Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Row upon row of golden and brown cocoons shiver at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. Soon an iridescent wing will slip from the husk, and another creature will join the spectacle under way in the towering glassed-in exhibit filled with colorful drifting wings and flowering plants. Within and without this sanctuary of wonder, the same process is occurring in the teams of children and adults that flock each year to Hermann Park: 445 acres of bejeweled nature, complete with nature trails, playgrounds, reflection pools and gardens. When the sun finally sets on the park, whose design was recognized earlier this year by the American Society of Landscape Architects, thousands more will faithfully climb the hill at Miller Outdoor Theatre to enjoy a free night of music, opera or theater -- and maybe even a star or two. Hermann Park also boasts a golf course, lake, fishing piers and the Houston Zoo. How can any of us go wrong?
Readers' choice: Memorial Park
Slide your aluminum craft in at the Houston Canoe Club and head upstream. You'll soon find yourself in a verdant, wild tangle of green over blue, where deer still drink from the quiet bayou waters, gators still peek through the reeds of the marsh, and birds make dramatic and not-so-dramatic appearances. For example, the great blue heron at the other end of the boardwalk hasn't moved for minutes. Is it sleeping or simply monitoring the juvenile crab, shrimp and fish darting among the marsh grass? Vultures are more common among the sinking trees at shoreline, but keep a lookout for the stealthier white-chested ospreys and broad-winged hawks. Should you choose, drop the oar and drift south for a few miles. You can spill out effortlessly onto Pasadena Lake, where there's a salt breeze. From this mid-bayou put-in, you can easily reach Horsepen Bayou or even the University of Houston's Clear Lake campus. Paddling back to the park is a snap -- if you keep an eye on your watch and the fickle clouds above. Soggy paddling won't kill you, but it's not recommended, even in this magical territory, some of the last undisturbed bayou in the area. Bring a hat, drinking water, bug spray, sunscreen and -- oh, yeah, your sense of adventure.
A fixture on the island since the mid-1970s, the Galveston Island city-operated 18-holer is consistently ranked among the top municipal courses in the state -- at least for now. Locals, gaudily clad sunburned tourists and Phil Mickelson wannabes gather here to play the par-72 course, which has seriously cheap green fees, so players don't mind losing buckets of balls to nearby swampy water or swatting the occasional mosquito. Landry's Tilman Fertitta, who already owns huge chunks of real estate on Houston's playground, is negotiating with the city to take over the lease. To turn it into a world-class destination like his other properties, his first order of the day will be to jack up those cheap green fees. So play while you can afford it.
Readers' choice: Memorial Park
H-town gridiron cognoscenti have known about Vince Young for a long time. In 2001, the sleek, gazelle-like quarterback put his outmanned Madison High School teammates on his back and carried them on a run that saw them knock out perennial area powerhouses North Shore and Katy and ended only at the hands of state runner-up Austin Westlake. A deluge of awards both local and national flooded in after the season, and following an intense recruiting battle, Young committed to the University of Texas, where he redshirted in 2002. His electrifying play in the early-season games in 2003 won him the starting slot over veteran Chance Mock. Still, it was mainly Texas fans and hard-core football junkies who knew what the Longhorns had in Young: perhaps the most gifted running quarterback ever, and a guy who could throw a 60-yard bomb on the money on the dead run. (In short, a taller Michael Vick.) Last year Young led Texas to its best season since 1983, and though the Horns and Young couldn't derail the Oklahoma Sooners again, and scouts and various other know-it-alls decried Young's allegedly shaky passing skills, you could hear the jaws dropping from coast to coast this past New Year's Day, when Young led the Horns past the Michigan Wolverines in the Rose Bowl. Young passed for 180 yards and a TD, but what astounded the nation were his legs, the four touchdowns (including a spectacular 60-yard dazzler) and his UT single-game QB record of 192 yards. As the 2005 season rolls around, Young is an early favorite for the Heisman Trophy, and if his passing improves even a little bit, probably a potential first-round draft pick in the NFL.
Bosses who take credit for your ideas. Fools who can't talk on the phone and drive at the same time. Boyfriends who desert you for another city and say they're "just changing addresses." Plenty of things in this life fill us with murderous rage, ladies. But instead of slicing tiny wounds in your forearms, sticking pins in voodoo dolls, or writing scathing letters you'll never send, head down to Urban Jungle in the Heights, where Tony and Michelle Torres-Aponte have been teaching women's self-defense for the last decade. Their three-part course includes predator profiling, defensive techniques and -- the best part -- full assault training. In this final class, a professional fighter dons head-to-toe body armor, and students are encouraged to go postal on him with the evasive maneuvers, empowering yells and debilitating kicks they learned in the first two sessions. After that intensive rage-a-thon, you'll forget all about those pesky people who piss you off. Now get over there and kick some man-ass.
Sure, we admire Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane's head-scratching luck (his team manages to win despite the loss of both some key players and Gerry Hunsicker, one of the best GMs in baseball). We also respect Houston Texans owner Bob McNair's commitment to excellence on the field and off, and are fairly certain that an NFL title is in his cards. But Les Alexander, owner of the Houston Rockets, owns the only two professional sports championships in the city. How? Unlike McLane, he's always shelled out the dough, and not just when fans demanded it. He's gambled on huge trades and netted players like hometown hero Clyde Drexler and now, Tracy McGrady. His commitment to Yao Ming displays his understanding of global marketing. Though he's been called a vegetarian carpetbagger, he's never alienated fans, and he's made his team accessible to the community. Barring a surprise Texans Super Bowl berth this year, we're betting the Rockets will be first to bring the next championship home to the Bayou City.
Not only is she the best Comet, she's the best in the entire NBA. Sheryl Swoopes is simply untouchable -- a new-millennium Hakeem Olajuwon, if you will. She ranks No. 1 in the WNBA in points per game, No. 2 in steals per game, No. 1 in minutes per game, No. 1 in minutes played, No. 1 in field goals made, No. 1 in field goal attempts, No. 1 in free throws, No. 3 in free throw attempts, No. 3 in steals, No. 1 in points, No. 2 in points per 40 minutes, No. 3 in total efficiency points...Should we go on? A 34-year-old mother of one who was born in Brownfield, Texas, and attended Texas Tech, she's the first woman to have her own Nike basketball shoe, the Air Swoopes, and she's been breaking records ever since elementary school. You wanna try and mess with that?
Readers' choice: Sheryl Swoopes
Helming the drive-time slot at SportsRadio 610, hosts Rich Lord and Charlie Pallilo boasted the best sports show in town for several years. The two Northeast natives brought a worldly perspective to pro sports and the issues surrounding it, especially when the topics fell to race and culture. Lord was easygoing, Pallilo was smarmy, and the two just worked. So it was a disappointment when Pallilo jumped ship for Clear Channel's new concept The Sports Animal (790 KBME) last year. SportsRadio 610 floundered briefly, but when Lord was paired with midday host Mark Vandermeer, who's also the radio voice of the Houston Texans, there was instant rapport and chemistry. The cocky Vandermeer brings a younger, more pop-culture-oriented perspective and ups the hip quotient, while Lord continues to keep it real. The result is a fresh, authoritative and entertaining show.
Look, if you're going to spend your time hitting dozens of little white balls over and over again, you might as well do it in a nice setting, right? The Memorial Park driving range is so good, you'll be feeling like Tiger Woods in no time. With 43 slots, there's plenty of room for you to claim a mat and show the rest of those divot-heads how it's really done. The range is open every day (except Tuesday) from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. (They stop selling balls at 7:30 p.m.) Two bucks will get you 30 balls, which you can whack into the range's scenic 250 yards. If you don't have a club, you can borrow one from the lost-and-found bin. So get your caddy and your funny-looking pants, and get going!
Never have so many die-hard -- and straight -- football fans been so infatuated with pigskin and pomade. Last season, Houston Texans beefcake QB David Carr vowed not to cut his hair until his team won two games in a row. His flowing, male-model-style locks were finally shorn when the team beat the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders back-to-back in early October. Since then, the studly Carr's 'do has been a success off the field (he was named to People magazine's 2004 Sexiest Men Alive list). But with a revamped offensive line and improved running game to support him, it's now up to Carr to prove that new short haircut won't jinx the team.
Readers' choice: David Carr
Like riding horses? Hate terrorists? Well, now's your chance to trot ol' Trigger around the trail and keep a lookout for Osama at the same time. The Houston Airport System's Airport Rangers are volunteers who patrol the 34 miles of perimeter fencing around Intercontinental. You have to pass a background check, of course. "It's not just Joe Blow coming in," says airport spokesperson Ernest DeSoto. "You have to be badged." The airport system has set up 25 miles of trails with water stops and porta-potties, but those hankerin' for more rugged country are welcome to veer off the paths, DeSoto says. If a ranger sees anyone unusual (vagrant, poacher, dude with a rocket-launcher) he or she must report it to airport authorities. Otherwise, feel free to ride around from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.
We've got nothing against camping. Don't get us wrong. It's just that sometimes it feels artificial to pack up and pretend like you don't have a house. But going to the arboretum, now that's an authentic trip that'll get you back in time to hit the bars. This 155-acre expanse is home to herons, cardinals, owls, wrens and crows; squirrels, opossums, moles, rabbits and armadillos; and toads, frogs, snakes, turtles and skinks. As you walk beneath the canopy listening to chirps, croaks and whistles, you'll forget all about the downtown construction and West Loop traffic -- for a little while, at least.