Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Pop... hiss goes your racket as you return the ball to your opponent. Congrats. You brought the racket all the way back over your shoulder and finished the stroke — finally. Your tennis coach has been trying to get you to do that for months. You're no Sharapova, but you still play like hell. This isn't a court on Roland Garros French Open, but you'll be damned if Fairway Tennis Courts in Miami Beach won't be your point of starting to get there. These are clean, hard courts, newly paved and painted, and almost always available. Why? Because they're tucked away in Normandy Shores where no one seems to really know they exist. There's no cost to play either. Think of Fairway as a pristine, cost-free, hidden gem that may very well deliver you to a game at the ATP World Tour if you visit frequently enough.
Let's face it. This year's Miami Marlins have about as many high points as the pancake-flat state of Florida. But the silver lining of the Marlins selling all their best players during the offseason is that they also got to replace the hot-garbage train wreck known as Heath Bell at closer. With Bell shipped off to Arizona, the closer's role opened up for 26-year-old Steve Cishek, who came in with guns blazing. Drafted by the Marlins in 2007, Cishek was a skinny kid whose fastball topped off at just 82 mph. But thanks to a growth spurt and some seasoning through college, Cishek — who uses a baffling, near-submarine delivery — now breaks the radar gun at 95 mph with a nasty fastball that gives opposing hitters the hives. Stepping in as the closer late in 2012, Cishek proved that Marlins fans need not worry about at least one position. The six-foot-six, gangly flame-thrower converted 13 of 14 save opportunities over the season's final three months for Miami, allowing opposing batters to hit a paltry .183 average with runners in scoring position during that time. Cishek was also the one lone bright spot for the monumentally disappointing Team USA during this year's World Baseball Classic. So playing with a losing team and having success should be nothing new to him. The Marlins have plenty of problems going forward, but the closer ain't one. That is, of course, until they decide to trade Cishek for another crop of no-names.
Fear the tilde. Consider: Before he moved to Miami to take the reigns of the long-neglected Hurricanes basketball team, the former head coach at George Mason was just plain ol' Jim Larranaga. Then, in his arena a few miles from Little Havana, the coach rediscovered his Cuban roots. His grandad, after all, was born on the island, and back then the family surname was "Larrañaga." So this year, it was Jim Larrañaga stalking the sidelines, and damned if that tilde didn't rock college ball to its core. By the end of the season, the Canes had won their first ACC title and earned a No. 2 seed at the big dance, while Larrañaga was named National Coach of the Year by both the AP and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. The power of proper punctuation, y'all.
He was supposed to be a choker. A guy who shrank in the big moments. LeBrick. And after roughly a billion articles disparaging him after the Miami Heat lost in the NBA Finals in 2011 to the Dallas Mavericks, it was apparent that the "LeBron James will never be Michael Jordan" argument was settled for good. Then the 2012 NBA playoffs happened. And LeBron showed the world he had the coal-fire balls to carry a team into the finals and obliterate into a fine powder all haters' hopes and dreams of watching him fail again. LeBron was an absolute freight train of devastation with his basketball prowess, littering the court with the decaying corpses of the Knicks, Celtics, and Thunder, and telling any and all who doubted him, mocked him, and otherwise said ridiculous things about him to go fornicate with farm animals. With a primal intensity usually reserved for professional assassins and lions pouncing and gorging on a herd of caribou, LeBron came through with what was quite possibly the single greatest one-man performance anyone has ever witnessed in NBA playoffs history. He has carried his godlike powers into the 2013 season and won a fourth MVP award, which is something Michael Jordan never did. Grace and violence. Beauty and devastation. Poetry and triumph. LeBron James is a walking epic poem.
Little-known fact: Red, the inmate played by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, was a Miami Dolphins fan. Think about it. When Andy Dufresne tells him that no matter how bleak it gets, it can never touch the hope that resides in us all, Red counters that hope "is a dangerous thing." As a Dolphins fan, Red would know that lesson all too well. Like all Fins fans, he's been primed full of hope that every new hotshot quarterback coming into Sun Life Stadium is the heir apparent to Dan Marino. But ever since No. 13 retired, the Fins have plowed through no less than a dozen signal-callers, all of whom fizzled out and were thrown back into the hot, fetid garbage heap of failure. But now there's Ryan Tannehill, Miami's 2012 first-round draft pick, who has taken up the hope mantle and will try to bring that elusive thing called "winning." In his rookie season, Tannehill threw for 3,294 yards — more than Marino threw in his rookie year. Tannehill also chucked 12 TDs and finished the season with a respectable 58.3 completion percentage. More important, he's shown he possesses the moxie and badassitude we haven't seen since Marino roamed the field and annihilated NFL defenses. Going into the next season, the Dolphins re-armed with weapons such as receiver Mike Wallace and tight end Dustin Keller. So Red, and all other Dolphins fans out there, can stop worrying. Ryan Tannehill is the hope that Andy Dufresne was talking about.
The Florida Panthers have been an absolute mess. Injuries, bad breaks, and poor play have made the most irrelevant of all local pro teams fade even deeper into the ether. However, if there was ever a reason to pay attention to the Cats and ready that bandwagon, it's their goal-scoring, point-amassing, defense-obliterating rookie sensation, Jonathan Huberdeau. The Panthers selected Huberdeau third overall in the 2011 NHL draft (one of the benefits of being consistently stinky), and the results have been consistently kick-ass from the word "go." In his first year with the minor-league Sea Dogs, Huberdeau scored 15 goals, and added 20 assists for 35 points in 61 games. In 2011, he led all scorers at the Memorial Cup (the Canadian junior-league championship), signaling he was more than ready to throw down with the big boys. Huberdeau is a virtuoso with a hockey stick in his hands. He can finesse a pinpoint-accurate pass one minute and turn a puck into a lethal heat-seeking missile that annihilates nets the next. In his first pro season with a depleted Panthers team, Huberdeau was a star. He tied for the NHL lead among rookies with 31 points on the year and was top five in goals and assists. The Panthers are stuck in the muck of mediocrity. But their future is bright with Jonathan Huberdeau igniting the NHL ice with his awesomeness.
When you're creating your montage of Duke Johnson season highlights to upload to YouTube, you should probably soundtrack it to something like the Foo Fighters' "My Hero" or Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" or, if you have questionable taste, that "Hero" song that the lead singer of Nickelback did. Whatever the case, Johnson was certainly the hero of an uncertain Miami Hurricanes season. With a team relying so heavily on freshman and sophomore talent, along with the soap opera that has become the NCAA's investigation into Nevin Shapiro's claims still ongoing, the Hurricanes seemed as if they were entering this season with a black cloud looming above. In its first game, the team looked like it would fall to Boston College. Then, in the second quarter, Johnson, a true freshman, stunned fans with a 54-yard touchdown. A quarter later, Johnson topped that with a 56-yard score, and No. 8 didn't stop running all season. He led the team with 947 rushing yards and became the team's first ACC Rookie of the Year. The best part is he'll be back next year.
The Miami Hurricanes men's basketball squad's near-magical season was such a team effort that it's difficult to single out one Cane to honor. Sure, we could make a strong case for explosive point guard Shane Larkin, but we're hoping that withholding this very prestigious alt-weekly Best Of award will motivate the sophomore to forgo the NBA, return to Coral Gables, and win it next year. That's not to say Kenny Kadji doesn't deserve it, though. The senior forward, who transferred to the University of Miami from the Gators after sustaining a back injury, dropped 25 pounds and blossomed under head coach Jim Larrañaga. He put up 12.9 points a game this year and averaged 6.8 rebounds, proving he was one of the team's biggest offensive and defensive threats. We just wish that, like Larkin, he was eligible to return next year.
In the wild, the gulo gulo (commonly called the wolverine) is a ferocious little beast capable of killing prey (and even predators) almost twice his size. And when trapped in a cage, he becomes even nastier — just like five-foot-ten lightweight dervish Mike "the Wolverine" Rio. After proving his relentlessness and grit as a two-time Florida state wrestling champ out of Miami Southridge High School, Rio tore into a pro career with a furious six-fight win streak, ripping through a mess of regional opponents by TKO and rear-naked choke. In 2011, though, he suffered his first career defeat in a Championship Fighting Alliance decision loss to Mexican grappler Efraín Escudero, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's Ultimate Fighter 8 winner. Still, the Wolverine had not been tamed. And over the past two years, he has clawed his way through a stint on the Ultimate Fighter 15 (failing to qualify for the finale only because of two broken ribs), inked a UFC contract, and notched another three wins. In December 2012, Rio made his debut in the octagon against John Cofer and snatched up the victory by cranking his victim's arm till he cried out, tapped, and quit. Yet even as a submission specialist, this 155-pound beast has won four of his nine career wins by KO. And that's what makes Rio so dangerous. He's equally vicious rolling on the floor and throwing punches. Maybe he'll snap his prey's limbs. Or maybe he'll just knock him the hell out. Either way, the Wolverine almost always wins.
His fists are worth $750,000. And his smile is gold — literally. After winning two medallas de oro fighting for the Cuban boxing team at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, Guillermo "El Chacal" Rigondeaux returned to the island, resumed his ascetic training schedule, and lived like a common campesino. He was a national hero. He was even — according to another Cuban boxing legend and two-time Olympic champ, Héctor Vinent — "the greatest boxer who ever lived." But he was still broke. And his prize medallions were worth only a couple hundred pesos. So Guillermo settled on fixing his teeth. "I melted my Olympic medals," he once explained, "into my mouth." A few years later, though, finally fed up with a life of poverty and the lack of opportunity in Cuba, Rigondeaux decided to defect. And just like so many of the island's fighters over the past six decades (not to mention several world-class Cuban contemporaries, including Yuriorkis Gamboa and Erislandy Lara), he moved to Miami. But already 29, Guillermo was turning pro at an advanced age. And unlike Gamboa's and Lara's careers, Rigondeaux's was starting slow. Despite being widely recognized as one of the best amateur fighters of the past half-century, Rigondeaux stands only five feet five inches tall. He weighs 122 pounds. And he isn't a headhunter. He is, however, a preternaturally skilled boxer with serious punching power. So over the past couple of years, he quietly compiled a perfect 12-0 record. He won the WBA Super Bantamweight belt. And then he broke out, methodically maiming Filipino-American champ Nonito Donaire (a WBO titleholder who's been almost universally heralded as a top-five pound-for-pound fighter) over the course of a 12-round bout in April. He won the unanimous decision. He cashed a $750,000 check. He flashed that gold smile. And even the naysayers were forced to admit that "El Chacal" is most definitely the real deal.
Brickell real estate is back, baby! Shoot yourself in the foot if you didn't grab a cut-rate condo when prices hit rock bottom. The endless traffic jams on this short span should be a constant reminder that you missed the boat. Gray monoliths have begun rising all along Eighth Street as developers have found money to build again. At any time of day, construction can squeeze the three-lane road down to only one. Work on Hong Kong-based Swire's billion-dollar Brickell CitiCentre has closed South Miami Avenue for weeks at a time. You're as likely to run into a mind-numbing traffic jam in the middle of the night or day as at rush hour.
When Dante wrote about the Ninth Circle of Hell, he could well have been describing weekend parking on South Beach. Midafternoon on a Saturday or Sunday is like a visit with Satan himself. Honking, profanity-spewing, and middle-finger-flying are all par for the gridlocked course. But the Seventh Street Garage is a gift from above. For $1 per hour (cheaper than parking on the street), you can leave your ride a stone's throw from everything you need for a successful Saturday afternoon — Wet Willie's, the News Café, volleyball courts, and the brilliant-blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. There are 646 spots available, but unsurprisingly, Jersey Shore wannabes and fanny-pack-wearing tourists sometimes catch on as the day progresses, so it's key to arrive early; i.e., before 1 p.m.. OK, that's early, but dragging yourself out of bed is so worth it. Hell, you can always catch a little snooze in the sunshine.