Houston Matters

Some Highs, And A Whole Lot Of Lows: Reflecting On Houston’s Difficult Sports History

The Astros cheating scandal and the Texans playoff collapse against the Chiefs are only the latest in a long line of painful Houston sports moments.

Houston Sports Highs and Lows
Houston sports history has had a few dizzying highs, but, sadly, more devastating lows (and sometimes both from the same event).

It wasn’t entirely coincidental that we discussed Houston’s greatest sports triumphs and letdowns on Monday’s Houston Matters (you can hear the full discussion in the audio above).

The Texans saw to its relevance Sunday with a collapse against the Chiefs. Then, just hours after the show, Major League Baseball and the Houston Astros said “hold my beer.”

Or, as Houston Matters listener Stacie Gilmore wrote:

“I’m afraid you did the segment a little bit too soon! So so sad, upset, and disappointed about the Houston Astros debacle. The loss of Hinch and Luhnow is going to make a huge difference in the team for years to come.”

AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow
Manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were fired by the Astros following Major League Baseball’s investigation into sign stealing.

While we didn’t know that news of the Astros’ punishment in the electronic sign-stealing scandal was coming so soon and so dramatically after our conversation, we were already wallowing in the enormous letdown stemming from the Texans’ loss.

While Kansas City had been heavily favored, the Texans leapt out to a 24-nothing lead, and so many Houston fans, as they have done so many times before, dared to believe that maybe, just maybe, this time, the bottom wouldn’t drop out.

But of course it did. KC scored touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions and bounced the Texans from the playoffs in dramatic fashion.

DeAndre Hopkins is Tackled
Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is tackled in the Texans’ playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

That game represented so much of what we’ve come to expect of Houston sports. Moments of true elation, of triumph, of accomplishment and wonder…and then, almost inevitably, of disappointment. Of a sense that what we saw in the first 20 minutes wasn’t quite real. That the universe needed to straighten things out. That it was only a matter of time.

Hard not to see a parallel between that and the Astros scandal. The 2017 World Series championship was an amazing moment, made all the more special that it had come on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, that it raised up Greater Houston, that it gave us reason to celebrate amid a period of such devastation, and that other U.S. cities could celebrate the accomplishment with us.

Jose Altuve and his teammates celebrate during a rally honoring their 2017 World Series championship.

Somehow, though, this Houston sports ethos – a mix of accomplishment and letdown – seemed destined to come back and bite us, somehow. And here it is.

It’s why, while we asked our guests to compile their lists of all-time greatest Houston sports moments, I felt compelled to compile two lists: one of all-time greatest moments, and one of all-time disappointments. Turns out, in the latter, the Texans playoff collapse and the Astros cheating scandal both made the cut:

CRAIG’S ALL-TIME WORST HOUSTON SPORTS MOMENTS:

5. The AHL Houston Aeros hockey club leaves Houston

This was particularly frustrating for me, since I’m a huge hockey fan — and their departure occurred exactly a month after I moved to town.

4. Albert Pujols hits a monster homer in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS

Yes, the Astros did go on to win that series, but that single moment, that swing was a crushing blow to the wall behind the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid. I think the ball still hasn’t landed.

3. Sunday’s game vs the Chiefs 

You’re up 24-0 in the second quarter and lose 51-31. Total collapse — and seemingly predictable.

2. The Astros’ World Series win in 2017 now soured by cheating allegations

It’s only fitting that one of Houston’s few extreme high moments is also one of it’s greatest lows.

Buffalo Bills Comeback Against The Oilers - AP
An interception in overtime by cornerback Nate Odoms (left) set up a game-winning field goal by Steve Christie (right) as the Buffalo Bills overcame a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers in the NFL playoffs on Jan. 3, 1993. It’s the largest lead ever overcome in a playoff game.

1. The Comeback/The Choke against the Bills 

This collapse is still the worst because of the deficit, the timing of the comeback, and the close finish. The Oilers blew a 35-3 third-quarter lead to the Bills in the playoffs. It’s the largest lead ever blown in the postseason.

CRAIG’S ALL-TIME BIGGEST MOMENT IN HOUSTON SPORTS:

While there are plenty of low points, there are also some great moments in Houston sports. However, some of the BIGGEST moments (partially thanks to the Astros as recently as yesterday) are tinged with sorrow or disappointment. So, instead of listing my Top 5 best moments in local sports, I’ll just list the BIGGEST, meaning their impact — for better or worse.

Hakeem Olajuwon UH Cougars
Hakeem Olajuwon played for the UH Cougars in the 1980s before starring for the Rockets in the NBA.

5. Hakeem Olajuwon steps on a Houston court

In 1982, the start of what was known as the Phi Slama Jamma era for the University of Houston men’s basketball team. From 1982 to 1984, the fast paced, slam-dunk style basketball coached by Guy Lewis featured future Hall of Famers Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Hakeem the Dream would, of course, also lead the Rockets to back-to-back NBA championships in 1994 and 1995 — with Drexler at his side for the second one.

Battle of the Sexes - Billie Jean King And Bobby Riggs
Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs smile during a news conference in New York to publicize their upcoming “Battle of the Sexes” match at the Houston Astrodome.

4. The Battle of the Sexes

The iconic, nationally televised 1973 tennis match in which Billie Jean King handily defeated Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome at a time when women weren’t getting the money or notoriety of their male counterparts in sports (so glad THAT’s over he types sarcastically).

Oilers Leave For Nashville
Bud Adams (right), owner of the Houston Oilers, presents Nashville, Tenn. Mayor Phil Bredesen with a personalized jersey at a 1995 ceremony announcing the team would leave Houston for Nashville.

3. The Oilers leave Houston

Bud Adams moves the team out of Houston to Tennessee in 1996, chasing public funding for a stadium he couldn’t get here. At least the NFL came back in 2002 with the Texans, but the football disappointments never left.

2. The last trash can bang before the Astros won the 2017 World Series

We can’t separate the two, can we? While the championship was a truly glorious moment for the city — especially in the wake of Harvey — it’s soooooo Houston that that achievement now has a negative shadow cast upon it.

1. It hasn’t happened yet.

Maybe Simone Biles in the Olympics this summer? Maybe her overall greatness thus far. Maybe something else?

Yep, Number 2 on my all-time list. It sort of hurt to type it (even though I’m a life-long Cardinals fan, and by noting that, just lost all credibility with any Astros fan reading this).

If we’d had our discussion a few hours later, at least one of our guests might have agreed with me:

As always, what our guests had to contribute to the discussion was far more interesting than what I could bring to the table. Check out their lists, which reflect some fascinating interpretations of what makes Houston sports both great and terrible.

Local Soccer Analyst Jen Cooper — Best Houston Sports Moments:

  1. The Dynamo’s inaugural season and first MLS Cup win (2006)
  2. The Rockets beat the Knicks to win the 1994 NBA Finals
  3. The Astros win the 2017 World Series
  4. The Houston Comets winning four straight WNBA titles
  5. Rice University winning the 2003 College World Series

Jeff Balke of Houston Press and Houstonia Magazine — Biggest Houston Sports Moments (in no particular order):

  • The Oilers collapsing against the Bills
  • North Carolina State’s buzzer-beater to beat UH for the 1983 NCAA college basketball championship
  • The Rockets taking Houston from Choke City to Clutch City, winning back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995
  • The Astros winning the 2017 World Series
  • The Oilers leaving Houston for Tennessee

Local Sports Blogger Stephanie Stradley — High Points in Houston Sports History:

  • Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals against the Knicks
  • Game 5 2017 World Series — I was sitting in the Crawford Boxes
  • The first-ever Texans game where they beat the Cowboys
  • The Oilers beating Dan Fouts’ top-seeded Chargers in the 1979 playoffs without Earl Campbell, Dan Pastorini and Ken Burrough

Stephanie’s Low Points in Houston Sports History:

  • The Bills comeback — blurgh!
  • The Choke City game — I was there
  • The Astros getting swept in the 2005 World Series
  • Being without the NFL because Bud Adams was a vulgarian who couldn’t get along with people and wanted things totally his way

Recency Bias

During our discussion, Jeff suggested that some of the items on my list of all-time Houston sports disappointments might represent a bit of “recency bias.” It was a fair charge – the Astros’ electronic sign-stealing scandal and the Texans’ playoff implosion were both top of mind.

Olympic gymnast Simone Biles
Perhaps the greatest athlete ever connected to Houston: gymnast Simone Biles.

But so have been recent amazing moments in Houston sports. Consider that in the same year the Astros have been punished for electronic sign-stealing, Biles has broken world gymnastics records left and right and stands poised to capture the attention of the sports world again in July at the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.

Texans Quarterback Deshaun Watson
Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Consider also the continuing emergence of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. Sure — Sunday’s defeat was painful, especially after the Texans leapt out to that big lead. But is there anyone who would deny that Watson is either already now — or soon going to be — the elite quarterback the Texans have searched for the entirety of the franchise’s existence?

Or that James Harden is every bit the perennial MVP candidate he’s shown himself to be in a Rockets uniform?

James Harden Screams
James Harden of the Rockets is a perennial MVP candidate.

And yes, there are still Houston Astros players who — sign-stealing aside — are genuine all-star caliber players.

“But Craig – where is that reflected in your list of all-time Houston sports moments?” you rightly ask.

Simple. Biles, Watson, Harden and other emerging Houston athletes represent the possibility of a future great Bayou City sports moment.

If the present offers only anger, sadness, and frustration over games that go south — or scandals that sully our memories of a championship now seemingly less fully earned — then it’s to the future that we should look.

There’s a great, defining moment in Houston sports that has not happened yet. Maybe it will involve Biles at the Olympics this summer. Or the Rockets in the NBA Finals. Or the Texans in the Super Bowl one year. Or maybe it will come from a team that doesn’t even exist here yet. (I’m looking at you, NHL).

That’s why my No. 1 all-time Houston sports moment is, essentially, blank. It hasn’t happened yet. And I look forward to discussing it when it does.

(And you can share your all-time Houston sports triumphs and letdowns with us at talk@houstonmatters.org)

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Craig Cohen

Craig Cohen

Executive Producer/Host, Houston Matters

Craig Cohen is the executive producer and host of Houston Matters, which airs weekdays at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Houston Public Media, News 88.7 FM. Craig is a 20+ year veteran of broadcast journalism. He's spent the bulk of his career in public media, in roles ranging from programmer...

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