Year of the Yao Woo

Houston had no trouble coming up with its own Tiananmen Square debacle.

Every year, it seems, Houston's chamber-of-commerce types wait anxiously for the Environmental Protection Agency to finish its annual study of just what city in the country has the foulest, most fetid, least breathable air.

Sometimes the news is bad, and the EPA declares Houston's air to be the worst. (This, somehow, is usually blamed on weather patterns, as opposed to chemical plants and refineries that have been grandfathered out of clean-air mandates.) But in some magical, enchanting, miraculous years, the air turns out to be ever-so-slightly worse in Los Angeles. With all the raucous elation of a Thunderstick-thumping World Series crowd, the results leave Houston's boosters shouting joyously, "We're not as bad as L.A.! We're not as bad as L.A.!"

A similar mind-set might be useful when it comes to looking at the year that just passed in Houston. In many ways, 2002 was a pretty bad year -- a stalled economy, an Olympian snub, never-ending road construction -- but in the spirit of the best Greater Houston Partnership spin masters, we can definitively declare this: It wasn't as bad as 2001.

There was no Tropical Storm Allison, for one thing. The fact that the Theater District and the Texas Medical Center did not endure hundreds of millions of dollars of flood damage this year has to be considered a plus. (Would it have killed the weather gods, however, to send down a quick gullywasher that might have prevented TUTS's world premiere of the musical Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?)

And, despite the fact that he was running the goddamn company, Enron boss Ken Lay did not get indicted. That meant Houston didn't have to suffer through yet another media recounting of all the black-tie charity dinners Lay has hosted, and how if he didn't just have such a big gosh-darn heart he would have been able to keep a better eye on all those wily underlings who were perverting the name of Enron, all unbeknownst to Kenny Boy.

And unlike 2001 (not to mention 1997, 1998 and 1999), the Houston Astros did not get blown out in the first round of the playoffs. Jimy Williams replaced manager Larry Dierker, who had led the team to such mediocrity. The Astros responded magnificently to Williams and made a concerted effort to not force their fans to endure more playoff frustration, finishing 13 games out of first place.

So 2002 was demonstrably better than 2001. Which is kind of like saying Houston's air is better than L.A.'s -- in other words, it ain't saying much.

This past year gave the city widespread publicity for court cases involving a mother drowning her children in a bathtub, not to mention a dentist allegedly running over her allegedly cheating orthodontist husband with her (actual, not alleged) Mercedes-Benz in a hotel parking lot.

There was a lot of strange stuff going on in Houston in 2002. But what hasn't been revealed -- until now -- is that it was strangeness with a purpose.

For much of the sheer weirdness of the year was done with one thing in mind: to make sure the Houston Rockets signed international sensation Yao Ming, and that the fluid seven-foot-five budding superstar from China felt right at home here.

The Rockets had been planning to get Yao for several years, intentionally playing putrid basketball to improve their position in the NBA draft. (Could there be any other reason for Kelvin Cato and Eddie Griffin?) Their chance finally came May 19 when they won the draft lottery and got the chance to make the first pick overall.

But it wasn't as simple as choosing a player from some U.S. college and signing him. The Rockets would have to convince Yao, and the Chinese government, that Houston was a perfect fit for the giant from Shanghai.

Luckily, Rockets owner Les Alexander already had in his possession the collective balls of Houston's powers that be, courtesy of his sweetheart arena deal. (He displays them in a Steuben vase during the winter, as part of a time-share agreement with the Astros' Drayton McLane and the Texans' Bob McNair.) Getting them to do his bidding in order to make Houston attractive to Yao would be easy. The movers and shakers of the city would do all that they could to make Yao feel at home.

The project began in a boardroom downtown.

"All right -- what do you think of when you think of China?" Alexander barked to the gathered suits.

"Dishes?" said Ken Lay's wife, Linda. "We've got a marvelous selection down at Jus' Stuff -- and the solid-gold coffee stirrers are simply to die for. They're 3 percent off for all ex-Enron employees!"

"Save it for the Chronicle, Linda," Alexander snapped. "Anyone else?"  

"Well, there was that whole Tiananmen Square thing," someone offered.

Employing the same nuanced understanding of international relations that has forced countless visiting diplomats to endure rodeos and barbecue, the group decided it would be a good thing to have a Houston version of the 1989 event.

Putting it together seemed daunting, however. Where could you get hundreds of local youths to peacefully gather in an open square? And once you did that, how could you come up with a reason to storm them with overwhelming force?

"No problem," said the Houston Police Department representative. "I'll get Mark Aguirre on it."

And so, on one hot August night, everything but the tanks rolled at the now-sacred ground of the Westheimer Kmart. Instead of one lonely man with a shopping bag facing down the might of the People's Army, we saw the inspired youth of Houston howl in rage over their interrupted loitering. Their fight lives on, especially for those kids whose faces show up in the same piece of stock footage that each news station uses whenever there's an update on the raid.

(In a friendly gesture that is so charmingly typical of the generous Lays, just prior to the arrests Linda gave HPD's then-chief C.O. Bradford her husband's engraved checklist on how not to know what's going on with your high-level employees.)

The raid, of course, was a big success -- people everywhere were tossing around phrases like "totalitarian government" and "official repression."

The after-action postmortem featured a lot of happy faces. "Now that's a little bit of China right here in Space City," one of the planners said. "It'll make Yao feel right at home."

"It's a good first step, all right," said Alexander. "What's next? Come on, come on -- in China they think big."

Think of the Great Wall, he said. Think of the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest public works project, a $25 billion flood control plan.

"Hmmm," said someone in the back of the room. "An overpriced, elaborate construction project allegedly having to do with flood control? I can work with that."

Within days, the unnamed operative came back with plans to turn Buffalo Bayou into a downtown wonderland of shops, restaurants and activities. Oh, and flood control stuff, too.

"Truly Buffalo Bayou is as enchanting a waterway as the mystical Yangtze, and the romantic Seine and the historical Thames," he said. "Surely it is worth pouring millions and millions of dollars into, if only to attract Yao and raise property values for insiders. Oh, and to do flood control stuff, too."

"How are you ever going to sell that to the public?" Alexander growled.

"Easy enough," he answered. "Or it would be, if that Lay woman would just stop tying up the phone line to the Chronicle. She's not the only one who needs free advertising, you know."

The beauty of the Buffalo Bayou plan was not only in its pointlessness, in its Three Gorges-like scale. It opened the door to showing Yao other ways that Houston would be just like his home country.

The Three Gorges Dam will create a massive lake that will flood countless historical sites when it's finished next year. Archaeologists have protested, but the Chinese government says it wants to look to the future, not the past.

So maybe, the Houstonians figured, Yao might get nostalgic to see a cruelly, thoughtlessly abandoned historical site sitting unloved, gathering dust in its decrepit descent into oblivion. Welcome to the Astrodome!

Generations of Houstonians have enjoyed the Dome, whether it involved watching the Astros get blown out in the first round of the playoffs or reveling in the Oilers as they underachieved their way to becoming the Tennessee Titans, or using binoculars to determine just which downward-sliding country act was on stage at the only rodeo performance they could get tickets to.

But 2002 brought an end to all that. The Astros had taken their playoff tradition to Jus' Stuff Field, which later became Minute Maid Park, named (we guess) after those brave camp followers who comforted the minutemen who fell at Lexington and Concord. The rodeo, and the football team that replaced the Oilers, have ignored the Dome and have settled in at the luxurious surroundings of what is called, at least for the moment, Reliant Stadium.

The opening of the stadium was one of the major events of 2002, if you use media coverage as a criterion. Build it and they will come, the cliché says. The cliché doesn't mention, however, the huge traffic jams that happen when they come with insufficient planning.

The Texans, in their never-ending quest to bleed every last dollar out of their gift of a stadium, refused to have park-and-ride service to their games. Traffic flow would be much better served, they reasoned, by having everyone pay them $10 to park.  

The result, on opening night of the exhibition season, was one of the biggest traffic jams Houston has ever seen. Irate drivers sat for hours in cars that moved barely five blocks in that time. As a result, the Texans revisited the idea of whether having 60 people on a single bus instead of 30 cars trying to get to the stadium might help traffic.

(Not taking the bus, by the way, was Texans owner Bob McNair. He got a police escort to and from the games. "Just like China's leaders," he said. "I'm only doing my part for the Rockets.")

Those who made it in to see the Texans in 2002 were pleasantly surprised. The franchise will go a long time before it tops the opening night of the regular season, when the Texans beat the hated Dallas Cowboys in one of the NFL's biggest upsets. "This would be like Iraq beating the Great Satan," Texans officials told their Chinese government guests. "Using your missiles, of course."

Another highlight of the Texans' inaugural season was the record-setting performance of its offensive line. Unfortunately enough for quarterback David Carr, the record that was set was for most QB sacks allowed.

For Carr, dropping back to pass was a season-long adventure. The Texans' depleted offensive line often seemed to offer little but verbal discouragement to opposing rushers, who ignored the "Hey, come back here!" cries on their way to crushing Carr. Every time, though -- at least as of this writing -- the wunderkind QB got up to try again.

In the Texans' playbook, though, the five-step drop usually ends up being the five-step drop and roll. Carr can only hope the team doesn't win so many games that their draft position makes it hard to find a stud lineman.

The city's other football teams did what they could to welcome Yao, at least in terms of showing that they wouldn't be crowding the Rockets off the sports pages by winning championships or anything. The University of Houston Cougars did improve over an 0-11 season (fully embodying the spin-any-improvement-you-can "We're not as bad as L.A.!" spirit), but they fired their coach. The new guy is the latest new guy who will turn the program around, we're told.

The Rice Owls, on the other hand, went even further in making Yao feel at home: They cracked down on religious expression, in the best anti-Falun Gong manner.

Rice coach Ken Hatfield is a religious man, but apparently it's not one of those religions that preach everyone should be treated equally. In an interview with an educational publication, Hatfield was paraphrased as saying his interpretation of the Bible would make him "think hard" about kicking a player off his team if the kid said he was gay.

"What happened?" Hatfield said he would ask the player. "What changed since we recruited you? When did this come about?" (Being gay is apparently a snap-decision kind of thing to Hatfield.)

Rice president Malcolm Gillis ordered Hatfield to apologize, but that didn't stop students from protesting. At the team's next home game, students wore T-shirts that said, "I AM NOT HOMOPHOBIC" on the front. (On the back they said, "I AM, HOWEVER, SMUGLY SELF-RIGHTEOUS." Or maybe they didn't.)

The "Welcome, Yao" planning committee, smitten with the Rice response, reportedly tried to get T-shirts printed that said, "I DON'T HATE CHINESE PEOPLE" but decided against it.

Another aspect of athletics played a key role in enticing Yao, while taking up a huge amount of Houston's energy and attention in 2002. That, of course, was the city's sad effort to attract the 2012 Olympics.

It was a puzzling project right from the beginning. Who, in their right mind, would look at how the world reviled the Atlanta Olympics and decide that the time had come to spend millions convincing the snobs at the International Olympic Committee that the time was right for another bland, hot, huckster-ridden Southern U.S. city?

Houston 2012 officials drew up elaborate plans to air-condition every square inch of the city where an Olympics official might set foot. (The unwashed masses, on the other hand, would somehow be convinced to "party" in glorified parking lots across town.) Houston's infrastructure was demonstrably better and more organized than that of its competitors. What did San Francisco, New York or Washington, D.C., have that we didn't?

Well, people actually wanted to visit those cities, as it turned out. The U.S. Olympic Committee eventually chose New York as the city to submit to the IOC. For all the primping Houston did, their prom night turned out worse than Carrie.  

That disappointment dashed dreams of watching just how Mattress Mac would comply with the guidelines we're sure the Houston 2012 people would have put out to ensure a "tasteful" amount of commercialism. Maybe he would have settled for providing the French officials with only one plush velour recliner with a cup holder, instead of a matching set.

Houston 2012 president Susan Bandy took the "We're not as bad as L.A.!" spirit to new heights when she bristled publicly to the national media about the comparisons to Atlanta. "We are so much farther along, however you look at it, than Atlanta will ever be," she told the Los Angeles Times. (And Oklahoma City? Don't even think about it!)

The Olympics debacle turned out to be a plus in the plot to attract Yao, however. Beijing, of course, is hosting the 2008 Games; Houston's embarrassing loss allowed the Chinese to feel superior to the poor hicks in Texas, garnering a bit of the old sympathy vote.

If more sympathy was needed, Rockets officials would only have to take the Chinese downtown. There they would have seen a backward civilization where modern transportation has been rendered useless thanks to an inability to provide a working street system.

The vaunted light-rail project on Main Street continued to block traffic and kill off local businesses as part of a trade-off where Houstonians are shown pretty computer graphics and drawings of what a light-rail system would look like if it was ever finished. Metro still is sticking to its announced 2004 opening, meaning yet another year of hassle.

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.

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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