The Killer-est B

Houston has had its fair share of sports luminaries since the Press first hit the streets. Well, maybe not all that many relative to such hotbeds as New York or Chicago, but enough to fill a modest Who's Who: Bagwell and Biggio on the baseball side; hoopsters Hakeem, Clyde and Rudy T.; track legend Carl Lewis; figure skating screen blip Tara Lipinski; the (alas) irrepressible George Foreman.

But when it comes to shaping the city's athletic landscape the past ten years, one Houston sports figure towers above the rest: Bob Lanier.

When Mayorbob took on the hated Bud Adams and helped drive the fungal Oilers' owner out of town, he set in motion the series of events that led to the current big-league state of affairs in the Bayou City: a hostage crisis not equaled since Iranians seized the American embassy.

In retrospect, what Adams wanted wasn't so odious. He offered to pay $75 million or so for the cost of a $245-million downtown dome, leaving the public to pick up the remainder. And he'd take a share of the revenue from parking, concessions and other cash streams, though he suggested that the project could be financed largely by parking revenues that the city would collect.

But that wasn't good enough for Lanier, who wanted the new dome's users to pay the entire tab. "Sports is profitable enough that they ought to be able to pay for their own stadium," he stated in 1994.

The tiff between Lanier and Adams took a personal twist, each sniping publicly at the other, and eventually Bud made good on his threat to move the Oilers to Nashville. The city movers and shakers found themselves in an identity bind: How could Houston be a World-Class City without a professional football team?

Seizing the moment, Rockets owner Les Alexander and Astros boss Drayton McLane began agitating for their own new palaces, even though the Summit was preparing for a multimillion-dollar overhaul and the Astrodome had already been through one. (McLane himself had sung the praises of the Dome as a "first-class facility" when he bought the team in 1992.)

Not enough luxury boxes, they whined. Can't be competitive, they complained. We're losing tens of millions, lied McLane (Alexander didn't need to manufacture such an excuse, since the Rockets captured the NBA titles in 1994 and 1995, and even the merest whisper of an exodus drew gasps of horror).

The prospect of a minor-league future threw Lanier into a sudden panic. Imagine being captain of the ship when not one, but two or three of the city's franchises bolted for greener pastures. So he abandoned his righteous posture and crafted a new policy: give the owners whatever they demand, no matter how unreasonable.

As cover, Lanier convened a blue-ribbon panel to assess the city's sports facility needs. The panel rushed to issue its report, only to discover that the decision to build new stadia for everything had already been made.

To offset any dismay such a 180-degree turn might cause, Lanier and his allies in the biz community -- especially such faux-philanthropic types as Enron chief Ken Lay, whose company will be a major presence at the new ballpark -- spun the idea as not costing the taxpayers a penny. Quite a stretch, since the complete package exceeded $625 million, not including umpteen million in infrastructure improvements and other hidden costs.

And that didn't even include the basketball arena, mostly because the litigious Alexander was thwarted by the courts in his bid to weasel out of his Summit lease, rendering his blackmail toothless, at least for now. But it's a sure bet he'll be back, though the Rockets' current woes might keep his playpen off the ballot this November.

Under threat of eternal damnation, relayed repeatedly by the Houston Chronicle, voters narrowly passed a stadium bond referendum in 1996 that would keep the rodeo, Astros and phantom football franchise in crushed velvet for the next 30 years.

The effort received considerable help from Lanier. His administration not-so-secretly ran the Vote Yes campaign, and he got his contractor buddies to ante up a few hundred grand for the effort.

Prior to the vote, Lanier helped hammer out a "tough" deal with McLane. In exchange for the Astros' agreeing to play ball in their new showcase for the next 30 years, he could have every penny of every revenue stream tied to the park. Reluctantly, McLane signed on.

To guarantee that nothing interfered with his owner-enrichment scheme, Lanier gathered a team of enforcers and called it the Sports Authority. The group has been busy condemning property next to the new Enron ballpark that might have been used for parking, restaurants or otherwise capturing stray fan dollars. Recently, capping a nice quid-pro-quo arrangement between Enron and McLane, the Authority entered into negotiations to gift them with a nice chunk of adjacent land for a new parking deck, which would more than triple McLane's likely game-day parking revenues.

The bills haven't yet come in, though there are small signs that the Grand Soaking is underway: The Gillman auto dealerships recently announced that, due to the tax on rental cars imposed by the voters to help pay for the stadia, loaner vehicles to their valued customers will no longer be free. And, as the Houston Business Journal reported, even the Astros' lifelong fans are being told to take a hike if they can't fork over $10,000 for the right to buy a prime seat at Enron Field.

Not that the fans haven't benefited. Just to show what a generous guy he is (and perhaps to ensure continued fan support for his deal), McLane signed perennial all-star Biggio to a multiyear deal, threw several million at pitcher Randy Johnson for a few months' work, and exceeded his allegedly inflexible budget this season by a bundle that had even the slavish sportswriters at the Chronicle raising their eyebrows. Or maybe he took out a loan against future earnings from his Cash Cow at Union Station.

Les Alexander has gone a similar route, hiring big-ticket draws Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen in an attempt to maintain fan enthusiasm until his vote gets on the ballot, though they may also have helped justify pricing the average fan out of Compaq Center.

And look for the rodeo to express its appreciation for the proposed 400th Astrodome facelift someday, somehow. Maybe Bocephus and Shania Twain will play two shows next year.

Lanier may not deserve all the credit for the city's sports fortunes, but he has got at least a few folks who would be happy to give him credit. When opening day for the Houston Enrons rolls around next year, only one question remains: Will Mayorbob be sitting directly behind the home team dugout, or will he be ensconced in his own private luxury box?

E-mail Bob Burtman at

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