Bell Park, a tiny slice of green space on Montrose just north of Hermann Park, is both romantic and soothing. A wall of lush, well-kept greenery keeps the traffic out of sight and cuts down on the noise, giving visitors a respite from the busy hustle-bustle of everyday life. Tall trees provide shade, while the soft lawn is a perfect place for spreading out a picnic blanket. There are benches, a few foot paths and a bridge over a tranquil pool, all adding to the peaceful setting. The best thing is that you don't have to drive an hour out of town to find some quiet. Perfectly situated between the Museum District and downtown, Bell Park is just a quick five-minute ride away from downtown and the Medical Center.

The Fonde Recreation Center, set along the Buffalo Bayou just west of downtown, is the city's premier spot for pickup basketball. Dozens of NBA legends, from Clyde Drexler to Hakeem Olajuwon, have graced the courts, and many of the old-timers still occasionally show up to run the floor. The gym is free and open to the public, but you better bring your A-game. There's also plenty of room on the bleachers for fans looking to be wowed by Houston's best ballers.

Though it looks like we can't decide which one of these places is best, the truth is their connections make them all winners. The trails running through Buffalo Bayou Art Park, Eleanor Tinsley Park and the Sabine-to-Bagby Promenade allow off-the-jobbers from many locations — including Montrose, Memorial and downtown — a chance to get their jog on without traveling too far. The trails provide plenty of beautiful views of nature, cityscapes and local art. (And by nature we mean forests, not just oak trees along a concrete sidewalk.) The numerous forks in the road make it easy for runners to create paths that are as short or as long as they want. The number of choices also helps deter overcrowding, which allows runners to see the competition (Read: check out the hotties) without feeling like they're jockeying for position in a marathon.

Martial arts schools that teach styles ending with chi or fu far outnumber those that specialize in ones ending with do in Houston. Chalk it up to large Chinese and Vietnamese populations and the better commercial viability of their flashier fighting techniques (the Jackie Chan factor). Those looking to study the Land of the Rising Sun's most sublime style of self-defense can end their search at Diamondback Judo Club. The school has three godans (fifth-degree black belts, for all you mudanshas) on staff and regularly hosts top visiting instructors. (A several-time Iranian champion was once a Diamondback instructor.) Classes are held in a converted industrial garage where there's plenty of room to swoosh your opponent through the air with a hikikomi gaeshi. And there's a thickly padded mat across the floor in case you're on the receiving end.

Now dont get us wrong, the Dynamo and their rowdy, loyal fans kick ass. But watching pickup games played on fields with more dirt than grass, where trash barrels are used as goal posts, all while swaying in a hammock right next to the action is a great way to enjoy the sport without having to deal with parking lot hell and crazy-high cerveza prices at UH. Most evenings, Bayland Park attracts youths with roots in Mexico and across Central America for ftbol. Here, its BYOB. And BYOH: Bring Your Own Hammock.

Let's be blunt here: Take away a few legends like Vin Scully, and there's no better way, anywhere in the country, to follow a major-league baseball game than with Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies in the TV booth. Deshaies is funny as hell, has insight into the game and isn't afraid to speak his mind. It might seem that Brown does little more than play straight man to Deshaies's shtick, but that's not the case at all. True, he doesn't try to one-up Jimmy D on obscure music references (thankfully). But he keeps the viewer informed, offers cogent and concise analyses of his own and knows the rules of the game like he knows his own phone number. Even when the 'Stros are sucking, which is often, viewers on Fox Sports Southwest or Channel 51 can thoroughly enjoy the game listening to these guys.

The city's best and perhaps most-used public pool can be found in Emancipation Park, set in the Third Ward just east of downtown. During the segregation era, Emancipation was Houston's lone municipal park for African-Americans. Today it's a hub for athletics and all kinds of fun and friendly neighborhood activities. The popular pool and water slide attract thousands throughout the ­summer.

It's been a long, long time since the Houston Rockets have done anything in the playoffs, but hope springs eternal. Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are the Rockets' superstars, but when it comes to quiet, solid contributions to the team, forward Shane Battier is the real superstar. Rarely out of position or outhustled on defense, he's long been considered an ultimate team-first guy. Plus he's a brainiac from Duke who speaks fluent German, plays jazz trumpet and — unless Obama gets there first — could just end up being the nation's first black president. (It's not so far-fetched: He famously asked his mother, when he was just three years old, whether he'd make a good president.) Battier brings nothing but good to the Rockets. Now if he'd only help them get past the first round of the NBA playoffs, we'd be happy.

Taking nothing away from the Coogs' C-USA championship night, Houston was host to another athletic night to remember for all time this year. The 2007 Astros season opened with all eyes on ­second-baseman Craig Biggio as he chased the storied mark of 3,000 career hits; unfortunately, Bidge struggled at the plate and on the field, making the drama more of a slog than a celebration. All that changed on the night he finally reached the plateau, however. He entered the game June 28 three hits shy, no doubt creating dreams in owner Drayton McLane's head that several more nights of sold-out crowds were still to come. Instead Bidge blasted five hits that night, the most important one coming on a seventh-inning single that made him Mr. 3,000. Amid the ensuing wave of affection, cheering and hugs, Biggio marched to the Astros dugout and forced former teammate Jeff Bagwell to take the field with him. Seeing the beaming pair — with Bags shaggily resembling a surfer dude headed for the beach — is an image Houston sports fans won't forget.

Houston has more sports-talk stations than any fan really needs, but far fewer good sports-talk shows than anyone would like. There's a slew of hosts who don't know basic stuff but prefer going for cheap laughs talking about babes and movies. On the other hand, there's Charlie Pallilo of "The Sports Animal," KBME 790. No one in town — no one in the state — retains more sports knowledge than him. You think he's madly Googling to come up with some obscure stat? Think again — he simply remembered it. Pallilo has a great radio voice and presence, he enjoys a good argument and he doesn't dumb things down (too much: he does feel the need to pimp "the babes" on the station's Web site). Some listeners complain he's too cerebral, but he's actually a refreshing and entertaining antidote to moronic radio.

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