Clutch City Consumption

These are licensed goods," volunteered the officious, crew-cut young man tailing me around the Westpark flea market with a walkie-talkie. He sounded defensive. As well he might have: it was Saturday noon, scarcely 38 hours after the Rockets sent the Spurs packing, and the market stalls were awash in bootleg Rockets T-shirts. "WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPS, 94-95, BACK TO BACK," bleated a flimsy white cotton number from the Dominican Republic; shaded in black, its woozy red-and-gold lettering made you think you were seeing double. Conspicuously missing were the silver-foil NBA hologram and copyrighted NBA logo stamped on legit shirts. But at three for $10, why be fussy?

Fussier (and more status-minded) Houstonians had queued for hours at Foley's on Friday to buy official Starter brand tees at $16 a pop -- lured by Thursday night's televised images of Olajuwon and company wearing the shirts in their locker room. By late Saturday, the $3.99 knockoffs of the coveted "locker room" shirt had hit the streets. So what if the lettering bled a little, and the dots shadowing the "Back to Back!" slogan were awfully far apart, and the registered trademark sign next to the Rockets logo had fallen off the map? The bootleg was no uglier than the original, a hyperkinetic nightmare of veg-o-maticized graphics in those hard-to-love Rockets colors. And on a weekend when Houston's civic sport was dressing in old Rockets paraphernalia to paw through new Rockets paraphernalia, it was the trophy of choice.

From street corners to flea markets, from perfumed department stores to the cut-rate paradise along Harwin, the feeding frenzy was on. "This is all the Rockets stuff we have," apologized an Oshman's salesman to a disgruntled old woman in a white visor as she eyed a rapidly shrinking jumble of locker room shirts. Within hours, a freshly minted crop of official "Stay Humble, Stay Hungry" Hakeem tees had arrived, and even hard-sell bottles of Hakeem spring water were trickling out of the store at 99 cents.

A more downmarket crowd picked over the wares at the multiethnic Westpark market, where Selena was elbowed aside as the bootleg queen and ten bucks bought you a new Rockets wardrobe -- all of it in the best hideous Rockets tradition. Among the curanderos and seafood cocktail stands of the cavernous covered section, $4 got you Hakeem (recognizable only by his number 34) in the guise of a leering, bald genie, lurching across a black T-shirt as if loosed from a bottle. Out among the open-air stalls, a demented collage of giant, upside-down "Rockets" lettering crawled over a shirt dotted with ghostly gray Rockets logos and assorted slogans. Nicest touch: the faux NBA logo (sans copyright mark) on the bottom, edged in rubbery and very un-NBA-like white ink.

At the Spunky Fashion Mart on Harwin, the thickly applied ink was more rubbery still on fresh piles of "Western Conference Champs" shirts in unorthodox shades of fuchsia, jade and pale pink -- all of which clashed wildly with Rockets red and gold. As I forked over $5 for the surprisingly restrained black version (as tasteful a Rockets shirt as was ever made), my salesman dickered on the phone with a guy named Joe who was offering $700 for every new Western Champs shirt in the store. If only Joe had been there to see the ladies pastel knit lounge sets -- $6.99 for T-shirt and matching pants -- in the same Western Champs design!

Of course, the shelf life of the Western Champs gear will last only until the NBA title is decided, thereby launching a whole new generation of merchandise. "Don't buy that thing," a killjoy husband admonished his wife as she fingered a T-shirt at a stall inside the I-10 Fiesta, where both official and bootleg Rocketswear was on sale. "They'll win the finals and then you'll just want a different one." Across the freeway at Kroger, where official T-shirts reigned, helium-filled basketball balloons and splendidly nutty Rockets baked goods earned the grocery-store school spirit award. Lurid red-and-gold sheet cakes frosted in airbrush style were adorned with inspirational Rockets slogans -- $2.50 objets guaranteed to bring party conversation to a halt.

By Sunday afternoon, numerous intersections had taken on a Neapolitan air, with ranks of Rockets T-shirts flapping from jerryrigged clotheslines in the hot breeze. At the corner of Wayside and Telephone, direct from Cleveland, Ohio, a sun-baked and front-toothless Leo Hammer hawked "All licensed product! No bootleg! New designs daily!"

Courtesy of the out-of-town distributor for whom he worked, the newly arrived Leo had remarkable Magic Johnson-brand Rockets shirts splayed with wraparound, near-psychedelic art. When I squeaked in dismay at the $25 price tag, he fulminated against the three-for-$10 bootleggers and vetted my black-market purchases. "That's a misprint! Look at that ragged 'K'!" Leo snorted. "At least they got the colors right." He pointed out thin ink on one, thick ink on another, a fake "Starter" logo on a third. "This was printed by hand," he said with the righteous indignation of a connoisseur, "on a hand press by someone who didn't have enough sleep.


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