D-Backs' title leads top 10 stories of decade - East Valley Tribune: Sports

D-Backs' title leads top 10 stories of decade

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Posted: Saturday, December 26, 2009 7:30 pm | Updated: 1:27 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Scott Bordow: It's safe to say that Arizona never had a decade in sports like the one that's about to end. Championships were won, legends left the game and the death of a hero broke our hearts. The Valley grew up as a sports market, and we were swept along for the ride.

It's safe to say that Arizona never had a decade in sports like the one that's about to end.

Championships were won, legends left the game and the death of a hero broke our hearts. The Valley grew up as a sports market, and we were swept along for the ride.

We celebrated and we cried.

We made jokes about our NFL franchise then wore red to show them how much we cared.

We had Wayne Gretzky and Shaquille O'Neal, Emmitt Smith and Randy Johnson. Not to mention a certain point guard who brought glory back to our first-born pro team.

It was such a wild, unpredictable journey that picking the top 10 stories was an impossible task. There were at least 20, if not 30, seismic moments that snapped us to attention.

Feel free to quarrel with our list. But we can all agree on one thing:

If the next 10 years are as dramatic as the past 10, what a decade it will be.

1. Diamondbacks win World Series.

The critics called it a checkbook championship, but Diamondbacks fans didn't care about the cost on that misty November night in 2001 when Luis Gonzalez's bloop single dropped onto the outfield grass just beyond shortstop and Jay Bell raced home with the winning run of Game 7.

The most dramatic of finishes - a ninth-inning rally off the best closer ever, Mariano Rivera - brought the Valley its first major pro sports championship, ended the New York Yankees' dynasty and gave owner Jerry Colangelo what he craved most: a championship ring.

The series was played against the backdrop of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the images and sounds are still vivid today: Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful," the tattered flag from the World Trade Center hanging over center field at Yankee Stadium, the stealth bomber flying over Bank One Ballpark.

It was everything that's good about sport.

2. Cardinals play in the Super Bowl.

How many lonely, hot afternoons did fans spend at Sun Devil Stadium, certain this day would never come?

The Cardinals in the Super Bowl? That's a good one.

But the organization that couldn't do anything right for the better part of 20 years finally got it right. It hired a terrific coach in Ken Whisenhunt, who changed the culture in the locker room. It signed Kurt Warner and put the ball in his hands. It drafted players like Larry Fitzgerald and Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby and let them grow together.

The road to Tampa wasn't smooth. Blowout losses to Minnesota, New England and Philadelphia dimmed even the brightest of spirits - analyst Cris Collinsworth called Arizona the worst team in playoff history - but there the Cardinals were on Feb. 1, in Tampa, Fla., in the Super Bowl.

The game didn't turn out the way they wanted, but what an incredible ride they took us on.

3. Pat Tillman's death.

Technically, Tillman's death from friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, wasn't a sports story. But no event resonated more with Valley sports fans than the loss of their hero.

Tillman, the former Arizona State linebacker and Cardinals safety, embodied the best of all of us. Affected deeply by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he gave up a lucrative NFL career to join the Army Rangers.

His sacrifice - and death - touched the heart of the nation. Nowhere was his loss felt more deeply than his hometown of San Jose, Calif., and his adopted home - the Valley. Tears drenched the desert for weeks.

There's a statue of Tillman outside University of Phoenix Stadium, his long hair flying high. That's the man we remember, the free spirit so full of life.

4. Jerry Colangelo says goodbye.

In April 2004, Colangelo sold the Phoenix Suns to Robert Sarver for $401 million in part because he wanted to keep family members from having to pay high estate taxes upon his death. Four months later he was forced out by the Diamondbacks' ownership group over a dispute about how the club should be run.

Josh Byrnes took his place, and the D-Backs changed their colors from purple to Sedona Red.

Just like that, the godfather of Phoenix sports was no longer running his empire.

5. The rise of the Suns.

Start with an innovative coach unafraid to challenge NBA norms. Give him the perfect point guard to run his system. Surround that point guard with 3-point shooters and a young, dynamic big man with incredible energy and athleticism.

Mix it all together and you get "Seven Seconds or Less," the Suns of Mike D'Antoni, Steve Nash and Amaré Stoudemire.

Phoenix never did win a title - Tim Duncan always seemed to be standing in the way - but it revolutionized the NBA and recharged the batteries of Suns fans.

6. Cardinals get new stadium.

It looked like a spaceship - or a giant Jiffy Pop - but the opening of University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006 transformed the Cardinals franchise.

The Bidwills promised they would spend more money and be more successful once the revenues from the building started pouring in. They've lived up to that promise, as evidenced by their Super Bowl appearance and two consecutive NFC West titles.

For fans, the air conditioning, wide concourses, abundant restrooms and modern amenities were a welcome relief from the stifling Sundays at Sun Devil Stadium.

7. Coyotes' bankruptcy saga.

The tug-of-war between Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman held the franchise hostage for the better part of six months. As questions lingered about the future viability of the organization, employees left in droves, sponsors bailed and fans figured they had better things to do with their money than spend it on a hockey team that might leave town after the season.

Meanwhile, Redfield T. Baum became a household name.

As the year ended, Ice Edge Holdings had a letter of intent to buy the club and keep it in Glendale, but the deal was far from complete.

The irony, of course, is that the Coyotes complained about not getting enough media coverage for years. They finally got it, but for all the wrong reasons.

8. Lute Olson era comes to an end.

In a perfect world, Olson would have left the University of Arizona basketball program with his head held high and the Wildcats in great shape for the future.

Unfortunately, legends rarely go out the easy way - see Bobby Bowden - and Olson's departure in October 2008 was muddied by talk about his health, his private life and whether he had put his personal interests ahead of that of the basketball team's.

But if the ending was regrettable, his 24 seasons in Tucson certainly weren't. He resurrected a dead program, led Arizona to four Final Fours and the national championship in 1997. He walked away with a career record of 589-187.

Tucson will never have it so good again.

9. Breakup of Suns.

It began with the suspensions of Amaré Stoudemire and Boris Diaw in the 2007 playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs. Once the Suns lost that series, the organization was on tilt. Shawn Marion was traded for Shaquille O'Neal in a desperate gambit to win a title, general manager Steve Kerr and Mike D'Antoni had philosophical differences, and D'Antoni eventually left to coach the New York Knicks.

Suns fans are forever left to wonder what might have been. If Robert Horry doesn't hip-check Steve Nash, prompting Diaw and Stoudemire to leave the bench and get suspended, do the Suns beat the Spurs and go on to win the NBA title?

And if so, is D'Antoni still here, a championship ring once and for all silencing his critics?

It's too painful to think about.

10. The highs and lows of ASU baseball.

After hearing for years that he was no Bobby Winkles or Jim Brock, Pat Murphy finally won over the Sun Devil fan base by taking ASU to the College World Series in 2005, 2007 and 2009.

But on Nov. 20 of this year Murphy resigned under pressure as the NCAA notified ASU of alleged improprieties in the baseball program.

It was a chaotic, shocking end to Murphy's reign, and while there's little question the program will recover - it is ASU baseball after all - it just won't be the same without the colorful coach whom Baseball America once called "Black Hat Pat."

Honorable mention (in no particular order)

1. The Phoenix Mercury win two titles: What the Suns couldn't do, the Mercury did - run-and-gun their way to two WNBA championships.

2. Dirk Koetter fired-Dennis Erickson hired: Koetter wasn't beating the big boys, so athletic director Lisa Love brought in Erickson and his two national championship rings. So far, Erickson has made Koetter look good.

3. Rick Tocchet gambling scandal: The Coyotes assistant coach pleaded guilty to running a sports gambling ring that included bets waged by Wayne Gretzky's wife, actress Janet Jones Gretzky.

4. Monday Night Meltdown: The Cardinals' 24-23 loss to the Chicago Bears in October 2006 prompted Dennis Green's now infamous tirade: "You want to crown them, go ahead and crown their ... . But they are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook."

5. Gonzo: How a journeyman outfielder became the face of the Diamondbacks was one of the unlikeliest stories of the decade. But Luis Gonzalez won over fans' hearts with his play and his smile.

6. Sam Keller-Rudy Carpenter controversy: In a span of 48 hours, ASU coach Dirk Koetter named Keller the starter then changed his mind and went with Carpenter. The flip-flop harmed his reputation and created internal strife throughout the program.

7. ASU hoops revival: Lisa Love made a brilliant hire in Herb Sendek, who then went out and convinced top high school prospect James Harden to sign with ASU. Bingo: The Sun Devils mattered again.

8. Randy Johnson's perfect game: On the night of May 18, 2004, the 40-year-old Johnson didn't allow a single Atlanta Braves hitter to reach base. He struck out 13 batters and ended the night with a 98 mph fastball that blew by pinch hitter Eddie Perez.

9. Wayne Gretzky in a suit: The greatest player of all time didn't have the same success as a coach. He surrounded himself with friends and yes men, and in four years his record with the Coyotes was 143-161-24.

10. Cactus League explosion: To think, it wasn't that long ago that Arizona officials were worried about losing teams to Florida or Las Vegas. Now, the Valley is theplace for spring training, thanks to the building boom of new ballparks.

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