If there's one thing that annoys a fan of the U.S. national soccer team, it's when someone criticizes the players after watching just one World Cup match. Thankfully, Houston readers have a columnist who's on the ball: John P. Lopez covered this year's World Cup in a way newcomers could understand and die-hard fans will never forget. The highlight of his coverage came with a column addressing the devastating state of U.S. soccer. In his article, which was critical of the risk-averse coaches, Lopez blamed the team's poor performance on their meager presence at international matches. Argentina took over Olympic basketball after years of embarrassing defeats, and Latin America has conquered baseball, he wrote. Thus it's not years of exposure to a game that makes a great athlete, but rather exposure to true competition that makes a difference. Goal!
Palacios is the shrimp capital of Texas. So what, you say? Well, we'll tell you. Hundreds of crusty old sea dogs deliver big, fat, still-jumping fresh shrimp to Palacios's restaurants every day, and you can sit on the deck of one of the town's many seafood restaurants, eat a delicious $7 fried shrimp dinner with all the fixin's and chitchat with the boat captain who just brought in your dinner. Or you can sit around and argue with the locals about how to pronounce the name of the town. (No matter what anyone says, "Palacios" should not rhyme with "splashes.") This tiny town has plenty of Texas twang, some of the best seafood on the Gulf Coast (certainly the freshest), low, low prices (a three-bedroom condo a block from the beach goes for $180 a night), great fishing and birding (if you're into that sort of thing) and is close enough for a day trip.
In Houston, sports championships -- in sports that people actually care about -- are rarer than Matthew McConaughey's Oscars. So getting a nod as Best Coach is not about the win-lose record, it's about how you explain the (not good enough) win-lose record. And no one does it better than the perpetually hangdog Van Gundy, who has mastered the art of mumbling criticisms that sound reasonable when you hear them but appear Bobby Knight-like when they hit cold print. "It turns my stomach, frankly, to watch that tonight," he'll say, or "It rips my guts out that we're not a really, really, really committed, competitive team." Luckily, he's also a pretty good coach. If he could just keep the team's stars from getting hurt, the Rockets might actually become a legitimate NBA team.
For years we've been the slightest bit put off by Craig Biggio, who seemed to be working far too hard on his all-American-boy image and has never, as far as we can tell, given an interview that wasn't a dull string of "one game at a time" clichs. But with the exit of Jeff Bagwell, Biggio is the only real remaining link back to the team's bittersweet Astrodome era. And as he chases the magical number of 3,000 career hits, his story takes on more and more depth: Can his 40-year-old body take the daily punishment? Can a player who's been with the 'Stros since the Reagan administration outlast two Bush presidencies? We're sure Craig will take it one game at a time, but we'll be rooting for him. As long as his lack of range at second doesn't cost us too many games.
It's been a long, long time since baseball was a cheap date, as Astros fans can tell you. Even before you start spending crazy money on food and beer at a game, buying a pair of seats hugging the foul pole will set you back almost $75. But there are ways around the madness -- very cheap ways, in fact. One of the cheapest is Coca-Cola Double Play Tuesday. It involves drinking a 32-ounce Powerade, but greatness requires sacrifice. Take the neck ring from the bottle to the box office, and you'll get two outfield deck seats for a buck each. Sure, the seats are in the upper reaches of the stadium, but here's the thing: Minute Maid Park is exceptionally open to improving your vantage point. If you prefer to be legal, get there early and take a standing-room spot by the Crawford Boxes. If you're more daring, wait three innings and move on down to field level. Then look natural, find an empty seat, and no one will stop you. As for eating and drinking cheaply during the game, you're on your own.
If you want flash in hockey, you look for a speeding, preening wingman. If you want solid dependability, you look for a defenseman. And on the Houston Aeros, you look for Curtis Murphy. Murphy, who returned to Houston this season after a year of competing in Russia, seemingly never misses a game. And the 30-year-old has proved his worth by playing on three different minor-league championship teams and for NCAA winner North Dakota. He had his best scoring year this season and was named to the American Hockey League All-Star team for the third time. He's a Saskatchewan native who loves Houston and has created Murphy's Mission, a program that benefits the "I Have a Dream" Foundation. So what if he isn't flashy?
Face it: Being a hockey fan in Houston can be tough. Mention the Rangers to someone, and they think you're talking baseball. Give a Texans fan five chances to spell Jaromir Jagr, and he'll still be tossing Y's at you on his fifth try. But there's plenty of upside: The Aeros play entertaining hockey at a high skill level, the tickets aren't that expensive, and you get to watch them at the Toyota Center, with its great sight lines and easy access to beer. Best of all, you're with 5,000 fellow hockey nuts who revel in their cultishness without all the defensive, wounded elitism of soccer fans. Aeros fans dress up and cheer loud, they know their hockey, and they know how to have fun. You don't have to join the Tailgunners, the official booster club, but if you do, you'll get to participate in charity events and get-togethers. NHL hockey, if it ever comes, will never be this cheap, intimate and loose.
Millie Bush Dog Park, named for the spaniel that roamed the White House under George and Babs, isn't just the best dog park in Houston. According to the editors of Dog Fancy Magazine, it's the No. 1 bark park in the USA. We haven't scoped out the country's other 700 dog parks, so we'll just have to take their word for it. But it's an assertion that's easy to believe, considering the amenities: a 15-acre spread with three gently sloping ponds, a red gravel track, fake fire hydrants, showers and drinking fountains. There's even a separate section for little fellas, where they can sniff, sprint and swim without fear of being bullied by the big dogs. Welcome to doggie heaven.
Though Houston is nothing like Chicago in terms of wind, the occasional gusts coming in off the Gulf can make flying a kite here an exhilarating experience -- especially at Rice University. In addition to the great view of the neighboring Medical Center, the beautiful campus has many wide-open grassy fields with no overhead wires or obstructions to fry your fun. If you ever get the itch to experiment as Ben Franklin did, there's always a thunderstorm -- not to mention a hurricane -- brewing on the horizon. Let your string out.
As fans are painfully aware, the 2005-2006 Houston Rockets season went from hopeful to hateful, from "Just Do It" to "Just Kill Us." Free agents Derek Anderson and Stromile Swift were a bust and a disappointment, respectively. Tracy McGrady, despite putting forth a stalwart effort, succumbed to back spasms and had to cash in early on in the season. The bags under fatigued coach Jeff Van Gundy's eyes evolved into full-fledged suitcases. And yet, all the while, Yao Ming stood tall (well, really damn tall) as the team's literal and figurative center. The guy whom detractors called soft averaged 22.3 points per game and in one game pulled down 21 rebounds. As his teammates struggled to find their shots, Yao hit his consistently. His never-complain (not even when tortured by a painful growth on his toe), always-deliver attitude was nothing short of heroic on a team with too few heroes. Yao has silenced critics, won new fans and established himself as a major baller and a giant among men.

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