Top Five: Arizona's Most Popular Athletes

With the help of the SB Nation AZ staff, I've produced a list of the Top Five Most Popular Athletes in the state of Arizona. The results may surprise you -- but they probably won't.

If you're currently reading these words then it's June 7, it's my birthday, and you're here for the maiden voyage of SB Nation Arizona. We think this maiden voyage will be nothing like the Titanic (but maybe a little like the Lusitania, minus the U-Boats). But enough about early 20th Century boats -- you're here for sports writing. Hot, steamy sports writing. 

This column is the first in what we expect to be a long line of Top Fives in Arizona sports. Some weeks, you might get a piece about AZ up-and-comers, while other weeks, you might just get our five favorite bars to check out a game. Come back to see the mystery solved.

But since this is our opening day, this inaugural Top Five is going to be Arizona's most popular athletes. I'm not looking to shock and awe you with the selections on this list because let's face it -- you know the players that matter in the AZ sports scene. 

I'll open with the stringent criteria:

  • Must be a current (i.e.not retired) Arizona sports figure. Sorry, Kurt Warner.
  • Must pass the "jersey" test. Meaning if you attend that team's sporting event you are more than likely to see all the little boys and girls (and creepy adults) sporting that person's jersey.
  • Must be currently very good at his or her sport. 
  • I was looking for balance, so you're not going to see just Suns and Cardinals. Think of it as a Mount Rushmore of current Arizona sports.

Since I struggle with rules, I made the Top Five actually consist of six people and added a special designation for last place. I believe we call that "stickin' it to the man."

No. 1: Steve Nash

I don't think there was really another place to start. The diminutive Canadian point guard was selected by the Suns in the 1996 NBA Draft, but it wasn't until his return from Dallas in 2004 that he became a Phoenix legend.

Paired with coach Mike D'Antoni, Nash helped lead the Suns from 29 wins to 62 in his first season back in Phoenix -- winning the NBA MVP along the way. He added a second MVP the following season and has been all All-Star all but once since 2005. 

Although the Nash-led Suns have reached the Western Conference Finals three times in the past six seasons, they've been unable to advance any further and win the big prize. Yet in spite of the lack of a ring, Nash has endeared himself to Valley fans with his exciting style of play and pleasant demeanor. 

At 36 years old, Nash continues to play at a ridiculously high level and with the extension he signed last summer, he'll be a Sun through the 2011-2012 season. If there is such thing as a stone cold lock for the Suns Ring of Honor, it's Steve Nash. 

No. 2: Larry Fitzgerald

The man we call Fitz has been popular in the desert since his arrival as the thrd pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. During the first few years of his career, Fitzgerald shared the receiver spotlight with Anquan Boldin. Then 2008 happened.

Already a two-time Pro Bowler, 2008 saw Fitz produce his second 100-catch year and then reach legendary status during the Cardinals' run to the Super Bowl. The University of Pittsburgh product set all-time postseason records with 30 catches, 546 yards, and seven touchdowns in the Cards' four games. Fitzgerald's 2008 playoffs were quite simply one of the most dominant athletic performances in recent memory. 

Fitzgerald continues to perform at an elite level and is cementing his place as one of the top receivers in the game. At this point, the only question is whether he'll go down as one of the greatest ever (spoiler alert - he will). 

With Boldin off to Baltimore and Kurt Warner headed into retirement, 2010 will require that Fitzgerald take an even greater role in the Cards offense than he has in the past. Anyone think he won't answer the bell? 

No. 3: Amar'e Stoudemire

Amar'e and Arizona have had a bit of a complicated relationship since the Suns grabbed the then-19-year-old power forward in the 2002 NBA Draft. Stoudemire was the 2003 NBA Rookie of the Year, he's been an All-Star five times, and he was First Team All-NBA in 2007. He's also treated Suns fans to dominant performances and life-ending dunks (R.I.P. Anthony Tolliver).

Yet things have not always been a smooth ride for STAT. Stoudemire has already suffered two season-ending injuries (microfracture in 2005-06 and a detached retina in 2008-09) and has basically existed as the subject of trade rumors for years. Outside of those issues, Amar'e takes quite a bit of heat from fans for his below-average rebounding and poor defense. He may just be one of those guys you don't appreciate until he's gone. 

As you are no doubt aware, Stoudemire can opt out of the final year of his contract this summer and become a unrestricted free agent. Your guess is as good as mine regarding what Stoudemire does, but if I had to bet my life one way or the other, I say he's a member of the Suns next year. 

Obviously Amar'e won't belong on this list if he leaves, but he has given Arizona eight excellent seasons. Complaints aside, Stoudemire is a dynamic talent and succeeds on the basketball court in a very aesthetically pleasing, fan-friendly manner.  

No. 4: Mark Reynolds

In the interest of the aforementioned balance, I went searching for my D-back and this is what I found. Initially I thought about going with Justin Upton or Dan Haren, but then I recalled this line from a 1999 episode of The Simpsons featuring Mark McGwire:

Cartoon Mark McGwire: Do you want to know the terrifying truth, or do you want to see me sock a few dingers?

Crowd: Dingers! Dingers!

Since I want to give the people what they want - enter Reynolds. So sure, he may currently be hitting in the .220s and hold the top two spots on the all-time single-season MLB strikeout list, but he can sock dingers in bunches. In fact, Reynolds has crushed 101 bombs in just his first four seasons in the bigs - including 44 last season. 

But it's not just stats with the 26-year-old third baseman. Reynolds gained quite a bit of favor with the locals due to a memorable July 2009 rant in which he questioned the heart and effort of his D-back teammates in the midst of a losing streak.    

Although the D-backs are struggling this year and it seems the entire roster is on the trade block, I feel reasonably comfortable that Reynolds will remain with the team. Sure that feeling is based on almost nothing, but the team did ink Reynolds to a three-year extension prior to the season that has him locked up until 2012 with a club option for 2013. 

No. 5 (t): Diana Taurasi

I'm not a big WNBA guy, but due to the combination of (a) championships and (b) me kissing Seth Pollack's ass (he is a big WNBA guy), Taurasi has earned a spot on the list. I'd assume the WNBA is a bit of a polarizing subject for our readership, so I'd expect some of you to be in full eye-roll mode, but you can't argue with her results.

Since being selected by the Mercury with the top pick in the 2004 WNBA Draft, Taurasi has been an All-Star four times, won the 2009 MVP award, and most importantly has led her team to championships in 2007 and 2009. 

Taurasi received a well-publicized DUI in July of 2009 (in which she had a blood-alcohol content of .17 - that's tossing ‘em back), but has otherwise been a fine citizen. Though she's a Lakers fan (groan), Taurasi has fit nicely here in the Valley and should continue to lead the Mercury to success for years to come. 

And hey, here's a profile on Taurasi in the local paper just in time for her appearance in our Top Five.

No. 5 (t): Shane Doan

Yeah that's right, hockey. When the Phoenix Coyotes first came to town in 1996, Shane Doan was there and has remained a constant ever since. Doan has been a Coyote for each of the 13 seasons the NHL has been in Phoenix. 

Doan became the captain of the Yotes in 2003-2004 and has held that role ever since. While he doesn't have quite the All-Star-laden resume of the others on this list (appearing in only 2 All-Star games), Doan has been the heart and soul of the Coyotes from the bottom of the standings to their surprising playoff run last season. 

Bonus points to Doan because even when the team was absolute crap you could find the captain on just about any local radio station pushing the Coyotes. For a while, I was under the impression that Shane Doan was a bit like Beetlejuice for radio programs -- just say his name three times and he'll give you 6 good minutes. 

Least Popular Arizona Athlete(s)

The Entire Diamondbacks Bullpen - Although we're only in the first week of June, this group has distinguished itself as one of the worst in recent memory. With an ERA hovering in the 7s and enough blown saves to fill some sort of blown save factory (that's a thing, right?), this bullpen deserves their "least popular" distinction. 

Put it this way: any time half your Opening Day bullpen is no longer with the club - without injuries playing a part - you have a crappy bullpen. But when two of the four that are still around have ERAs of 6.86 (Chad Qualls) and 10.31 (Juan Gutierrez), you know you're on to something epic. 

There's my list -- with help from the SB Nation AZ staff. I'm certain that you can in no way disagree with any of my opinions, but if you somehow find yourself in a rage please feel free to rip me in the comments.

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