Ten greatest athletes in Phoenix sports history

Yahoo Contributor Network

Editor's note: YCN contributor Shaun Church has compiled a list of the 10 greatest athletes for Phoenix. Readers will determine by poll (upper right side of the page) who's No. 1. Results will be revealed Friday, Aug. 2.

[Vote for No. 1: Dallas | Denver | Los Angeles | Milwaukee | San Diego]

The Phoenix-area professional sports scene does not have the longstanding history of some cities. Places like Boston, New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh all have had professional sports franchises far longer than the Valley of the Sun has, but there's still a proud history nonetheless.

Nostalgic memories take us back to the greats who have played here -- back to those stars who led their respective Phoenix-based teams to the brink of championships but who never got to experience the ecstasy of hoisting the trophy.

The lone title Phoenix has, that unforgettable 2001 World Series, holds a special place in all our hearts. It leaves us yearning for more -- another taste -- of the championship glory we witnessed following that hit off baseball's best closer of all time (Mariano Rivera).

The memory of that feeling tortures us at the beginning of each sports season when we are teased with the hope of our (enter Phoenix team name here) getting to the playoffs and making a historic deep run.

The memory returns when that season ends.

These players filled more than stats sheets game in and game out. They filled our hearts with joy every time they stepped onto the field of play.

Here are the most beloved athletes the Valley has known over the years. Who is your favorite professional athlete in Phoenix sports history? What drew you to him?

Charles Barkley (Suns, 1992-96)

He wasn't in Phoenix long, but Sir Charles made a huge impact on the Valley sports scene. The Suns were good before his arrival, but it took signing the world's worst golfer for the 1992-93 season to put them over the hump and into the Finals against Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls dynasty.

Unfortunately, the Suns lost in six games and never got back to the finals. Like others who have played their respective professional sport in Phoenix, Barkley left for greener pastures in an attempt to win a championship elsewhere -- in Houston with the Rockets, which he did not.

He is the only player in franchise history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists per game for a season, doing so during the 92-93 campaign.

Shane Doan (Coyotes, 1996-present)

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Shane Doan has 815 career points. (USA TODAY Sports)

Doan has spent his entire career with the same franchise. Drafted in the top 10 of the 1995 NHL draft by the then-Winnipeg Jets, Doan is the Coyotes' longtime captain -- which is why he gets the nod over Coyotes great Jeremy Roenick.

Dating back to the franchise's start in Canada, he is No. 2 in the team's history in goals (331), No. 3 in assists (484) and No. 3 in total points (815). Even if the Coyotes move, Captain Coyote will eternally be a fan favorite in Phoenix.

Larry Fitzgerald (Cardinals, 2004-present)

Not even dogs are as loyal as Fitzgerald. It's hard to believe one player can suffer through the quarterback play he has the last three seasons and still want to hang around.

The Cardinals' all-time leader in receptions (764), receiving yards (10,413) and receiving touchdowns (77) nearly won Super Bowl XLIII for the city. If not for Santonio Holmes' toe-tapping catch in the corner of the end zone, he would be responsible for bringing the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy to town.

His playoff numbers during that 2008 playoff run set NFL records. He is the best offensive draft pick in Cardinals history.

Luis Gonzalez (Diamondbacks, 1999-2006)

Now with the Diamondbacks in the front office, Gonzalez drove in the winning run in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series off the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera.

He is the franchise leader in virtually all batting categories -- too many to name them all here. The awards are fun to talk about, but that one at-bat on Nov. 4, 2001 will remain in the minds of Phoenix sports fans forever.

Kevin Johnson (Suns, 1988-98, 2000)

K.J. spent 12 years in in Phoenix, ending his career as one of the all-time greats in franchise history -- just ask Hakeem Olajuwon.

With the Suns, Johnson was a three-time All-Star and won the NBA Most Improved Player Award in 1989. He led the Suns to the playoffs 11 times, turning the Phoenix franchise into a winner. In the 1992-93 season, K.J. and the Suns lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in six games in the NBA Finals, but Johnson averaged 17.8 points and nearly eight assists per game that postseason.

A fan-favorite, K.J. averaged roughly 19 points and nine assists per game in his Phoenix career.

Randy Johnson (Diamondbacks 1999-2004, 2007-08)

Of the six teams for whom Randy Johnson donned a major-league jersey, the Diamondbacks were blessed with his absolute best. In two stints with the team that spanned eight seasons, the Big Unit won 65.6 percent of his games and was the co-MVP of the '01 Series.

His best years were his first four in purple pinstripes. From 1999 to 2002, Johnson led major league baseball in six major categories -- wins (81), complete games (31), shutouts (11), strikeouts (1,417), innings pitched (1,030.0) and WAR (38.2) -- while winning four straight Cy Young awards.

And who can forget that perfect game in April 2004?

Steve Nash (Suns, 1996-98, 2004-12)

Originally drafted by the Suns in the first round of the 1996 NBA draft, Nash spent the middle part of his career with the Western Conference-rival Dallas Mavericks. But it was under head coach Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix that Nash had his best years as a pro.

He led the league in assists six times while in Phoenix and led Suns to the threshold of an NBA Finals appearance three times, losing in the Western Conference Finals each time in a different, heartbreaking way. He will finish his career playing for the despised Los Angeles Lakers, but those D'Antoni years will forever be why fans remember Nash.

Curt Schilling (Diamondbacks, 2000-03)

Along with Randy Johnson, Schilling helped provide a one-two punch in the desert. In just four years in Arizona, he became an icon, winning 58 games in four seasons.

Leading the Diamondbacks to a dramatic World Series win over the Yankees in seven games, Schilling was at his best. In the 2001 postseason, Schilling notched four wins, forming a two-headed monster with Johnson. In fact, he led MLB with 22 wins, six complete games and 256.2 innings pitched in 2001, cementing his legacy as an all-time great.

Kurt Warner (Cardinals, 2005-09)

Just like he did in St. Louis, Warner brought his magic to the desert. In five seasons with the Cardinals, Warner turned the Cardinals into a contender. In 2008, the QB led Arizona to its first Super Bowl, a defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Still, Warner will go down as an all-time great. In 2008, he passed for 4,583 yards and 30 TDs, leading the Cardinals to the greatest finish in team history -- a 27-23 loss to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII. Despite the loss to the Steelers, Warner's 377 yards passing ranks second all time (he currently holds the top three spots for passing yards in a Super Bowl). For a franchise that needed a QB and hope, Warner came to the rescue.

Adrian Wilson (Cardinals, 2001-12)

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Adrian Wilson joined the Patriots in the offseason. (AP)

It still feels wrong to call Wilson a former Cardinal. But the NFL is a business, and it was time to move on from the franchise's best-ever draft pick.

A-Dub is one of six players in NFL history in the 25/25 club -- that is, to have at least 25 career sacks and 25 career interceptions. To do so after being the second safety taken by the club in the 2001 draft is nothing short of amazing.

Wilson had the honor of replacing Tillman at strong safety, and all he did was win over an entire state of NFL fans by concussing quarterbacks and physically belittling opposing wide receivers and tight ends for a dozen years.

Honorable Mention:

Pat Tillman (Cardinals, 1998-01)

On the field, Tillman was a seventh-round starting strong safety for the Cardinals. But it's not what he did on the field that has him so revered in the Valley and beyond.

Off it, he is an American hero.

Leaving millions of dollars on the table to serve his country following the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks, he did what many could not, would not and did not do. His sacrifice lingers, and it is remembered each Veterans Day with the annual Pat's Run, a 4.2-mile course that weaves through the streets of Tempe and ends at the 42-yard line at Sun Devil Stadium in honor of his college number.

Hundreds of thousands have honored Tillman's memory by running and walking the course since its inception in 2005. Even those bound to a wheelchair participate.

Find out more about Pat's Run by visiting the Pat Tillman Foundation website.

Shaun Church has covered the Arizona Cardinals for more than three years on various online publications and considers himself a life-long fan. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, Football Nation, The Boston Metro, ESPN.com and more.

Questions or comments? E-mail Shaun at smchurch@yahoo.com

You can also follow and mention Shaun on Twitter @Church_NFL

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