Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
It's rare to have a player about whom you can say, "He is the reason the Rockets finished as the eighth seed in the Western Conference," and have it be simultaneously an insult and a compliment. Last season Harden's slow start dug the Rockets into a hole that got Kevin McHale fired. But with two months left, Harden was spectacular, showing the form that made him the runner-up for the MVP in 2014-2015, and helped the Rockets sneak into the playoffs. This season, with Dwight Howard gone to Atlanta, the Rockets are building exclusively around Harden, who will look to regain his near MVP form with new teammates Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon turning his kick-out passes into three-pointers.
READERS' CHOICE: James Harden
When Tom Herman arrived at the University of Houston in 2015, he came to campus long on credibility and short on head coaching experience. Having just finished a stint as offensive coordinator for the national champion Ohio State Buckeyes, Herman was determined to make the Cougars the top program in the nation outside the Power Five conferences. In his first season at the helm, he did just that, leading the Cougars to a 13-1 record and a convincing Peach Bowl victory over Florida State. Equally important, Herman followed that up with the best recruiting class that Houston has seen in decades. Nobody knows what will happen if the right (or wrong, if you're a fan of the Cougars) Power Five school comes calling for Herman's services, but last season he performed his duties at the highest level of any coach in the city, and it wasn't really that close.
Versatility is important in any job, but it's a must for sports broadcasters in 2016. Kevin Eschenfelder's varied television skills and adaptability are big reasons why he's been so successful for so long. Since breaking into television in the early '90s, Eschenfelder has been a broadcast fixture in both Houston and Dallas, handling studio duties for the pro baseball and basketball teams in both markets on FOX Sports Southwest. For the two years that Comcast SportsNet Houston was in business, Eschenfelder was the face of the network, hosting the daily SportsTalk Live show. Today, Eschenfelder handles studio duties for the Houston Astros and Houston Rockets on ROOT Sports Network, while mixing in radio play-by-play duties for the University of Houston football team. He even occasionally pinch-hits for the play-by-play duties on Astros television broadcasts. Nobody in Houston does more jobs in broadcasting, and does them well, than Kevin Eschenfelder.
With two unique courses, Cypresswood Golf Club offers up the perfect combination of fun and challenge. The Tradition Course is dubbed "a return to the game and its origin, pure and simple," while the Cypress Course has doglegs and rolling fairways that make it the perfect test for a shot maker. Cypresswood's location — just north of Bush Intercontinental Airport — makes it perfect for that business golf outing, and the number of amateur and professional events it's hosted is a testament to the overall quality of the facility, both on the course and in the clubhouse. With reasonable daily fees and a motivated staff, Cypresswood is a golf gem in a city with numerous options.
Besides a historic neon sign hoisted over the free weights area upstairs, the only vestige of the old downtown Y is a piped-in soundtrack that occasionally plays Roxy Music and the New York Dolls. Otherwise, the Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA is clean and completely modern, a popular locale for lunching professionals and young families. There are classes for raising your heart rate, classes for lowering your heart rate, various ball courts and an elevated lap track for runners and walkers. What's more, the downtown Y has indoor pools and sauna rooms for your stewing and broiling needs. And it's affordable enough to all who need a steady respite from the sedentary slog and heavy eating that are both part of our civic birthright and duty.
READERS' CHOICE: Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA
Ironically, Orbit made his return to the Houston Astros during the most downtrodden, depressing season in the history of the franchise, the 51-111 debacle back in 2013. Since then the baseball team has been making a steady climb, while the mascot has been on a meteoric rise. Go to any Astros game and chances are Orbit will find his way over to your section for a photo opportunity — or to shoot some silly string at you. Over the years he's taken on many shapes and forms, but Orbit seems to have settled in comfortably going forward as the portly, furry green fellow committing shenanigans at Minute Maid Park.
READERS' CHOICE: Clutch
At Minute Maid Park there's not a bad seat in the house, not even in the upper decks. The Houston Astros offer tickets for as low as $15 on the weekends and as low as $10 during the week. Sure, you aren't sitting with millionaires and former presidents, but you still get to enjoy a hot dog and a beer while witnessing nine innings unfold — and the people-watching is even better among the hoi polloi. If you're not enjoying yourself in the cheap seats, chances are you just aren't that good at having fun.
Looking to build off his 2014 American League batting title, this year Jose Altuve won over enough fans the first half of his season to start at second base in the All-Star Game. He's upped his power, knocking more balls out of the park while still leading the league in batting average. He was the Astros' main offensive engine in a season when many of his teammates struggled at the plate. In fact, the tremendous feats of "Gigante" went a long way toward making the Astros watchable during a frequently frustrating season, while hopefully pointing the way toward brighter days ahead.
READERS' CHOICE: Jose Altuve
Because Houston has such a shortage of hills, it's somewhat easy to forget how great it looks from above the trees. White Oak Music Hall, which opened in August after 18 months of construction and anticipation, now offers one of the city's more beautiful vantage points as a side benefit of catching a show at its newest music venue. One of the coolest features of the three-stage complex, which consumes more than 50,000 square feet of land alongside White Oak Bayou, is the two outdoor balconies that offer an amazing view of the bayou, the downtown skyline and the canopy of trees over the Heights. It feels like you can almost see all the way to Galveston. Standing on one of those balconies, especially at night, it's all too easy to convince your skeptical out-of-town visitors that Houston can be a beautiful city after all.
The New York Flash's loss was our gain. Traded to the Houston Dash in October 2014, New Jersey gal and regular starter Carli Lloyd soon separated herself from the pack, demonstrating a mental toughness that has led this two-time Olympic gold medalist to glory, including being named FIFA Women's World Cup champion and FIFA Player of the Year in 2015. It was no surprise when she was named to the 2016 Olympic roster; after all, she scored the winning goals in the finals of the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. We all winced when she sprained a ligament back in April, though she was quick to send out a reassuring tweet, "This won't stop me." The midfielder was true to her word, back in the saddle by July and proving that her not-so-secret weapon was working harder than everyone else.
If you ever sit down with Bill Brown to talk about Houston Astros baseball, you'll notice the remarkable ease with which he bounces between anecdotes from different generations. The man they call "Brownie" recalls stories about the Biggio-Bagwell-Caminiti nucleus just as easily as he recounts a Carlos Correa or Jose Altuve home run from this past summer. Brown brings this same storytelling skill to his play-by-play work on television, emanating that casual elegance in the games he calls for ROOT Sports Southwest. With 30 years announcing Astros games under his belt, Brown is the closest thing to a team historian currently working for the team. Now that the Astros appear ready for perennial playoff contention, it's great to see Brownie's voice attached to important games once again.
When DeAndre Hopkins was taken with the 27th overall pick in 2013, most people thought he'd be a pretty good player. Few saw him becoming one of the top five wide receivers in all of football, but that's precisely what has happened. What makes Hopkins's performance even more remarkable is that he did his damage last season (111 catches, 1,521 yards, 11 touchdowns) with four different starting quarterbacks, notching at least one 100-yard game with all four signal-callers. Hopkins is not especially fast, but he has an amazing knack for spectacular plays in traffic and superhero-quality body control. Hopkins will get to feel what it's like to play with a franchise quarterback this season now that the Texans have Brock Osweiler, a move that should only solidify Hopkins's status as an elite wide receiver in the NFL.
READERS' CHOICE: J.J. Watt