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° 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 cool.
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?
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 The following March the NFL rescinded its invitation to Phoenix to host Super Bowl XXVII.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 are."
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?