Not a lot of competition for this category. After bottoming out in 2019, the Suns completely turned things around this year, reaching the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2010 and the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. There was so much to love about this team — Chris Paul's fadeaways, Jae Crowder's rugged defense, Devin Booker's general offensive brilliance — but arguably our favorite thing about the Suns this year was the effect the team had on the city. We loved seeing a vendor beneath a tent on a busy Indian School Road intersection hawking cheap Suns merch. We loved the hustle and bustle outside the arena downtown (even if we couldn't afford a ticket inside). We loved making Suns chit-chat while we waited in line at the cleaners, or with the Uber driver. Winning, it seems, makes everything better. Including Phoenix.
We gave this award to Book last year, too. Back then, inside the NBA bubble (remember that?), the Suns shooting guard's superstar status was still incubating. His performance in the 2020-21 season was on a whole other level, though — it would feel wrong to call anybody else the Best Male Athlete, given the majestic basketball Booker played on the way to leading the Suns to their first NBA Finals in 28 years. Yes, the addition of Chris Paul was essential to the Suns' playoff run, and players like Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder, and Mikal Bridges made huge contributions. But Booker was who you came to watch night after night after night. He put up 47 points in the game that knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs. He dropped 34 to complete the sweep of the Nuggets. In Game Four against the Bucks, he scored 42 points, including 18 in the third quarter alone. (He didn't miss a single shot from the floor during that quarter, either.) Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to win that game, or the series. But Booker's only 24 years old, and his contract has him in Phoenix a few more years. He'll be back, and we can't wait.
She's best known to some as the beautiful basketball player that snubbed rapper Drake for a kiss at the 2014 ESPY Awards, but there's a lot more to Phoenix Mercury point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith than just her good looks. Since being chosen by the Tulsa Shock as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft, the former Notre Dame standout has averaged 16 points per game over the course of her career. In her first season with Phoenix in 2020, she averaged 17 points, four assists, and three rebounds per game. She's setting records here in 2021, becoming the fastest player in WNBA history to reach 3,000 career points, 1,000 assists, and 200 steals. Diggins-Smith also engages in community service in the Valley, promoting benefits for the Arizona Humane Society and participating in racial equality campaigns.
Much like marijuana, legalized sports gambling in this country seems inevitable; there's simply too much money to be made. Arizona wised up this year and passed, through the legislature, a bill that opens the state up to sportsbooks, taxing retail bets at 8 percent and online bets at 10 percent. (And for those looking to acquire a license, the cost is nearly $1 million for initial licensing fees.) Governor Doug Ducey signed it into law in April, and betting got underway in August, just in time for football season. Who knows? Maybe some of the projected $15 million in additional annual tax revenue might actually find its way to Arizonans who need it, in the form of social services or education funding. We're not betting on it, though.
In July, sports-media supervillain Dave Portnoy posted a video online in which he sat atop a unicorn statue on the campus of the University of Arizona and announced that the company he founded, Barstool Sports, had not only secured the naming rights for the Arizona Bowl but also would be broadcasting the 2021 college bowl game through its app, website, and social media channels. Given Barstool's profile — the site is often criticized for its misogynistic worldview — it was only a matter of time before controversy erupted. It did. The Pima County Board of Supervisors yanked $40K in funding for the bowl game, citing Portnoy's past toxic comments. "This is not who Pima County is," said Supervisor Sharon Bronson. Barring a larger financial or political blow, though, the Barstool Bowl will take place as planned on December 31. Portnoy has promised an entire week of local festivities leading up to the event. We're not endorsing any of it. But we know a good story when we see one. We'll be watching.
Madison Bumgarner threw a seven-inning no-hitter in Atlanta against the Braves on April 25, bringing the D-backs to an even 11-11 record. At that point, it seemed, the season could go in any direction. It went in a bad direction. In fact, it would be 62 days before the D-backs won another game on the road. The team lost 24 straight road games in all, breaking a record that dated back to 1963 before finally snapping the losing streak in San Diego on June 27. As we write this, the D-backs are tied for the worst record in Major League Baseball. But since Best of Phoenix is meant to be a celebration, we'll note that the team with the worst record gets the top pick in the following year's draft. Here's hoping we can pluck a Bumgarner out of the 2022 class.
The rivalry between Arizona State University and the University of Arizona is one of the oldest in college sports, dating back to 1899. Over the years, the schools have engaged in all kinds of rivalrous chicanery, such as painting the A on Sentinel Peak Sun Devil gold or the A on Tempe Butte in Wildcat blue and red. (There was even, many decades ago, a kidnapping.) This year, the Sun Devil Source community put some money together and purchased a billboard along Interstate 10 as a reminder of the absolute thrashing ASU gave the U of A in its December matchup. "NO PITY FOR THE KITTY," the maroon-and-gold billboard shouted, bracketed by "70-7," the final score of that game. ASU fans called the billboard payback for when U of A put up billboards around Phoenix trumpeting the hire of head coach Kevin Sumlin in 2018. That honeymoon didn't last too long, though: The day after that 70-7 loss, Sumlin was fired by U of A.
When the character Annie sang about the sun coming out tomorrow in the classic musical, she imagined better days coming. This year, people imagined a better life beyond the pandemic, which made it nearly impossible to gather for shared creative experiences like crafting. Turns out, the sun never stopped shining at Sunshine Craft Co, because the craft boutique gave people so many options for keeping that maker impulse going. The shop offered in-person and online classes, but also sold kits so people would have the materials and instructions they needed to make fabulous items at home. Founder Amy Guerrero was right on trend, offering classes in macrame wall hangings while every home design show was putting the offbeat wall art front and center. People could make things just for fun, or work on projects that would actually enhance their living or work spaces. With numerous projects suited to beginners, the shop offers everyone a way to bring a bit of therapeutic crafting into their lives during a time when so many need it. With Sunshine Craft Co, the sun never stopped coming out.
Local artist Rachel Bess has a passion for pinball, spooky things, and tiki bar culture, and at Electric Bat, her arcade next to Tempe's Yucca Tap Room, all three interests intertwine to create a place that oozes more cool than other joystick joints. Inside, the lighting is kept low and the rotating selection of 29 pinball machines (including old favorites and new releases) are kept in top shape by Bess and her husband, Cale Hernandez. Classics like Magic Sword and a few Japanese import games are also available for play, while one corner hosts the tiki-themed "Electric Bar" with cocktails inspired by horror films. Pinball wizards who win the monthly high score contest can get their names etched on a tally board, and players who accumulate the most points each year are awarded a championship belt. Those who aren't Tommy-esque silver ball savants can still score, as the token machine occasionally dispenses "free beer" coins. It's one of the many reasons we'll keep coming back to roost at Electric Bat.
After La Gattara left its Tempe location last year, the popular cat lounge landed on its feet at a new space in downtown Phoenix this past spring with three times as much room for kitties and the humans who love them. Also new: a coffee bar stocked by Scottsdale's Passport Coffee and Tea, a boutique room, and an outdoor patio and parking lot. The real reason to visit La Gattara, though, is for its playroom and crew of resident felines. Colorfully decorated by Hauspanther artist Kate Benjamin and furnished with bean bag chairs and other comfortable seating, it's where some 40 adoptable rescue cats frolic and interact with patrons in search of pets, warm laps, and maybe even a new owner. Right now, La Gattara is only open for First Fridays and special pop-up events while it resolves permit issues with the city of Phoenix over having cats living there full time. Co-owners Missy Pruitt and Carrie Seay expect to resume normal hours later this fall, so it won't be long until you can spend quality time making some new feline friends.