It's hot here right now," says Jerry Colangelo, president and CEO
of the Phoenix Suns. "Phoenix is very hot."
When a man who lives in a city that roasts in 90-degree daytime
heat for half of the year--not to mention a man who runs a team
named the Suns--says it's hot, you listen. Phoenix is hot, as in
Over the last five years the Phoenix metropolitan area has
gained 330,000 residents, pushing its population to 2.4 million.
Urban sprawl? Land in Phoenix is being developed at the rate of
an acre an hour. And what the movers and shakers in the sports
world see is a fan base that is growing like crabgrass.
In a one-year span culminating this Sunday with Super Bowl XXX,
the Valley of the Sun will have welcomed, in chronological
order: the NBA All-Star Game, a major league baseball franchise
(the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks), the NBA Western Conference
semifinals, an NHL team (the soon-to-be-relocated Winnipeg
Jets), the inaugural World Championship of Golf (which offered a
record $1 million first prize) and college football's
national-championship game (the Fiesta Bowl). Oh, and the
150,000 out-of-state visitors who will have attended the events.
How many of them will return to stay?
January 29, 1996
For the longest time--certainly until 1928, the year air
conditioning made its debut here--Phoenix was considered a
wasteland. As recently as 1970, the population was only 584,000.
"I remember arriving at Sky Harbor Airport as a player in 1974,"
says former Suns coach Paul Westphal. "The baggage claim was
located outside, and the Muzak was a turntable playing Waylon
Jennings." Glen Campbell sang By the Time I Get to Phoenix in
1967, but even he didn't move here until '81.
At least he came. Thousands of others didn't. In a November 1990
referendum, Arizonans voted down a proposal to make Martin
Luther King Jr.'s birthday a statewide holiday, thus branding
themselves as racists in the eyes of many, who took their
vacations, conventions and business elsewhere in protest.
Phoenix wasn't hot then; it was out in the cold. A slew of
college football teams, Mississippi and Virginia among them,
spurned the Fiesta Bowl, which is played in the Phoenix suburb
of Tempe and would have paid $2.5 million to each school.
(Finally, Alabama and Louisville agreed to come.) The following
March the NFL rescinded its invitation to Phoenix to host Super
Bowl XXVII. Three months later baseball's National League
expansion committee rejected a Phoenix group's bid to buy one of
two new franchises, awarding the teams to Colorado and Florida
instead. And the Harlem Globetrotters, basketball's
self-proclaimed ambassadors of goodwill, avoided Arizona.
But a year later, after a new proposal for a King holiday was
voted through, the sports and tourism boom was back on track.
(The Globetrotters even moved their headquarters to the desert.)
What's the expression? Rising like a Phoenix?
Arizona entered the union in 1912, becoming the last state in
the Continental 48. Arizonans take pride in that distinction.
"If you don't say anything else about Arizona," remarks Marshall
Trimble, director of Southwest studies for Maricopa Community
Colleges, "mention how independent and free-spirited its people
This iconoclasm, Trimble says, is personified by former U.S.
senator and Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater,
who is now 87. "Barry Goldwater is Arizona's favorite son," says
Trimble, which makes Goldwater three years older than his
mother. "Remember what he said during the 1964 presidential
campaign? 'Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.'"
Taking its cue from Goldwater, Arizona has gone to all kinds of
extremes. For example, water: The state built the world's
largest fountain, in the Sonoran Desert at Fountain Hills, 20
miles from Phoenix. The fountain spews water 560 feet skyward, a
monument to--what, evaporation?
Laws: It is legal to carry a concealed weapon in Arizona but
illegal to bad-mouth a vegetable. (Growers can sue if their
products are maliciously defamed.)
Even time itself: The Grand Canyon State is one of only two
states that do not observe daylight saving time. As if it needs
to. Summer temperatures in Phoenix routinely dance above 110¬°.
Sky Harbor Airport, now the world's 18th busiest, was forced to
close in June 1990 when temps above 120¬° rendered cockpit
instruments dysfunctional. It was so hot that, as one local put
it, "patio furniture stood on one leg."
Which reminds us: If some cruel quirk of fate puts you in
Phoenix in the summer, try the 10-Second Test. Place two bare
feet on black pavement at 3 p.m., the hottest time of day. Try
keeping them there for 10 seconds. For best results, use someone
Fiscally speaking, the greatest outlaw in Arizona history has to
have been Charles H. Keating Jr. His California-based Lincoln
Savings & Loan Association bilked investors out of $2.6 billion
in the '80s, a crime for which the 72-year-old former NCAA
swimming (butterfly) champ is now serving a 12-year sentence in
federal prison. Keating, who moved to Phoenix from Cincinnati in
1976, also had a sense of humor, albeit a cruel one. At The
Phoenician, a five-star resort he built in the tony suburb of
Scottsdale, the maids who turned down the beds left not only
mints but also booklets titled Stories for Bedtime. These
contained pearls of Keating's acquired wisdom, such as: In
today's uncertain and deceptive world, it's good to be a man of
principal--and to put it in the right bank.
But hey, that was just Charles being Charles.
In Greek mythology the phoenix was a bird that descended onto a
pyre and burned, then rose from the ashes to live again.
Self-destructive, self-renewing. Sort of like sports in Phoenix
over the past decade.
The descent can be traced to 1986, when, on his fifth attempt,
Evan Mecham was elected governor of Arizona. His predecessor,
Bruce Babbitt, had enacted a holiday honoring Martin Luther King
Jr. by executive order. It was hardly a radical gesture,
considering that 47 other states had taken similar action.
Within a week of taking office in January '87, Mecham voided the
It was a harbinger of a governorship in which Mecham would
display all the enlightenment and honesty of a used-car
salesman--which he was. He insulted ethnic groups as if he were
Archie Bunker (sample: "Japanese really like to play golf, and
... when you say we've got over 200 golf courses in Arizona ...
suddenly they've got round eyes"), and his comments often found
their way into the national media, sullying the state's image.
Mecham was both a tyrant and a buffoon, and he was impeached in
'88 for having used state money for his auto dealership and
having hidden a campaign loan of $350,000. Babbitt, normally the
most reserved of politicians, said, "Evan Mecham proves that
Darwin was wrong."
Mecham was gone, but the damage had been done. On Nov. 4, 1990,
two days before Arizonans would vote on the King holiday for the
first time, CBS broke the story that NFL commissioner Paul
Tagliabue would recommend to the league's owners that the 1993
Super Bowl, which had been awarded to Phoenix only six months
earlier, be moved if Arizona did not approve the holiday. "When
I saw that," recalls Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker,
"I thought, Oh, boy, that killed it."
The image of a diamondback rattlesnake, tightly coiled and with
venomous fangs bared, applies here. Polls had shown that a
favorable vote on the holiday proposal was a gimme. As it turned
out, voters in Phoenix and in Tempe, where the Super Bowl would
be played, in Sun Devil Stadium, did vote for the holiday, but
the proposal was defeated statewide. To show how cussedly
independent they can be, Arizonans essentially threw away the
Super Bowl, by a vote of 50.8% to 49.2%.
"It was idiocy not to draft the holiday," says Colorado football
coach Rick Neuheisel, an Arizonan familiar with narrow political
defeats (his dad, Dick, lost the 1972 Tempe mayoral election by
four votes). "A lot of people said no because they felt
challenged: 'O.K., we'll show you what we got.'"
They made their point, but they would have to ratify a second
proposal for a King holiday before Tagliabue would restore
Phoenix to the short list of Super Bowl host cities. Phoenix is
no more racist than other cities, perhaps just a little more
vanilla-flavored. "I had only been in town a month," says
Colangelo, who migrated to the Arizona capital from Chicago,
"and the local Italian-American group named me Italian of the
Year. Tells you how many candidates there were."
"You've got a winner in town." Who said that? Who, that is,
besides former Arizona Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan, who went
12-20 in the two seasons after he uttered those words in 1994?
Well, it seems to have been said by everyone who ever packed up
somewhere else to make Arizona his new home: Wyatt Earp, former
Arizona State football coach Frank Kush, the fictional Alice
Hyatt on the TV show Alice (who warbled, "There's a new girl in
town/And she's feelin' good!"), the Suns' incorrigible Charles
Barkley, the incarcerated Charles Keating....
"I do believe that we all get an opportunity in life," Colangelo
says as he relaxes in his fourth-floor office at palatial
America West Arena. Just outside his window, ticket scalpers in
the nation's first legally zoned area for scalping practice
their craft. "Like a lot of people, I found mine in the desert."
In 1968 Colangelo brought, as he likes to say, "a wife, three
kids and eight suitcases to a city deemed too Western" for an
NBA franchise. He has fashioned an empire in the sand. Besides
running the Suns, he is a minority owner of the NHL team that
will move here next season and a managing partner with the
Diamondbacks, who will begin playing in '98.
Since the 1988-89 campaign the Suns have won at least 53 games
each season, and their 408 victories (as of Jan. 18) are the
most in the NBA for that period. Only two years before beginning
this run the Purple Gang had been riddled by a drug
investigation (five players were indicted, though none was
convicted) and the death of center Nick Vanos in a plane crash.
It was then that Colangelo, the Suns' general manager, bought
the team and purged it of all but two players, guard Jeff
Hornacek and center Alvan Adams.
Today Colangelo, 56, is the most powerful sports personage in
Arizona. He is tailored suits in a state that adopted the bola
tie as its official neckwear. Some in the local media refer to
him privately as J.C. Superstar for the manner in which he
throws his weight around. Many citizens were not thrilled when
Colangelo Jerry-mandered, without voter approval, a .25% county
sales-tax increase to finance a domed baseball stadium and then
sold the rights to the name of the facility to a corporate
sponsor for $2 million a year. Even in Phoenix the name Bank One
Ballpark (the BOB?) is not easy to warm to.
My motto is: Do it my way or watch your butts!
--NATHAN T. ARIZONA, in Raising Arizona
Nathan T. Arizona, the unfinished-furniture king and father of
quintuplets in the 1987 film send-up of the state, boasted that
his furniture chain, Unpainted Arizona, could beat anyone else's
prices "or my name isn't Nathan T. Arizona." Actually his name
was Nathan T. Huffheinz, but as he explained, "Would you buy
furniture from some place called Unpainted Huffheinz?"
A blustery braggart given to disingenuous proclamations--where
have Arizonans seen that before? Buddy Ryan was not Cardinals
owner Bill Bidwill's first mistake, simply the most
conspicuously ill-tempered. After a 1994 game in which the
Cardinals' three-time All-Pro offensive tackle, Luis Sharpe, was
carted off the field with a season-ending knee injury, Ryan was
asked to assess his team's overall health. "Ain't nobody out
that matters," he said.
In '88, when Bidwill moved the team from St. Louis to Phoenix,
Arizonans who had long pined for an NFL franchise were so happy
that they forgave the owner for a then league-high $38 average
ticket price. But they were not so quick to forgive him for the
team's losing records the first six years, and season-ticket
sales declined sharply. That's when Bidwill turned to Ryan, the
Nathan T. Arizona of football coaches.
Ryan's misdeeds as Cardinals general manager and coach are too
many to list here. One example will suffice: Last summer Ryan,
who employed his sons Rex and Rob as assistant coaches, caused a
brow or two to furrow when he signed free-agent tackle Larry
Tharpe for $1 million to replace Sharpe. As a Detroit Lion in
'94 a healthy Tharpe made $162,000 and did not play a down.
"Larry Tharpe is a solid young player," Ryan said, and that
turned out to be true. But Ryan could easily have gotten Tharpe
for half the price. Or perhaps he was outnegotiated by Tharpe's
agent: Rex and Rob's brother, Jim Ryan.
Buddy Ryan was fired on Dec. 26, three days after Tom Osborne
and his Nebraska Cornhuskers arrived for their Fiesta Bowl
showdown with Florida. At long last Phoenix had a winner in town.
Like Barkley and Ryan, Arizona is nothing if not
colorful--canyons embossed in every shade of brown, orange and
red. Arizona is bold blue skies and emerald-green golf courses
and snowcapped peaks. It is Arizona Highways, a monthly magazine
that since its founding in 1925, has relied on the state's
roadside beauty for much of its content. Goldwater, it is worth
noting, took the magazine's first color cover photograph, in 1946.
Long ago the editors of Arizona Highways must have realized that
their beat is nature's freak show. Sixteen national parks and
monuments are found in the state, the headline act being the
277-mile-long Grand Canyon. On Nov. 19 the federal government
shutdown prompted the shutdown of the park, which Arizona's
board of tourism had been touting as the Original Super Bowl.
Governor Fife Symington, flummoxed by the closing of the world's
largest opening, reacted in Goldwateresque fashion: He staged a
Symington flew from Phoenix to the canyon, where he joined a
posse of 76 state employees. "Arizona is about to make its world
debut," Symington said, "and the Grand Canyon is the crown jewel
of our state. There's no reason for it to be closed." National
park rangers dissuaded Symington from storming the park's gates,
but not before CNN's cameras had filmed him grandstanding.
Impressed by Symington's zeal, if not his tactics, the
Department of the Interior made a deal with him: As long as
$17,625 in daily operating expenses was raised (through
individual and corporate donations), the park would remain open.
"And that is why," boasted Symington, who while in college once
actually saved Bill Clinton from drowning off Cape Cod, "the
Grand Canyon was the only national park in the country that
remained open during the government shutdown."
Within a two-hour drive of the canyon's South Rim, tourists can
The Painted Desert, where mineral deposits have left a tableau
of purples, grays and reds on the desolate landscape.
The Petrified Forest--petrified as in oxidized to stone, not
paralyzed by fear.
Monument Valley, which has the sedimentary rock monoliths that
are favorite Hollywood--and Looney Tunes--backdrops. See:
Thelma & Louise, Forrest Gump, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.
Meteor Crater, which 49,000 years ago welcomed the earth's
largest extraterrestrial visitor (2.2 million tons).
Four Corners Monument, the only U.S. confluence of four states:
Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
But the most popular sight is "as close as your own backyard,"
says Neuheisel, the Colorado coach. Just watch the sun go down.
"Dusk is my favorite time of day here," says Kathy Kolbe, a
Phoenix personnel consultant who works with the Suns. "To gaze
at an Arizona sunset is to know you have a soul."
Arizona sunsets. Frank Kush does not look 66. He sits in his
office at the Arizona Boys Ranch, 25 miles southeast of Phoenix,
his glare as steely as ever. From 1958 to '79 he coached the
Arizona State Sun Devils to a 176-54-1 record, including a 12-0
mark and No. 2 national ranking in '75. During that time Kush
was just as well known for hurling expletives and bullying his
players. Each August he would bivouac his team for a week in the
remote Mogollon Rim pine country, 90 miles northeast of Phoenix,
at a place called Camp Tontozona--a word that, loosely translated
from the Spanish, means "land of fools."
"We had to put a barbed-wire fence around the football field,"
recalls Kush, "because cattle would come in and crap all over
the place." Yes, there was a lot of crap to put up with, and
yes, there was a barbed-wire fence, but many a Sun Devil
disputed the source of the former and the reason for the latter.
Said defensive tackle Kit Lathrop years later, "I hated Kush
more than any other man on the planet."
The university finally had to fire Kush in 1979, after Sun
Devils punter Kevin Rutledge alleged that Kush had punched him
during a game at Washington the previous season. Kush's
termination, the administration said, was due primarily to his
attempt to cover up the incident. Observers outside the state
saw the dismissal as another case of a martinet with a whistle
receiving his just due. (Ohio State legend Woody Hayes had been
fired just 10 months earlier for socking an opposing player.)
But there were many Sun Devils players who thought otherwise,
and they demonstrated their loyalty to Kush in a typically
atypical display of Arizona defiance. Instead of waiting to
carry their coach off the field after his final game the players
carried him onto the field before the game.
Kush smiles at the memory and then hands over a brochure from
his current place of employment. Founded in 1949, the Arizona
Boys Ranch is a private, nonprofit home and school for troubled
boys age eight to 18. For the last six years Kush has been the
ranch's executive administrator, a role that requires him to
serve as both the recruiter of and admissions officer for
juvenile offenders. "These kids have committed every crime you
can think of," says Kush, "and have had many crimes perpetrated
on them. We've got rapists, armed robbers, murderers."
In 1994 the Boys Ranch was accredited by the North Central
Association. Besides making the ranch's classes
transcript-worthy, the accreditation opened the gates to
interscholastic competition. And Kush thought, Why not football?
His last in-state coaching job had been in 1986 with the USFL's
Arizona Outlaws, and now he would go back on the gridiron with a
"Ironic, isn't it? But this is my element," says Kush, who was
one of 15 children in a Pennsylvania coal-mining family. "I know
what it's like to be poor. And I got in trouble. The difference
is that unlike these kids, I was raised in a family environment.
I had discipline in my life." Another difference: He knew how to
play football, going on to become a lineman at Michigan State.
"These kids had no concept of a shoulder block or catching a
pass or long-snapping," says Kush, who designs all of the boys'
offensive and defensive sets but has one of his former Sun
Devils players, Richard Gray, serve as head coach. "I remember
one kid asked me how many yards it takes to get a first down!"
Kush is not wanting for money. And his job holds little
prestige. Why does he do it? "I might've ruined some kids in my
early days by pushing too far," he admits. "Then again, I
might've saved a few. That's the key to coaching: teaching
discipline and perseverance, pushing kids beyond what they
believe is their limit."
Last fall, in just its second year of football, the Arizona Boys
Ranch went 9-4 and advanced to the state 3A championship game
before losing to Blue Ridge 41-13. Kush, who three weeks later
would be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, said
before the title game, "This is one of the biggest games of my
Odd things happen in the desert. In 1973, Suns center Neal Walk
had his club-record streak of 273 consecutive starts snapped
when team trainer Joe Proski inadvertently locked him in the
bathroom just before the tip-off. "I searched the bathroom, even
bent down to look under the stalls," says Proski, "but Neal--and
I'm not about to ask a man his size why--had his feet up."
Last year inmates at the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix began
smuggling out prison-issue boxer shorts to be sold. Hard-line
sheriff Joe Arpaio reacted by staging his own boxer rebellion:
He ordered that prisoners be issued only pink underwear, a move
hailed not only by taxpayers but also by Penthouse, which ran
six pages on Arpaio. Naturally the pink shorts became even
hotter contraband--among inmates and taxpayers alike. So just in
time for Christmas, Arpaio started his own little business,
peddling the boxers for $10 apiece (proceeds to be donated to
charity) and showing up at malls to sign underwear--which, unlike
bad-mouthing vegetables, is legal in Arizona.
But then, that was just Joe being Joe.
It was Westphal, the Suns' ex-coach, who coined the phrase
"That's just Charles being Charles" as a way to explain the
antics of Barkley, the All-Star forward who arrived in Phoenix
after a 1992 trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. Now the phrase
is an unofficial state motto, used to excuse everyone from Ryan
to Arpaio to Dan Brennan, a Flagstaff High football player who
last year was suspended from school for a day after eating a
mouse on a $72 bet.
Barkley is another example of an odd fit in Arizona: a
self-proclaimed "'90s nigger" in a so-called racist state. But
just listen: "You know, I never liked fans until I came to
Phoenix," says Sir Charles, who is planning to stay after he
retires, as many former Suns have done. "But our fans are so
giddy about us. Maybe it comes from being in the sunshine all
"Remember the day after we lost the ['93] NBA Finals?" says
Westphal. "Three hundred thousand people stood outside America
West Arena. In June. Three hundred thousand. That's one tenth of
the state's population. I doubt that many people have ever been
outside in Phoenix at that time of year without being in a pool."
The Arizona sun is too formidable to mention only once. The
hottest temperature ever recorded in the state was 128¬°, in Lake
Havasu City on June 29, 1994. On that day a robbery suspect,
obviously unfamiliar with the 10-Second Test, fled barefoot from
Lake Havasu City police and was apprehended when the heat
blisters on his feet became too painful to bear.
"For a place that discovered Pluto [at Flagstaff's Lowell
Observatory in 1930], Arizona has a love affair with mercury,"
says Trimble, the historian. "We say, 'It's a dry heat.' Bull!
It's blazing! But you'd almost rather die than be known as a
In 1978 a member of Kush's staff told the 17-year-old Neuheisel
that he was not good enough to play football at Arizona State.
Neuheisel, who had grown up four miles from Sun Devil Stadium
and quarterbacked McClintock High to a state championship, was
crushed. Kush had been a boyhood idol of his, but instead of
accepting the coach's invitation to walk on at Arizona State,
Neuheisel walked on at UCLA. "I'd have had a better chance of
playing at ASU," says Neuheisel, "but my pride was wounded."
Before Neuheisel's first start as a Bruin, against Georgia his
junior year, the Bulldogs' mascot, UGA IV, vomited on his
cleats. But a year later Neuheisel was MVP of the Rose Bowl,
having tossed four touchdown passes in a 45-9 rout of Illinois
despite some pregame regurgitating of his own (he had food
Like so many other Arizonans, Neuheisel is bright, cussedly
independent and on the lookout for new horizons. "I'm very proud
to have grown up in Arizona," he says. (His family moved there
from Madison, Wis., when he was two.) "I don't know if that's
why I'm so free-spirited--I believe I owe my parents that--but I
do think living in Arizona encourages it."
He did things his way in his first season as Colorado's coach,
last year, and his way was the opposite of Kush's. Neuheisel
took his freshmen tubing down Boulder Creek and stopped practice
to start snowball fights. And every week on his TV show the
coach played the guitar. Three days before Colorado's game with
Kansas State to determine the Big Eight runner-up, Neuheisel
introduced "the new CU fight song," set to the melody of Home on
Home, home on the range,
Where the Colorado Buffaloes play,
We'll run and pass,
We'll blitz your ass,
And send you on your way
Not exactly Hail to the Victors.
"I promised myself when I took this job that I wasn't going to
change who I am," says Neuheisel, whose Buffs finished the '95
season ranked fourth by the AP. "And I haven't."
"We were never allowed to leave the door open," says Bernd
Zabel, mission leader for the second expedition of Biosphere II,
in 1994. "This is a closed environment."
A 3.15-acre glass and stainless-steel space frame, Biosphere II
(the earth is Biosphere I, and Barkley, presumably, is Biosphere
III) was completed in 1989 in the Sonoran Desert 45 minutes
north of Tucson. Conceived as an experiment in potential space
colonization, its purpose is to create earth biomes in a
self-sustaining environment. But why would anyone want to become
an agoraphobic in the most sun-splashed area of the U.S.?
"You have to understand," responds Matt Smith, another member of
the seven-person crew that spent six months in Bio II, "that I'm
used to seeing a wonderful world beyond my window that I cannot
be a part of." How is that? "I'm from Staten Island."
Regardless of its scientific integrity--it is widely considered
the Milli Vanilli of the scientific world--Bio II is a reminder
that the desert, far from being deserted, is booming. An acre an
hour of new homes, strip malls and concrete will, thermally
speaking, make the desert an even hotter place to be.
How many people huddling on couches in Buffalo or Duluth will
watch Super Bowl XXX on TV and ask themselves, Am I nuts? If
you're going to live in extreme temperatures, you might as well
get a tan. Anyway, how bad could it be? In Scottsdale, city
leaders have placed a sign at the foot of the Green Acres
Mortuary that reads, WELCOME TO SCOTTSDALE, MOST LIVABLE CITY.
Growth is a way of life here--even inside Bio II. When Zabel
walks a guest through his hermetically sealed universe, it feels
just like being outside. "Over there are mangrove trees," says
Zabel as he gropes through a rain forest on his way to a
25-foot-deep ocean. "If you look closely you can see the coral
reef where some of the crew liked to scuba." He climbs up a
cliff and onto a savannah, and then he makes off toward the
livestock area. "Just about anything can live, can grow, inside
this complex," he says.
But off in a corner, what is that? An overgrown area of unkempt
weeds and shrubs resembling no distinct ecosystem at all. A
melange of biomes. What exactly is that supposed to be? Zabel
fidgets. "That's a desert that is not a desert anymore," he
answers. "It became more of a shrubland due to...."
He stops, sighs. He bows his head to something that is by design
defiant and is defiant to design. "We just didn't have much
success growing a desert."