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.

Another highlight of the Texans' inaugural season was the record-setting performance of its offensive line. Unfortunately enough for quarterback David Carr, the record that was set was for most QB sacks allowed.

For Carr, dropping back to pass was a season-long adventure. The Texans' depleted offensive line often seemed to offer little but verbal discouragement to opposing rushers, who ignored the "Hey, come back here!" cries on their way to crushing Carr. Every time, though -- at least as of this writing -- the wunderkind QB got up to try again.

In the Texans' playbook, though, the five-step drop usually ends up being the five-step drop and roll. Carr can only hope the team doesn't win so many games that their draft position makes it hard to find a stud lineman.

The city's other football teams did what they could to welcome Yao, at least in terms of showing that they wouldn't be crowding the Rockets off the sports pages by winning championships or anything. The University of Houston Cougars did improve over an 0-11 season (fully embodying the spin-any-improvement-you-can "We're not as bad as L.A.!" spirit), but they fired their coach. The new guy is the latest new guy who will turn the program around, we're told.

The Rice Owls, on the other hand, went even further in making Yao feel at home: They cracked down on religious expression, in the best anti-Falun Gong manner.

Rice coach Ken Hatfield is a religious man, but apparently it's not one of those religions that preach everyone should be treated equally. In an interview with an educational publication, Hatfield was paraphrased as saying his interpretation of the Bible would make him "think hard" about kicking a player off his team if the kid said he was gay.

"What happened?" Hatfield said he would ask the player. "What changed since we recruited you? When did this come about?" (Being gay is apparently a snap-decision kind of thing to Hatfield.)

Rice president Malcolm Gillis ordered Hatfield to apologize, but that didn't stop students from protesting. At the team's next home game, students wore T-shirts that said, "I AM NOT HOMOPHOBIC" on the front. (On the back they said, "I AM, HOWEVER, SMUGLY SELF-RIGHTEOUS." Or maybe they didn't.)

The "Welcome, Yao" planning committee, smitten with the Rice response, reportedly tried to get T-shirts printed that said, "I DON'T HATE CHINESE PEOPLE" but decided against it.

Another aspect of athletics played a key role in enticing Yao, while taking up a huge amount of Houston's energy and attention in 2002. That, of course, was the city's sad effort to attract the 2012 Olympics.

It was a puzzling project right from the beginning. Who, in their right mind, would look at how the world reviled the Atlanta Olympics and decide that the time had come to spend millions convincing the snobs at the International Olympic Committee that the time was right for another bland, hot, huckster-ridden Southern U.S. city?

Houston 2012 officials drew up elaborate plans to air-condition every square inch of the city where an Olympics official might set foot. (The unwashed masses, on the other hand, would somehow be convinced to "party" in glorified parking lots across town.) Houston's infrastructure was demonstrably better and more organized than that of its competitors. What did San Francisco, New York or Washington, D.C., have that we didn't?

Well, people actually wanted to visit those cities, as it turned out. The U.S. Olympic Committee eventually chose New York as the city to submit to the IOC. For all the primping Houston did, their prom night turned out worse than Carrie.

That disappointment dashed dreams of watching just how Mattress Mac would comply with the guidelines we're sure the Houston 2012 people would have put out to ensure a "tasteful" amount of commercialism. Maybe he would have settled for providing the French officials with only one plush velour recliner with a cup holder, instead of a matching set.

Houston 2012 president Susan Bandy took the "We're not as bad as L.A.!" spirit to new heights when she bristled publicly to the national media about the comparisons to Atlanta. "We are so much farther along, however you look at it, than Atlanta will ever be," she told the Los Angeles Times. (And Oklahoma City? Don't even think about it!)

The Olympics debacle turned out to be a plus in the plot to attract Yao, however. Beijing, of course, is hosting the 2008 Games; Houston's embarrassing loss allowed the Chinese to feel superior to the poor hicks in Texas, garnering a bit of the old sympathy vote.

If more sympathy was needed, Rockets officials would only have to take the Chinese downtown. There they would have seen a backward civilization where modern transportation has been rendered useless thanks to an inability to provide a working street system.

The vaunted light-rail project on Main Street continued to block traffic and kill off local businesses as part of a trade-off where Houstonians are shown pretty computer graphics and drawings of what a light-rail system would look like if it was ever finished. Metro still is sticking to its announced 2004 opening, meaning yet another year of hassle.

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