HOUSTON'S BEST SPORTS MEMORIES
Written by Andrew Curry
If there’s one thing Houston sports fans can agree on, it’s that Jeff Kent really was kind of an a-hole. If there’s a second thing they can agree on, it’s that fate has not always been kind to the city, its teams, or (especially) its fans. Year after year, season after season, in sport after sport, Houston’s fans have had their hopes dashed by teams they expected to be this close to championship glory (most recently the 2015 Astros have fit the pattern quite nicely). But we’re Houston, dammit! Boomtown. Space City. Hustle-town. Crush City (to varying degrees). We’re overdue for our next Downtown parade. And so, rather than wallowing in our discontent, let’s take a look back at those unforgettable moments that united us as a city. We’ll get to the bad and the ugly in future installments of this series, but for today, let’s focus on the good:
10. The Astrodome Opens (1965)
No discussion of Houston sports would be complete without acknowledging the truly epic importance of the Astrodome to the city’s history. A genuine landmark, the Dome is the single most iconic and recognizable building in Houston, and it was home to the Astros, the Oilers and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo for decades. It’s where Earl Campbell and Dan Pastorini became icons; where Nolan Ryan threw his fifth no-hitter; where Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell started their professional careers.
It’s where the late, great Bum Phillips whipped 50,000 crazed Oilers fans into a frenzy by promising to “kick the son of a bitch in.”
It’s where the recently departed Bud Adams – arguably Houston’s greatest sports villain – left those same Oilers fans high and dry when he moved the team to Tennessee after his demands for further changes to the Dome were refused by city leaders
Now, the Astrodome’s fate is up for a vote in less than a week. The sports teams and the rodeos may be gone, but the Dome is still iconic and still important to the city moving forward. Here’s hoping Houstonians remember and appreciate that when they go to the ballot box on Tuesday.
9. Jeff Kent’s walk off HR in Game 5 of the NLCS (10/18/2004)
The Astros have had some great teams over the years. But until 2004, none of those teams had been able to win a single playoff series. Ever. They finally broke the curse in 2004, beating the Atlanta Braves in five games in the National League Divisional Series, setting up a Championship Series against Central Division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. With the series tied at two games apiece, game five was an epic pitching duel. Houston starter Brandon Backe took a perfect game into the fifth inning, and after eight, he had only given up one hit. But as great as Backe was at shutting down the Cardinals, St. Louis pitcher Woody Williams (himself a native Houstonian) was equally dominant, keeping the Astros scoreless as well.
Brad Lidge shut down the Cardinals in the top of the 9th, and the heart of the Astros order was set for the bottom of the inning. Carlos Beltran (ironically, now playing for the Cardinals in the 2013 World Series) led off with a single. After Jeff Bagwell flied out, Beltran stole second, leaving first base open. Trying to set up a double play to end the inning, the Cardinals intentionally walked Lance Berkman to bring Jeff Kent to the plate.
Now, Jeff Kent is and always has been what people in the sports world call “a red ass.” Quick to anger, dismissive of fans, media, and even fellow players. While playing in San Francisco, he once came to blows in the dugout with Barry Bonds, his own teammate (and, to be fair, a fellow red ass). Kent appeared on a recent season of the CBS reality staple, Survivor, and his exit speech upon being voted out was epic in just how perfectly “Jeff Kent-ian” it was:
So when the Cardinals walked Lance Berkman on purpose? Because they preferred pitching to Jeff Kent? Well, you can bet that pissed off Kent. He took it as an unforgivable affront. And what he did next was, at the time, the biggest moment in Astros history: a towering three run home run that ended the game and left the Astros one game away from the World Series.
As it happens, the Astros would lose the next two games in St. Louis, and fall short of making it to the Series. Astros fans were crushed but not surprised. But then came 2005! (We’ll get there. Be patient.)
8. Craig Biggio’s 3000th hit (6/28/2007)
Craig Biggio may be the best player ever to wear an Astros uniform. Twenty seasons in the big leagues, and all of them with Houston. That he’s not in the Hall of Fame yet is an outrage, and the game he played June 28, 2007 is one of many reasons he should be enshrined there as soon as possible. Biggio entered the game against Colorado needing three hits to reach 3000 for his career. Certainly doable, but no guarantee. But after Biggio got singles in both the 3rd and 5th innings, the crowd was ready for him to make history that night. And in the 7th inning, he did just that:
Getting gunned down trying to stretch a single into a double earned Craig another piece of history: the only player thrown out on his 3000th hit. And with two more hits in the game, he also became the only player to have five hits in the game that got him to 3000.
For Houston fans, the icing on the cake was when Craig dragged a sheepish Jeff Bagwell out of the dugout to join his celebration. Bagwell, who had retired before the 2007 season began, played with Biggio for 15 seasons. No two players are more closely associated with each other in Houston sports history, and watching them celebrate Craig’s milestone was only fitting.
7. “The Game of the Century”: UCLA vs. UH (1/20/1968)
It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the single game that changed college basketball forever. A showdown between the two best teams in the country, it was the first non-tournament game to be televised nationally. Played in the Astrodome, before the largest crowd ever to watch a college basketball game, it pitted the UCLA Bruins and their 47-game winning streak against the upstart Houston Cougars, also undefeated. John Wooden vs. Guy V. Lewis. Elvin Hayes vs. Lew Alcindor. It was epic. And best of all, it lived up to the hype.
The Coogs won, 71-69. Hayes, with 39 points, became a superstar. Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) would offer excuses for his performance for more than 40 years.
UCLA got its revenge later that season, crushing UH in the tournament on its way to winning the national championship. But in the game that permanently altered the course of college basketball, it was University of Houston that emerged triumphant.
6. The Ralph Sampson buzzer-beater against the Lakers (5/20/1986)
From 1980 to 1989, the Los Angeles Lakers represented the Western Conference in the NBA Finals eight times. Those other two years? It was none other than the Houston Rockets. In 1981, the Rockets had a losing record during the regular season. But they still managed to jump on Moses Malone’s back and make an improbable playoff run into the Finals, before losing to Boston in six games.
The 1985-86 Rockets were considered the team of the future. Built around the Twin Towers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, the Rockets were thought to be too young to hang with the defending champion Lakers when they met in the Western Conference Finals. But not only did the Rockets hang with the Lakers, they took a three games to one lead into the fifth game of the series. By the end of this epic, Olajuwon had been ejected for fighting, and Sampson was left as the lone Tower to carry the team. With the game tied at 112, and with only one second left on the clock, Sampson took a lob pass from Rodney McCrae, contorted himself to face the basket and hurled in a shot that miraculously bounced in and won the game.
It was unquestionably the finest moment in Sampson’s oft-maligned career with the Rockets. They lost in the Finals to a Celtics team considered one of the best in NBA history, but the Rockets’ time would eventually come. But never with this nucleus of players, as Sampson was hobbled by injuries, and John Lucas, Mitchell Wiggins, and Lew Lloyd battled drugs and league suspensions.
5. The Birth of Luv Ya Blue (11/20/1978)
No sports team in Houston was ever more loved than the Oilers of the late ‘70s were. With colorful personalities like Carl Mauch, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Dan Pastorini, and Robert Brazile, and coached by the one and only Bum Phillips, the team captured the imagination of the city, who embraced them wholeheartedly, win or lose. And no one was more beloved than Earl Campbell, a Heisman trophy-winning running back out of the University of Texas and a rookie during the 1978 season.
And on a Monday night in November, Earl Campbell had a game that secured his place in the pantheon of Houston sports legends. Four touchdowns. 199 yards rushing. A victory over the mighty Miami Dolphins in front of a national TV audience. And, perhaps most memorably, a career defining 81-yard run.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXMH_LEju-M (scroll to 1:25)
It was the game, the player, and the play that would give rise to the entire “Luv Ya Blue” phenomenon. And 35 years later, the city still worships Earl.
4. Louisville vs. UH (4/2/1983)
The game that showed the country just what Phi Slama Jama was capable of.
The University of Houston basketball team was not ranked in the top ten when the 1982-83 season began. This, despite returning multiple starters from a team that had gone to the Final Four just the season before. But eventually the team – which included future NBA legends Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, as well as standouts like Michael Young, Larry Micheaux, Alvin Franklin and Benny Anders – ascended all the way to #1, a spot they held going into the 1983 NCAA Tournament. It was a team known for its fast-paced, above-the-rim style of play. The team philosophy seemed to be, “Why settle for a layup when you can get a slam dunk instead?” Hence, Phi Slama Jama: Texas’s Tallest Fraternity.
Louisville had an impressive team that season as well, and they went into the tournament ranked #2 in the country. People were puzzled when the brackets were released and showed that Louisville and Houston wouldn’t meet in the Finals if they went far enough in the tournament. If both teams did as they were expected to, they’d face off in the semi-final round instead. And that’s just what happened. With two lesser teams playing in the other semi-final, this game was seen as the de facto championship game. And it was incredible.
In the thin Albuquerque air, and at the pace the game was played, many players needed oxygen tanks just to catch their breath. Louisville star (and future Houston Rocket [see #6 on this list]) Rodney McCray calls this “the greatest game I’ve ever been a part of.” And it’s not hard to see why. Non-stop action, culminating with 19 dunks.
Final score: Houston 94, Louisville 81. A statement had been made. Phi Slama Jama was dominant.
With a game this intense, the finals almost felt like an afterthought. It wasn’t a matter of if UH was going to beat NC State, but rather by how much they would beat them. I wonder whatever happened in that game…
3. Game 4 of the 2005 National League Division Series (10/9/2005)
It was tempting to call this entry “The Chris Burke Home Run,” because that was certainly the unbelievable climax of this 18-inning classic. But in reviewing all the other goings-on of this monumental game, it seemed more appropriate to cite the entire game.
Consider: the Astros were losing 6-1 in the bottom of the 8th inning, when Lance Berkman started the amazing comeback with a grand slam, pulling the Astros to within one run.
Still down 6-5 with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, the Astros had to rely on an unlikely source of power to keep their hopes alive. Brad Ausmus had three home runs all season long when he stepped into the batter’s box. But then…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1eS7462aps(scroll to 2:22:00)
An incredible comeback, but still, the game was tied. And it would be a loooong time before anyone would score again.
In extra innings, the Astros would run out of players to use, meaning that 43-year-old Roger Clemens, who had pitched only a couple of days before and who had never pinch hit in his entire career had to come in to bat and pitch. His batting wasn’t too impressive. (Of course, in extra innings, the Astros were held hitless as a team for over eight innings. So in that regard, the Rocket fit right in.) But his pitching was studly. Three innings, no runs allowed, four strikeouts. And then it was Chris Burke’s turn.
Burke was a decent but unspectacular role player for some good Astros teams. But for now, he can claim to having the biggest hit in Astros history, a walk off home run to beat the Braves, end the divisional series and put the Astros on the path to their lone World Series appearance (after they dispensed with the Cardinals in the NLCS).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1eS7462aps (scroll to 4:48:00)
And in my favorite bit of Houston sports trivia, the same fan caught both Berkman’s grand slam ball and Burke’s game winner. Shaun Dean will be dining out on that story for years:
2. Mike Scott throws a no hitter to send the Astros to the playoffs (9/25/1986)
Mike Scott had a career season in 1986. He won 18 games, led the National League in strikeouts and Earned Run Average (ERA), and eventually received the Cy Young Award. Most importantly to Astros fans, though, is that he led the team to the playoffs for only the third time in their history. But it was how Scott got them there that earns him the #2 spot on our list.
Never in the history of Major League Baseball had a team clinched a playoff berth via a no-hitter. But Mike Scott changed that in 1986 when he kept the San Francisco Giants hitless on September 25.
In a season filled with spectacular achievements for Scott, the no-hitter is the one that Houston sports fans remember most of all. Scott went on to dominate the New York Mets in the 1986 National League Championship Series, but the Astros were unable to win without him on the mound, eventually losing the series 4 games to 2.
1. Clutch City: The Rockets win back-to-back NBA Championships (1994/1995)
Unquestionably, the Rockets’ championship years are the greatest times in the history of Houston sports. But how exactly does a list like this one – a list that includes a one-second play (see #6) – do justice to two seasons and approximately 200 games worth of basketball? After all, there are plenty of individual moments within those championship runs that could fill a top ten list all on their own. So let’s pick out just a few of our favorite moments from those two magnificent seasons, knowing full well that we’ll miss some good ones along the way.
The Rockets opened their first championship run by winning their first fifteen games, at the time an NBA record for the start of a season. They ended the season with a slew of awards for Hakeem Olajuwon: Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All NBA, and NBA Most Valuable Player, the first Rocket to win that award since Moses Malone in 1980.
They opened the playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers, whom they dispatched in four games. The series featured one of Olajuwon’s most famous highlights, an incredible blocked shot against Rod Strickland
In the next round, the Rockets faced Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns. After a particularly embarrassing pair of losses at home to open the series – including a game two that saw the Rockets cough up a 20-point fourth quarter lead – the infamous “CHOKE CITY” nickname was born. Down 0-2 and needing to win four of the next five games, the Rockets were written off by most, including large portions of the Houston media. But they won the next three games (games three and four in Phoenix and game five in Houston). After losing game six in Phoenix, it all came down to game seven, where the Rockets won in front of their hometown fans, and where Charles Barkley – who had guaranteed a Phoenix series victory after the Suns won the first two games in Houston – took a cheap shot against Hakeem that Rockets fans were slow to forgive. (All was forgotten when Sir Charles joined the team a few seasons later.
After a quick four games to one series win over the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets were on to meet the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. Pitting two of the marquee centers of all time (Olajuwon and the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing) against each other, it was a series noted for tough defense. No team scored 100 points, and neither team won by more than nine in any of the seven games.
It was a series that took place during one of the most sensational tabloid stories of the 20th century: the infamous slow speed chase involving Los Angeles police and O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco. Coverage of the chase, which took place in the middle of game five, eventually relegated the NBA Finals to a box in the corner of the screen, to the chagrin of Rockets and Knicks fans everywhere
Game six ended in truly dramatic fashion, on another signature Olajuwon block, this time of John Starks, who was attempting a three-pointer that would have ended the series had Hakeem not gotten there just in time:
The Rockets won game seven – and the city’s first major championship – because of Olajuwon’s complete domination of the game. In game seven, Dream ended up leading the team in points, rebounds, and even assists. And the city lost its collective mind. Car horns blared for hours after the final buzzer sounded, and strangers embraced each other in celebration.
The following season, the Rockets had a rougher go of things. They won fewer games than they had the year before. They faced higher caliber competition in the playoffs. And they traded away Otis Thorpe, a fan favorite and one of the major components of their first championship team.
But when the city found out who the team had landed in exchange for Thorpe, a true sense of euphoria swept through Houston. Clyde Drexler, Hakeem’s Phi Slama Jama teammate and a native Houstonian, was returning home. Rockets fans were ecstatic.
But the Rockets finished that season having won 11 fewer games than they had the year before, and they entered the playoffs as a 6-seed, without home court advantage at any point. They opened against a Utah Jazz team that had won 60 games during the regular season, but the Rockets ended up winning the series in five games, including a game five victory in Salt Lake City at the notoriously hostile Delta Center.
The second round series featured a rematch with the Phoenix Suns, and things began much as they had the season before, with Phoenix winning the first two games, Charles Barkley talking abundant smack, and the Rockets in a position where they had to win 4 of the next 5 games of the series if they had any hope of moving on. And somehow they did it. Game seven in Phoenix featured one of the most memorable moments in Rockets history, Mario Elie’s legendary Kiss of Death:
But the road didn’t get any easier after knocking off Utah and Phoenix. Now, the Rockets would have to take on the San Antonio Spurs, their I-10 rivals, winners of an NBA-best 62 games during the regular season, and home to the man who succeeded Olajuwon as league MVP, David Robinson. While Robinson had a perfectly fine series for himself, The Dream was simply unstoppable. He made the Admiral look utterly pedestrian during their battles in the paint.
Six games later, the Rockets had another series victory that no one ever expected. And it was on to the NBA Finals and the Orlando Magic.
Much like the 1986 Houston Rockets, the Orlando Magic of 1995 were considered a dynasty in the making. Led by Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, the Magic won 57 games during the 94-95 season, and they entered the NBA Finals as favorites to win it all. And after building a 20-point lead in the first half of game one, it looked like they were going to make quick work of the Rockets. But then…
Game one of the 1995 NBA Finals featured so many iconic Rockets moments. The comeback that erased the aforementioned 20-point lead. Kenny Smith’s record seven 3-pointers (including five in the third quarter alone, and one to tie the game at the end of regulation). Nick Anderson’s four –FOUR!! – missed free throws, any one of which would have sealed a win for Orlando if he had made it. And, finally, the Olajuwon tip in of a missed Clyde Drexler layup that put the Rockets up by two as time expired.
It was as exciting a game as the Rockets would play in either of their championship seasons, and it set the stage for what turned out to be a sweep of Orlando. Much as he had with David Robinson, Olajuwon had his way with Shaquille O’Neal. And like he had in 1994, Hakeem would win the Finals MVP Award to cap off another amazing playoff run.
Houstonians will often debate which title was more impressive. Was it 1994, where they had to overcome the CHOKE CITY label and where they won a first title for a city that was absolutely starving for one? Or was it 1995, when all odds were stacked against their repeating? When Clyde the Glide and Hakeem the Dream could finish what they hadn’t been able to 11 years earlier in college? Ultimately, it’s a fun bar conversation, but both championships are equally important to the city.
As Rudy Tomjanovich said at the end of the 1995 Finals, in the most famous quotation in Houston sports history, don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion:
Those Rockets championship teams are without question the highlight of Houston’s sports story. Here’s hoping they’ll be joined soon – and often – by other great Houston teams in the years ahead.