Year of the Yao Woo

The crazy times in 2002 Kmart raids, Olympian losses, stadium mania and more - now make sense. Houston was just mining Ming.

Every year, it seems, Houston's chamber-of-commerce types wait anxiously for the Environmental Protection Agency to finish its annual study of just what city in the country has the foulest, most fetid, least breathable air.

Sometimes the news is bad, and the EPA declares Houston's air to be the worst. (This, somehow, is usually blamed on weather patterns, as opposed to chemical plants and refineries that have been grandfathered out of clean-air mandates.) But in some magical, enchanting, miraculous years, the air turns out to be ever-so-slightly worse in Los Angeles. With all the raucous elation of a Thunderstick-thumping World Series crowd, the results leave Houston's boosters shouting joyously, "We're not as bad as L.A.! We're not as bad as L.A.!"

A similar mind-set might be useful when it comes to looking at the year that just passed in Houston. In many ways, 2002 was a pretty bad year -- a stalled economy, an Olympian snub, never-ending road construction -- but in the spirit of the best Greater Houston Partnership spin masters, we can definitively declare this: It wasn't as bad as 2001.

Houston had no trouble coming up with 
its own Tiananmen Square debacle.
Houston had no trouble coming up with its own Tiananmen Square debacle.
The five-step drop became the five-step drop and roll for Carr.
The five-step drop became the five-step drop and roll for Carr.

There was no Tropical Storm Allison, for one thing. The fact that the Theater District and the Texas Medical Center did not endure hundreds of millions of dollars of flood damage this year has to be considered a plus. (Would it have killed the weather gods, however, to send down a quick gullywasher that might have prevented TUTS's world premiere of the musical Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?)

And, despite the fact that he was running the goddamn company, Enron boss Ken Lay did not get indicted. That meant Houston didn't have to suffer through yet another media recounting of all the black-tie charity dinners Lay has hosted, and how if he didn't just have such a big gosh-darn heart he would have been able to keep a better eye on all those wily underlings who were perverting the name of Enron, all unbeknownst to Kenny Boy.

And unlike 2001 (not to mention 1997, 1998 and 1999), the Houston Astros did not get blown out in the first round of the playoffs. Jimy Williams replaced manager Larry Dierker, who had led the team to such mediocrity. The Astros responded magnificently to Williams and made a concerted effort to not force their fans to endure more playoff frustration, finishing 13 games out of first place.

So 2002 was demonstrably better than 2001. Which is kind of like saying Houston's air is better than L.A.'s -- in other words, it ain't saying much.

This past year gave the city widespread publicity for court cases involving a mother drowning her children in a bathtub, not to mention a dentist allegedly running over her allegedly cheating orthodontist husband with her (actual, not alleged) Mercedes-Benz in a hotel parking lot.

There was a lot of strange stuff going on in Houston in 2002. But what hasn't been revealed -- until now -- is that it was strangeness with a purpose.

For much of the sheer weirdness of the year was done with one thing in mind: to make sure the Houston Rockets signed international sensation Yao Ming, and that the fluid seven-foot-five budding superstar from China felt right at home here.

The Rockets had been planning to get Yao for several years, intentionally playing putrid basketball to improve their position in the NBA draft. (Could there be any other reason for Kelvin Cato and Eddie Griffin?) Their chance finally came May 19 when they won the draft lottery and got the chance to make the first pick overall.

But it wasn't as simple as choosing a player from some U.S. college and signing him. The Rockets would have to convince Yao, and the Chinese government, that Houston was a perfect fit for the giant from Shanghai.

Luckily, Rockets owner Les Alexander already had in his possession the collective balls of Houston's powers that be, courtesy of his sweetheart arena deal. (He displays them in a Steuben vase during the winter, as part of a time-share agreement with the Astros' Drayton McLane and the Texans' Bob McNair.) Getting them to do his bidding in order to make Houston attractive to Yao would be easy. The movers and shakers of the city would do all that they could to make Yao feel at home.

The project began in a boardroom downtown.

"All right -- what do you think of when you think of China?" Alexander barked to the gathered suits.

"Dishes?" said Ken Lay's wife, Linda. "We've got a marvelous selection down at Jus' Stuff -- and the solid-gold coffee stirrers are simply to die for. They're 3 percent off for all ex-Enron employees!"

"Save it for the Chronicle, Linda," Alexander snapped. "Anyone else?"

"Well, there was that whole Tiananmen Square thing," someone offered.

Employing the same nuanced understanding of international relations that has forced countless visiting diplomats to endure rodeos and barbecue, the group decided it would be a good thing to have a Houston version of the 1989 event.

Putting it together seemed daunting, however. Where could you get hundreds of local youths to peacefully gather in an open square? And once you did that, how could you come up with a reason to storm them with overwhelming force?

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