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.

"No problem," said the Houston Police Department representative. "I'll get Mark Aguirre on it."

And so, on one hot August night, everything but the tanks rolled at the now-sacred ground of the Westheimer Kmart. Instead of one lonely man with a shopping bag facing down the might of the People's Army, we saw the inspired youth of Houston howl in rage over their interrupted loitering. Their fight lives on, especially for those kids whose faces show up in the same piece of stock footage that each news station uses whenever there's an update on the raid.

(In a friendly gesture that is so charmingly typical of the generous Lays, just prior to the arrests Linda gave HPD's then-chief C.O. Bradford her husband's engraved checklist on how not to know what's going on with your high-level employees.)

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.

The raid, of course, was a big success -- people everywhere were tossing around phrases like "totalitarian government" and "official repression."

The after-action postmortem featured a lot of happy faces. "Now that's a little bit of China right here in Space City," one of the planners said. "It'll make Yao feel right at home."

"It's a good first step, all right," said Alexander. "What's next? Come on, come on -- in China they think big."

Think of the Great Wall, he said. Think of the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest public works project, a $25 billion flood control plan.

"Hmmm," said someone in the back of the room. "An overpriced, elaborate construction project allegedly having to do with flood control? I can work with that."

Within days, the unnamed operative came back with plans to turn Buffalo Bayou into a downtown wonderland of shops, restaurants and activities. Oh, and flood control stuff, too.

"Truly Buffalo Bayou is as enchanting a waterway as the mystical Yangtze, and the romantic Seine and the historical Thames," he said. "Surely it is worth pouring millions and millions of dollars into, if only to attract Yao and raise property values for insiders. Oh, and to do flood control stuff, too."

"How are you ever going to sell that to the public?" Alexander growled.

"Easy enough," he answered. "Or it would be, if that Lay woman would just stop tying up the phone line to the Chronicle. She's not the only one who needs free advertising, you know."

The beauty of the Buffalo Bayou plan was not only in its pointlessness, in its Three Gorges-like scale. It opened the door to showing Yao other ways that Houston would be just like his home country.

The Three Gorges Dam will create a massive lake that will flood countless historical sites when it's finished next year. Archaeologists have protested, but the Chinese government says it wants to look to the future, not the past.

So maybe, the Houstonians figured, Yao might get nostalgic to see a cruelly, thoughtlessly abandoned historical site sitting unloved, gathering dust in its decrepit descent into oblivion. Welcome to the Astrodome!

Generations of Houstonians have enjoyed the Dome, whether it involved watching the Astros get blown out in the first round of the playoffs or reveling in the Oilers as they underachieved their way to becoming the Tennessee Titans, or using binoculars to determine just which downward-sliding country act was on stage at the only rodeo performance they could get tickets to.

But 2002 brought an end to all that. The Astros had taken their playoff tradition to Jus' Stuff Field, which later became Minute Maid Park, named (we guess) after those brave camp followers who comforted the minutemen who fell at Lexington and Concord. The rodeo, and the football team that replaced the Oilers, have ignored the Dome and have settled in at the luxurious surroundings of what is called, at least for the moment, Reliant Stadium.

The opening of the stadium was one of the major events of 2002, if you use media coverage as a criterion. Build it and they will come, the cliché says. The cliché doesn't mention, however, the huge traffic jams that happen when they come with insufficient planning.

The Texans, in their never-ending quest to bleed every last dollar out of their gift of a stadium, refused to have park-and-ride service to their games. Traffic flow would be much better served, they reasoned, by having everyone pay them $10 to park.

The result, on opening night of the exhibition season, was one of the biggest traffic jams Houston has ever seen. Irate drivers sat for hours in cars that moved barely five blocks in that time. As a result, the Texans revisited the idea of whether having 60 people on a single bus instead of 30 cars trying to get to the stadium might help traffic.

(Not taking the bus, by the way, was Texans owner Bob McNair. He got a police escort to and from the games. "Just like China's leaders," he said. "I'm only doing my part for the Rockets.")

Those who made it in to see the Texans in 2002 were pleasantly surprised. The franchise will go a long time before it tops the opening night of the regular season, when the Texans beat the hated Dallas Cowboys in one of the NFL's biggest upsets. "This would be like Iraq beating the Great Satan," Texans officials told their Chinese government guests. "Using your missiles, of course."

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