having coached a college game in some 25 years. We have to give him this award not only for the Sun Devils' hot start, but for winning the battle of the press conferences. He dazzled the media in his introductory presser with quotes like this: "I'm on the train. And I'm gonna ride it. I will ride this train until it stops. It's not gonna stop ... If you wanna board on a little bit later, we got a seat for you. Might not be comfortable, but you'll have a seat." Well, punch our tickets.

After watching 170 defeats over the past three seasons, including 61 this past year, Phoenix Suns fans were finally cheering inside Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix — twice, in fact. In May, thousands of fans filled the arena to watch the team win the lottery for the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft for the first time in franchise history. Then on June 21, they packed the place again, this time to watch the actual draft. They erupted when the Suns selected sort of a hometown kid, 7-foot Deandre Ayton, a Jamaican who played high school ball at the Hillcrest Prep Academy in Phoenix, then took his talents to Tucson, where he earned All-America honors in his one season at the University of Arizona. It was reminiscent of the scene in Cleveland in 2003 when the Cavaliers selected a local kid with their No. 1 pick: LeBron James. Certainly, selecting Ayton made Suns fans happy. "Amazing, I think it'll be a game changer," season-ticket holder Erica Volini told the Arizona Republic. "Line him up with (Devin) Booker and (Josh) Jackson, I think we'll have a pretty good shot of getting into the playoffs."

Let's face it, there is no such thing as a bad spring training experience here — the fact that you're at a Cactus League game means you're off work, you're watching baseball, and you're enjoying the best of Arizona's weather. We've visited all of the Valley's 10 stadiums, and you're always closer to the action and paying less money than at a regular season major league game. We chose Scottsdale Stadium as our favorite for its other assets. There's nothing remarkable about the facility itself, other than the view of Camelback Mountain, the 200 trees that create an oasis of shade, and the garlic fries. In fact, the stadium, built in 1992, is about to undergo a much-needed $50-million modernization. But it's where Scottsdale Stadium is located, in Old Town, that makes the total experience the most enjoyable. It's the only Cactus League facility in an urban setting, within walking distance of Scottsdale's bottomless pitcher of bars, restaurants, and shopping outlets. Parking near the stadium can be a hassle, but the Scottsdale Trolley is always available during the season. So remember, the games inside are just exhibitions. But in Scottsdale, as Anthony Castrovince wrote for Sports on Earth, "the pregame and postgame atmosphere in the nearby bars and restaurants provides a real sense of occasion." We'll drink to that.

Maybe your landlord doesn't allow pets, or your partner is allergic. Maybe you have a cat, but you just want to hang out with a whole bunch at once. Whatever your situation, La Gattara is the spot to find temporary feline companionship. The brightly colored hangout is stocked with what you need to be comfortable — think shag rugs and beanbag chairs — plus a host of sweet kitties. You can wait for them to come to you, or you can introduce yourself to one. La Gattara also holds events like cat yoga, cat-themed paint nights, and other fun happenings. And if you really make a connection with one cat in particular, we've got good news: All the cats at La Gattara are adoptable, so feel free to turn a one-time meeting into a lasting relationship.

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