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.

Also providing traffic fun in 2002 was the shutting down of the busiest intersection in the state, the ulcer-inducing nexus between Loop 610 and the Southwest Freeway. As if the sheer joy of closing the thing wasn't enough, the highway department doubled our pleasure by re-closing one of the busiest ramps shortly after its repair job was supposedly finished. We hope they got it right the second time.

It was a sly plan to make our city seem comfortably familiar to folks from China, where bicycles still outnumber cars -- through the magic of countless orange traffic cones, Houston was once again returned to the horseless-carriage days when automobiles seemed a highly impractical way of getting around town.

If that didn't make the Chinese nostalgic for home, the planners in Houston went one step further. They called in all their chits statewide to bring to town one more little bit of China: single-party government.

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.

As they watched the Democrats' "Dream Team" fizzle, the Chinese could only chuckle knowingly about supposedly free elections with preordained outcomes.

Democrats had entered the 2002 election season with high hopes. But after watching the informative and evenhanded advertisements from the GOP, fair-minded observers (at least those who listen to talk radio) had to wonder just why the party would choose a gubernatorial candidate who had personally sold heroin to little schoolchildren while he wasn't busy gunning down drug enforcement agents. (Houston's "Get Yao" people tried to play down the fact that the losing Democratic candidates for senator and lieutenant governor, according to the same ad barrage, were godless communistic liberals. Godless communists being such a big thing in China, after all.)

Houston's plans were centered not only on reinventing China here. They also tried to dazzle Chinese officials by showing them the site of the team's new arena, a gigantic edifice destined to replace the intimate Compaq Center next year. (All of the city's basketball fans apparently have been crying out for more and more superboxes to be placed between them and the action.)

Just seven or so blocks west of the new arena, however, is where the Rockets should have taken the officials. For there sits the perfect monument to Houston in 2002: the empty new Enron building.

Built in the flush times, it now sits largely ignored. Workers put the final exterior touches on it, but there's not exactly a clamor for office space in downtown Houston at the moment.

It's all too symbolic -- a see-through skyscraper constructed on the worthless promises of a disgraced company. The symbolism isn't completely negative, though -- at some point it will fill up, with a new name, and it will be evidence of Houston putting Enron, and the year 2002, behind it.

And not all memories of 2002 will be bad. Not in the least because all of the behind-the-scenes work of the "Get Yao" committee paid off. He became a Rocket.

The first few games were a little rough, but the payoffs soon began coming in earnest. Charles Barkley had to kiss an ass (a donkey, not a butt) on national TV because he wrongly predicted Yao wouldn't score 20 points in a game this year.

Every so often a flash of brilliance would burst from the center -- a no-look pass, an aggressive dunk, a sweet baseline move. People in bars, and on the radio, were actually talking once again about the Rockets.

The team still wasn't selling out its games as 2002 came to a close, and while the playoffs are likely, there is still a lot of growth that needs to happen. But if it does, then this will be the year people look back on as the start of something big. (As they'll look back on it when the Texans inevitably get their act together.)

If Yao turns out to be the next Hakeem Olajuwon -- a gifted center from a foreign land -- then 2002 will go down in Houston as a banner year.

And who will we have to thank? A selfless, anonymous group who quietly orchestrated events to make a Chinese guy feel at home. Even if it meant some weirdness for the rest of us.

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