Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Truth be told, there are probably about a dozen categories across multiple sections of the "Best of" issue for which Texans defensive end J.J. Watt would qualify. To call him merely "Texans defensive end" feels like you're short-selling Watt. Oh, sure, he is the very best at what he does in all of football, sacking quarterbacks 20.5 times and knocking down 16 passes in 2012 on his way to NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. But in record time, Watt has become so much more than that to Houston. In just two years, he has become a fixture at charity events, a 300-pound angel to kids all over town, from the six-year-old girl whom he "pretend married" for a day when he saw her sobbing on a viral video, to his befriending and helping raise thousands of dollars for the Berry children, who were orphaned in a tragic car accident in 2011 (before Watt had even played a down as a Texan) that left two of them confined to wheelchairs. J.J. Watt, the big kid from Wisconsin, has become a Texan, in both the football and the very literal sense of the word. The best Texan.
Houston is hot, this we all know. There are also a large number of talented basketball players in and around this city, both pros and street-ball kings, who on any given night rattle rims and drain three-pointers deep into the humid night. The big university in the heart of Third Ward offers a set of indoor basketball courts that feature clean nets, wide space and, of course, air-conditioning. The Campus Recreation and Wellness Center at the University of Houston is still a relatively brand-new facility, and the pick-up games held there are top-notch. Take the challenge against students during the week, or battle against visitors on the weekends — for a small fee, of course.
Midday sports radio hosting is a thankless gig. Anyone can take calls and do interviews in drive time when practically the entire city is stuck in traffic and the best athletes and coaches are available. But lunchtimers are usually subjected to annoying blowhards who sound like Rush Limbaugh in a football jersey. That's not Matt Thomas, who manages to combine a lifetime of Houston sports knowledge with the requisite patience and sense of humor needed to handle the tedium of midday sports talk. He strikes the perfect balance between hardcore sports talk and entertainment, all set to a '70s music soundtrack.
Sometimes, all you need is a good mud hole to cool yourself off. In the case of Huntsville State Park, the water may look murky thanks to the clay bottom, but the lake is far from a hole. The atmosphere is more that of a summer camp than a public park, and there's no danger from outboard motors or undertow. It's the perfect place for kids and a relaxing spot for adults as well.
There are many great vantage points from which the beauty of Houston can be seen, such as the Sabine Street bridge or the I-10 HOV lane that leads into downtown near Taylor Street. But after you experience the rooftop view from the Magnolia Hotel just before sunset, you will agree that it clearly deserves the top honor for best view of the city. Looking to the east, you'll see the new Harris County Courthouse, Minute Maid Park and BBVA Compass Stadium, the whole East End, all the way to the Houston Ship Channel. To the west, you'll notice the downtown skyline, Buffalo Bayou, Eleanor Tinsley Park, Fourth Ward, Montrose and River Oaks. The view to the north is equally fantastic. So book yourself a room or just stop in for a visit. The Magnolia staff are friendly enough to allow you a peek even without a reservation.
Most amusement centers are outdoors, and while this is great for the brief time of the year where being outdoors sounds awesome, it's pretty annoying when the heat hits. Track 21 would be great outdoors, but throw on a roof and some air-conditioning and you've got a location suitable for first dates that don't involve alcohol or for letting the kids burn off pent-up energy. Highlights include three go-kart tracks, a challenging but fun cosmic golf course and one of the best laser-tag battlegrounds in the city. All that, and you don't have to worry about anyone getting heatstroke.
There's something microcosmic about setting up a picnic in Menil Park. Bring your jambon and rye and salad and Saint Arnold, spread your bevy of blankets, and soak in the surroundings that exemplify Houston. Watch the well-dressed couples milling around in The Menil Collection and Cy Twombly Gallery. Observe the weekday warriors looking for a spiritual, ascetic reprieve in the Rothko Chapel. Take in the young families scrambling along the low-lying oaks and the college kids tossing footballs and flying discs as if they're on campus. Sit back, scan the park, and watch the wizards and the gypsies and the homeless banjo pickers and the shirtless hula-hoopers all work their magic. Sip your drinks and splay out on the grass, and appreciate all the different people you find around you. This is exactly how Houston should be. This is precisely how Houston should host a picnic.
It's not difficult to imagine the bowling scenes in movies like The Big Lebowski being filmed in a place like Palace Bowling Lanes. In business nearly 50 years, it has the feel of a bowling alley that has seen things and knows things. With digital scoring, bumper bowling for the kids, a nicely stocked bar for the adults, Palace is modern where it needs to be and old-school where it counts.
The roster of failed coaches in NBA history is littered with men who were great players but couldn't coach a lick. (Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas immediately come to mind.) Such is not the case with Rockets head coach Kevin McHale. The man whom many call the greatest low post scorer in history led the Rockets to their first playoff berth since 2009 and did so amid constant roster turnover (a February trade left second-year player Chandler Parsons as the most tenured Rocket on the roster) and personal tragedy (McHale's 23-year-old daughter, Sasha, passed away from lupus in November). On top of all that, as the Rockets try to continue their upgrade of the roster in free agency, McHale's Hall of Fame résumé and growing reputation as a coach for whom players want to play will be major selling points, especially to big men looking to play for the man who wrote the book on post moves.
Big dogs get their choice of two large ponds filled with turquoise water and acres and acres of green grass at Millie Bush Bark Park. Small dogs get their own more compact pond and a fenced lawn. There's a long granite walking path, bench seating, trees and cover from the sun. The park, the first of its kind in the Harris County system, has built-in safety features including double gates at the exits and fencing to keep big and small dogs separate. Doggie showers at the exit are popular. Oh, and not that dogs really care, but the parking lot has a 100-car capacity.
Few places this close to Houston are this decidedly wild. With more than 13 miles of trails, park-goers can participate in activities such as horseback riding, fishing, camping, birdwatching, cycling and, of course, alligator-watching. With six lakes, the park is home to plenty of alligators. It's also home to the spectacular George Observatory, owned and operated by the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Every Saturday, the park hosts star parties, where gazers can look through the three massive observatory telescopes as well as countless smaller telescopes brought by hobbyists. Brazos Bend takes stargazing by your campsite to a whole new level.
A big part of the football experience in the state of Texas at every level (high school, college and professional) is the cheerleading squad. A spot on the Houston Texans cheerleading squad (which has been a part of the franchise since its inception in 2002) is one of the most sought-after jobs in the city, with an acceptance rate that would make the Ivy League proud — more than 1,000 girls try out annually for around three dozen spots. Additionally, the squad is a fixture at various Texans-sanctioned charity events and always seems to find a way to routinely appear at other outside charity events. They are truly a group befitting the Super Bowl aspirations of the team on the field.