Houston's 10 Best Sports Moments*
When we put out the word to Houston that we were seeking input on the city's ten greatest sports moments and its five most heartbreaking moments, the response was instant and unanimous.
"Don't you have that reversed?" people said.
Why did we get that response? Because Houston sports fans are used to pain, are inured to debacles, are hardened from long experience to expect the worst from local teams.
But they are too hard on themselves, and the players they follow.
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It is true, to be sure, that almost every great Houston sports moment did not lead to a championship. Often there was disaster — bitter, cruel disaster — lying in wait just ahead.
But does that somehow lessen the exaltation that greeted the particular moment? Just because the team went on to eventually choke, does that mean that your ecstasy in those glorious, innocent pre-choke moments was invalidated?
One hopes not, if only because a hell of a lot of great Houston sports moments would therefore be invalidated.
Surprising as it might be to some cynics, it was difficult to prune a list of great Houston sports memories down to just ten. But we took on the job.
The resulting list is irrefutable; it is unimpeachable, inarguable; it will stand the test of time until — and only until — a local team does something that deserves to be placed above any of the Ten Golden Moments we list.
And frankly, given the state of local sports teams these days, that may take awhile.
Our list of five heartbreaking moments is similarly sacrosanct. But we're guessing new additions might muscle their way onto that list a little sooner.
Here, then, is The List:
10. The Dynamo Win Back-to-Back Championships
It's easy now to think that Houston is a town that embraces soccer. The Dynamo followers are fanatic, the World Cup drew huge, enthusiastic crowds to bars all over town, youth and amateur leagues are thriving.
But none of that was clear in 2005, when Major League Soccer announced the San Jose franchise would be moving here. Many questioned whether a team playing in UH's Robertson Stadium could draw crowds.
They did, of course; but more important, the Dynamo's first two seasons ended in championships, something Houston is always hungry for.
"I think that first year, that first championship, the whole year was kinda just like a celebration of soccer for us in one sense — that we were bringing such a new thing and excitement to the Houston community," says Brian Ching, who scored the dramatic tying goal in the championship game. "And then that last game was kind of like the ending party, almost a fairy-tale ending to a good year."
The Dynamo were favored over the New England Revolution in that first title game, but fell behind. Until Ching put in a header in the second overtime a minute later.
"It's hard to describe that feeling," he says. "It was so much emotion put into the season, put into that game, it just all came out after that goal. That's one of my favorite celebrations ever scoring a goal — the most excitement, the most thrill, the most intensity after that ball went in...I think probably the consensus feeling around the stadium before that goal was one of shock and disappointment, and it immediately turned that around in about a minute."
The Dynamo won on penalty kicks, and successfully defended their title a year later.
"I think it legitimized our franchise as far as being one of the best franchises, going back to San Jose being one of the best franchises over the past five or six years, and it kind of put expectations on our club and on our team and on the players to be successful and continue to be successful, and to be one of the best teams," Ching says. "I think a lot of teams around the league viewed us as the team to beat, week in and week out."
9. The Astrodome Opens
Driving by the Dome now, it looks like some forlorn, outdated atom-bomb shelter next to the more glamorous Reliant Stadium. (Half of the Dome's seating, after all, is below ground level, which is unusual enough in this flood-prone city.)
Seeing its sad, abandoned hulk today does little to bring back the feeling of the utterly transformative effect it had on Houston.
Known for little more than yee-haw stereotypes, Houston had snagged a major-league team on the promise of the Dome. And a major-league team back then was something, something that set you apart from all the other wannabe Big Time Burgs.
And then, when the Dome opened in 1965 — well, it was far, far beyond what the city had ever been able to brag about. All of a sudden, the world was talking about Houston. No longer were we pointing to parks or skyscrapers that were half-measures of what bigger cities had. We had something unique.
Was it tasteful? No, it had idiotically costumed ground crews and female employees, and Judge Roy Hofheinz's Elvis lair. Did it work out as planned? No, the fielders couldn't see the ball against the roof, so it had to be darkened, and Astroturf, that bête noire of traditional sports fans, had to be created — and eventually introduced to every cookie-cutter stadium looking to save a dime.
Still, the Dome was Houston's unmistakable entrée onto the international stage. It may not have been the best place to see a game — the sightlines for football and baseball were pretty terrible — but it was the first of its kind, it was Space Age, it cared little for tradition, it was extravagantly defiant of its surrounding climate.
It was Houston.
8. Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs
A tennis match between an out-of-shape, past-his-prime 55-year-old dude who wasn't that great anyway and one of the best female players of all time? Must-see TV!!
Only the Astrodome, apparently, could hold the spectacle that was Bobby Riggs vs. Billie Jean King.
Riggs had once been ranked number one in the world, but those days were long gone and he was making a living by betting and hustling tennis games. In 1973 he brayed his way into a match against Margaret Court, then women's number one, and beat her easily by making her run all over the place.
Billie Jean King, then 29, decided to defend her gender.
Howard Cosell wore a tux, and the combatants were carried in on a rickshaw (Riggs) and a golden litter carried by shirtless men (King). Thirty thousand were in the Dome; some say 50 million watching on TV. (There were a lot fewer choices on TV in those days.)
King killed Riggs, refusing to play his game as Court did. Riggs ended up looking like what he was — a 55-year-old guy way out of his element.
Both rode the match to further paydays and publicity, though, so no one was really unhappy. Except maybe the viewers, who wondered why they had tuned in in the first place.
7. UH-UCLA: The First Seeds of March Madness
College basketball is a multibillion-dollar business these days; every office and workplace fills out brackets come March, following the NCAA tournament breathlessly.
It didn't use to be that way. College basketball was a minor sport, enjoyed by students and alumni, but only occasionally making a big deal on the nation's sports pages.
That began to change on January 20, 1968, in the Astrodome. Guy V. Lewis's UH team, led by Elvin Hayes, took on John Wooden's UCLA squad led by Lew Alcindor in the first NCAA regular-season basketball game televised nationwide in prime time. (Not on one of the three networks, mind you, but many local affiliates dumped the network programming that night to show the game.)
The sightlines were terrible for those at the game — the court, imported from LA, was seemingly surrounded by acres of empty space — but that didn't stop 53,000 or so from coming.
The Cougars had Hayes and not a whole lot else, although Ken Spain and Don Chaney went on to respectable careers. Likewise, UCLA was mostly about Alcindor (later, of course, to be known worldwide as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, star of Airplane!)
UCLA came in with a 47-game winning streak and a row of recent championship banners. UH, as always, was hungry for recognition and scrapping their way to the spotlight.
Alcindor had an eye injury and a sub-par game. UH took the lead in the first half and held on for a two-point victory.
In what becomes a recurring theme in this list, the high of the win was followed by a letdown — UCLA got its revenge in the semifinals of the postseason tournament.
It was a postseason tournament that soon would never be the same, however, as network offers poured in, great games captivated viewers with no college ties and March Madness became the television event of each spring.
And it all began at the Dome, with a UH win.
6. The 2004 Astros and the A-Hole's Home Run
The history of the Houston Astros is one of long stretches of dismal ineptitude peppered with brief snatches of heart-racing, thrilling bursts of championship-caliber play that somehow ends up just short.
It's perhaps not the optimal way to treat your fans, but we don't really have a say in the matter.
By 2004, Astros fans had become accustomed to solid regular seasons that turned into postseason disappointments. (The word "choke" was not unheard during this time.) For one brief — and yes, shining — moment in October 2004, that all seemed to change.
The season hadn't started well — at one point the team was 44-44 and manager Jimy Williams was booed as the Astros hosted the All-Star Game at Minute Maid Park. Owner Drayton McLane fired Williams, replaced him with Phil Garner and the team went on a tear to make the playoffs.
Then — miracle of miracles — the team actually won a playoff series, beating the Atlanta Braves to advance to the NLCS, where the winner would go on to the World Series.
The 'Stros were facing the hated St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS, and the series was tied at 2-2 as Game Five began at Minute Maid. The next two and a half hours were among the most nerve-wracking, frustrating and tense ever endured by Astros fans.
Phenom pitcher (and local boy) Brandon Backe took a perfect game into the fifth inning, eventually giving up only one hit over eight innings. Brad "Lights Out" Lidge easily retired the Cards in the ninth.
But the Astros couldn't score. The Killer B's — Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman, Beltran — were a combined 1-for-11 as the bottom of the ninth opened. Beltran singled and stole second, and Berkman was intentionally walked to bring Jeff Kent up to the plate with one out.
Kent was not the most-liked guy on a team of generally good guys: His reputation for being a selfish, aggressive loner had preceded him. But no one in the stands was worried at that moment about his personality.
Kent blasted a Jason Isringhausen pitch over the left-field wall and Minute Maid absolutely exploded in a maelstrom of joyful noise. The Astros were up 3-2 in the series and only had to win one of the remaining two games.
They didn't win either one, of course. But that doesn't take away from that nuclear moment when Kent went yard.
5. Astros 2005: The 18-Inning Thriller
The next season was in some ways a mirror of the previous one: a slow start followed by a ferocious finish that got the team to the playoffs. Where they once again faced their nemesis the Braves, in a best-of-five series.
Going into Game Four, the Astros were leading the series 2-1 and every freaking fan was thinking close it out now, in Minute Maid. Eighteen tortuous, wonderfully edge-of-your-seat innings followed, with a miraculous Lance Berkman ninth-inning grand slam to tie the game, with Roger Clemens coming out of the bullpen, with hours of back-and-forth chances for either team to win.
Finally, in the 18th inning, Chris Burke, one of the least-known players on the team, came to bat.
"Going up to bat, I was just going to lay down a bunt and maybe try to steal a base," Burke, now a minor-leaguer in the Cincinnati Reds' system, says. "Rocket had just hit in front of me, and, to be honest with you, he was putting on such a display on the mound, and he's such a superhero to begin with, and when he struck out in front of me the crowd really had a letdown. It was almost like, honestly, people thought he was maybe going to hit a home run, just because nothing he would ever do would surprise you."
Instead, it was Burke who provided the surprise.
"I knew it was a homer when I hit it, but what I didn't realize — you don't really calculate — (is that) 'I've just ended the series and we're going to the NLCS,'" he says. "It was more like, 'Well, we just won the game,' but as you start rounding the bases and you have a little time to think, you realize, 'Oh man, the series is over and we're moving on'...I certainly have appreciated the moment the further I've gotten away from it."
For Astros fans, the walk-off homer out of nowhere that ended the longest post-season game in Major League history gave hope that 2005 might finally be The Year.
You know how that went; if not, just check our list of Heartbreaking Moments.
4. UH-Louisville: Phi Slama Jama in All Its Glory
The UH Cougars were kings of the college basketball world as the 1982-83 season began, proudly touting the nickname Phi Slama Jama.
"We had a philosophy, most dunks wins the game, because back then a lot of cats weren't dunking, and we had a whole dunk philosophy, and [coach] Guy V. [Lewis], he called it the high-percentage shot — he wanted dunks," says Bryan Williams, a reserve on a team that included Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. "A lot of coaches didn't like dunks, but Guy V. was like, 'Dunk it, it's the highest percentage shot there is.'"
They spent most of the regular season ranked number one and racked up a 31-2 record. The only team that could seemingly keep up with them in the NCAA Tournament was the University of Louisville, who had their own nickname to mark their similar style: The Doctors of Dunk.
The two teams met in the semifinals, and produced one of the most captivating college basketball games ever played, a marvelous athletic display that seemed worlds apart from the drudgery of the typical slow-down game of the era.
"It was cool, we had an attitude and we needed to win that game, so we went and won it," Williams says. "We were all pumped up, we were excited, we were up, the adrenaline, everything was up, everybody was right on time, all cylinders firing perfectly."
UH ran away with the game eventually, winning 94-81 in a tournament when most teams struggled to get into the 70s on the scoreboard.
All they had to do was beat lowly North Carolina State two days later to win the title. As always, see Heartbreaking Moments for the follow-up.
3. Luv Ya Blue and Earl Campbell's Iconic Run
No team has won Houston's heart like the late-1970s Oilers.
"I've never seen this city through all the championships since: basketball, baseball...nothing can compare to the Luv Ya Blue days," says Dan Pastorini, who quarterbacked the team. "It was just a special time here; it was like Shangri-La, Camelot and all of the above."
The Luv Ya Blue era had a handful of iconic moments — naturally, one is on the Heartbreaking list, and others include post-loss pep rallies — but perhaps the highlight was Earl Campbell's 81-yard Astrodome run against the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football, back in the day when Monday Night Football was really Monday Night Football.
The 1978 NFL season was shaping up to be a war of attrition, so neither the Oilers (7-4) nor their opponents in the late-season match, the Dolphins (8-3), had dominating records. But the game was key for either team's playoff hopes.
In honor of the hoopla that then accompanied every MNF game, the Oilers distributed pom-poms to the sold-out crowd, a move which led to the indelible image that symbolized the beginning of the Luv Ya Blue era.
The Oilers were leading 28-23 with less than five minutes left, seemingly content to run out the clock. They called a simple pitch play for their rookie running back Earl Campbell, who already had logged more than 100 yards for the night.
He took off on an 81-yard TD run, with the noise in the Dome building each step of the way until it climaxed in an inchoate roar as he crossed the goal line. Then, as Howard Cosell tried to shout over the clamor, the crowd turned into a sea of bustling blue-and-white pom-poms shaking in time while the team's fight song played.
It was Luv at first sight.
2. Mike Scott's Pennant-Clinching No-Hitter
Twenty years before the string of mid-2000s Astros highlights, there was another in the occasional bursts of compelling, temporarily dominant stretches by the team. The 1986 Astros had a formidable starting rotation — Nolan Ryan, Bob Knepper, Jim Deshaies and, of course, Mike Scott.
Scott had had a middling career until the 1985 season, when he went 18-8. He was the Astros' ace in 1986, eventually going 18-10 with a microscopic 2.22 ERA.
Opponents complained loudly that he was scuffing the baseball, but that never bothered Astros fans.
On a Wednesday afternoon, the team needed just a single win to clinch a division title and get to the league championship series. Winning the game wasn't exactly crucial — they had nine other games in which to get the clinching win — but it was a chance to do it in front of a home crowd.
The 32,000 who showed up — many, perhaps most, stealing away from their jobs to do so — were rewarded with an all-time Moment with a capital M.
Scott breezed through the San Francisco Giant lineup and entered the ninth inning with a no-hitter. From the first pitch of the inning, everyone in the Dome was on their feet and roaring their lungs out.
Milo Hamilton was doing radio play-by-play with two outs in the ninth:
"Now the batter is Will Clark, he's 0-for-3," Hamilton yelled over the noise. "Swing and a bouncer — this could be it!! [Glenn] Davis runs to the bag — Game is over!! No-hitter!! Astros win the championship!! What a way to do it!!" (On television, Gene Elston said merely, "There it is," and let the pictures do the talking.)
At that moment, nothing seemed impossible for the Astros. Magic was in the air. And the forthcoming showdown with the glamour-boy New York Mets promised to be a series for the ages.
And it was. Unfortunately for Astros fans.
1. Clutch City
Houston was starved for a champion by the mid-'90s. The Oilers had won an AFL title in the league's first few years, but no one really thought that counted.
It seemed — as dagger to the heart followed dagger to the heart — that Houstonians following any sport were doomed to be the Texas equivalent of Red Sox fans, with all the dramatic disappointment but none of the faux-literary patina.
And then along came the Rockets.
With a pair of championships, each utterly improbable in its own right, the often-derided franchise finally provided a big-time championship to a city desperate for one, not to mention two.
The Rockets, being a Houston team, had a long string of playoff disappointments behind them when they entered the 1994 postseason with a team-record 58 wins.
Confident of success, they blew big leads in the first two games of their second-round series against the Phoenix Suns, earning a taunting headline from the Houston Chronicle that said merely "Choke City."
The Rockets came back to win that series, giving the Chron the chance to jump on the bandwagon with a "Clutch City" headline and, no doubt, take credit for the turnaround.
The Finals were against the New York Knicks. It wasn't pretty basketball — no team playing Pat Riley's Knicks could manage that — and at one point it was competing on a split-screen with the OJ Simpson chase.
The Knicks had the opportunity to win it all in Game Six, but Hakeem Olajuwon tipped a John Starks shot, forcing Game Seven. The Rockets won, and the city celebrated its first championship in a league that's still around.
The Rockets followed that with a disappointing regular season that saw them enter the playoffs as a sixth seed. They survived several near-death experiences and ended up blowing away Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic in a four-game Finals sweep, leading coach Rudy Tomjanovich to yell to the cheering crowd, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion!!!!!!"
It was the best one-liner from a Houston coach since Bum Phillips's "Knock the sumbitch in," which, of course, is addressed in the Heartbreaking Moments list.
For now, the Rockets stand alone as the only team to provide Houston thrills without subsequent disappointment. For that reason alone, they deserve the Number One spot.
5. The Buzzkill of Albert Pujols and the World Series
In 2005, the Astros were coming off their incredible 18-inning win over the Braves, feeling invincible as they took on the Cardinals. That feeling stayed alive as the two talented teams battled back and forth.
After a Lance Berkman home run put the 'Stros up by two in Game Five, they needed only three outs in Minute Maid Park to head to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. And they had Brad Lidge to get them.
Chris Burke was in left field, where he had a unique view of what ensued.
"That was obviously a moment that I think we'll all remember, because in our minds the game was over," he says. "I mean, obviously Albert is the greatest player in the world, but we had what we believed to be an unstoppable force on the mound — Brad had had tremendous success against Pujols his entire career leading up to that moment. At that point in time, he had been nothing but dominant. Once we got a lead every game, we thought it was over, regardless of who we were playing. The thing I remember the most was how loud it was, how excited the crowd was and how excited we all were to be able to clinch in front of our home crowd...You can't describe how loud it was, and then how quiet it was."
It wasn't dramatic, at least for him.
"I honestly didn't even have time to turn around," he says. "The ball was hit and it was over my head, it happened that fast."
Brad Lidge never recovered as an Astro. The team did, however, winning in St. Louis and heading to the Series, with the town on fire.
Unfortunately, they were swept. Not by embarrassing scores, in terms of the individual games, but a sweep — it left a very bitter taste in the mouths of fans and Astros alike.
4. Mike Renfro Was in, Dammit
The Luv Ya Blue era was in full force as the Oilers went to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in the AFC Championship game after the 1979 season. (How devoted were Houstonians? Future state Senator Dan Patrick, then a sportscaster, was painting himself Columbia Blue on-air.)
The Steelers — the Iron Curtain, Terry Bradshaw Steelers — were leading 17-10 when Dan Pastorini led the Oilers to the six-yard line as the third quarter wound down. He tossed a pass to Mike Renfro, who made a beautiful catch in the end zone...or so everyone thought who wasn't wearing black and gold or black-and-white referee's shirts.
In what ESPN would eventually rank as one of the worst blown calls ever, Renfro's catch was ruled incomplete. The Steelers eventually went on to win 27-13.
"A lot of people say we lost the game because of that call," Pastorini says. "I think it was a contributing factor, but whether or not we'd have lost the game — it might have just awoken a sleeping giant — those guys are pretty damn good players...It certainly took the wind out of our sails.
"It was a bad call, I mean no question about it, it was a horrible call, Jim Tunney blew it," says Pastorini. "In fact, if you go back in your history, I think because of that call we now have instant replay in the game."
He adds, "To this day Jim Tunney defends the call, and he's the only referee in the NFL that defends that call, because every other referee I've talked to, including Mike Carrey, who's my former roommate at Santa Clara University, who's one of the top officials in the game today, said everybody he's talked to also said that it was a great catch and it was definitely a touchdown. No question about it."
The team returned to a raucous Dome-filled pep rally, where Bum Phillips said, "Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we're going to kick the sumbitch in."
But in reality, the Luv Ya Blue era was all but over. Within a year, Phillips was fired, Pastorini was gone and the Oilers endured a punishing drought until the Run-and-Shoot era came along, bringing its own brand of heartbreak.
3. UH-NC State: Worst Denouement Ever
Sky-high off what every basketball fan believed should have been the final game in 1983's NCAA Tournament — the Louisville game that earned our Top 10 citation — the Cougars had only to beat up on an outmatched North Carolina State to win the title.
"We took them seriously, but we didn't take them that seriously," says Bryan Williams, a member of that Phi Slama Jama team. "We were kids — we thought we had it in the bag already. We won that big high game and, for us, we knew we were going to beat NC State, they weren't even supposed to be there, so we knew we were going to walk all over them, and I guess everybody got kinda, well, horse before the cart."
Coach Guy V. Lewis forever tried to live down accusations that in the biggest game of his career, he shackled his freelancing team to protect a lead, with disastrous results.
The game itself was ugly, tied 52-52 as the final seconds clicked down. NC State had the ball, holding it for the last shot, but when a play was broken up, NC State's Dereck Whittenburg could only heave a desperation shot that clearly was going to fall short, forcing overtime.
Except the ball somehow landed in the hands of Lorenzo Charles, who was loitering by the basket, and he dunked it as time ran out. The first of approximately 1,382,064 replays of NC State coach Jim Valvano running around looking for a player to hug aired, as stunned Cougars tried to comprehend things.
"My first thought was, 'That's my college career. No more college ball. It's over,'" Williams says. "'Fuck, we lost. I can't believe we lost the game, unbelievable, we lost the game. No more college ball.'"
The UH basketball program made the final game again the next year, losing to Patrick Ewing's Georgetown team, but that was the end of Phi Slama Jama. The program hasn't been the same since.
2. The 16-Inning Gutpunch
The Astros and the Mets were two formidable teams in the 1986 season. As we've mentioned, the 'Stros had a terrific rotation, and the Mets matched them. One thing the Mets couldn't do, though, was hit Mike Scott.
As the National League Championship unfolded, the Mets had a 3-2 game lead going into Game Six. All the Astros had to do was win, and they had an all-but-guaranteed Game Seven win in the bank with Scott pitching.
Oh, things went so well for the first eight innings. The Astros took an early 3-0 lead and kept it as the game entered the ninth inning. Then starter Bob Knepper gave up a couple of runs, reliever Dave Smith another and suddenly the Mets had the bases loaded with two outs. Danny Heep struck out, giving the Astros another chance.
And for seven extra innings, there was hardly a moment when fans' hearts were not in their mouths.
Super pitching and defense dominated until the 14th inning, when the Mets took a one-run lead. Ace reliever Jesse Orosco was on the mound for the Mets, but — in a moment that is the Houston equivalent of Boston and Carlton Fisk using every last bit of body English to keep a ball fair — Billy Hatcher hit the foul pole to tie the game back up.
Two innings later, the Mets took a more substantial three-run lead, and things looked bleak. But — squeezing every last drop of drama from fans who were already far past wrung out — the Astros scored two runs in the bottom of the inning.
The tying run was on second base, the winning one on first. Mike Scott was ready to dominate in Game Seven. The Dome was at an absolute fever pitch, ready to detonate.
And Kevin Bass struck out.
The season was over. It would be a long time until the Astros got as close to a World Series again.
1. The Terrible, Terrible Comeback
The Luv Ya Blue Oilers were replaced, after some dismal times, with the Run-and-Shoot Oilers.
Not everyone loved the Run-and-Shoot Oilers — instead of the smash-mouth football of Bum Phillips's time, the team now employed a gimmicky, high-octane offensive scheme that built up a lot of stats but could also run into trouble in the playoffs, when defenses got tougher.
Still, the Oilers had cruised to a 10-6 regular-season record and a Wild Card slot. In January 1993, they were facing the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the playoffs.
The Oilers had beaten the Bills 27-3 in the last game of the season, knocking out Bills starting QB Jim Kelly in the process. So when they took a 35-3 lead in the third quarter in the Wild Card game, even the most jaded fan was ready to relax.
After all, by this point the Oilers had outscored the Bills 62-6, and the Bills were relying on backup QB Frank Reich.
The Run-and-Shoot, the finely tuned machine, was ready to glide to victory. It just needed to hold onto the ball for some longish drives.
What happened from that point on was so shocking, so awful for Oilers fans that some still today shudder to remember it. Let us speak no more of the debacle.
But if you want to know what The Lowest Point in Houston sports history was, look no farther than a cold stadium in Buffalo.
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