Not too long ago, local bad-ass and onetime Houston Press writer John Nova Lomax postulated a very good argument that Houston might very well be America's Most Miserable Sports City. Surely we have our highs, like the Rockets' recent so-close-we-can-almost-taste-it run this spring or the Astros playing the improbable role of pace-setters for the AL West all season long. But mostly our sports history is a series of euphoric glimpses of potential mixed with embarrassing crash-and-burn lows. That is, unless you count the Houston Comets.
Formed in 1997, the Comets were one of the WNBA's original eight teams, and won the first four league championships. Before folding in 2008 when no one would buy them, they were WNBA's first dynasty. What I’m getting at is, anything our teams do, they did better. Today, gone are Comets stars Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, who have given way to names like Slayer Moon and Sprint Eastwood.
Leave it up to the ladies of Houston to fill in the gap with some ingenuity and furious action of a much-missed sport. That's exactly what gave me the courage to drive downtown recently and try to find a parking spot on a weekend – to witness some Houston Roller Derby action. The matches are held at Bayou Music Center, the downtown live-music venue in Bayou Place I’ve been coming to for concerts since it was known as the Aerial Theater. Except here the general-admission, standing-room-only floor has been converted into a flat-track derby arena with ladies flying by on skates. They are preparing for the evening's doubleheader; tonight is extra-special because it's homecoming for previous players.
After Amanda Bryant sings a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem, we're off to the races. I feel like I'm wasting time getting beer, because the good seats are right on the floor, right next to the track – and they’re filling up fast. As long as you're over 18 and willing to take a hit, you can sit right next to the track; it's a double-edged sword of exciting and scary. Of course, if that doesn't suit your needs, there's always balcony seats and VIP seating, but the VIP sold out before I could grab a ticket. (What can I say? I like a comfortable chair sometimes.) Depending on the positioning, some of the balcony seating makes it hard to see all the action.
A little history, straight from HRD's site:
HRD formed in January 2005 as a response to the nation-wide revival of roller derby as an athletic sport. After it reemerged in Austin, Texas in 2001, the sport rapidly spread across the state, country and world. In 2004, HRD was one of several leagues who founded our governing parent organization, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association. As the overarching international umbrella of women's flat track derby, the WFTDA now consists of 243 active leagues and 101 apprentice leagues worldwide. The association sets standards for rules, seasons and safety, and determines guidelines for interleague games and tournaments.
Houston Roller Derby is a nonprofit organization, so the money these ladies raise goes toward expenses and certain charities throughout the season. One friendly lady in a banana costume is selling raffle tickets for the best seat in the house, a couch right next to the announcers' booth situated behind the teams. Tonight's lineup is Valkyries versus Bayou City Bosses and Psych Ward Sirens versus Brawlers. At first, it all just looks like a blur: ladies hustling and lots of elbows being thrown, but initially I can’t make heads or tails out all the chaos.
Sitting out this match is Rebelution, a member of the Bayou City Bosses who is injured tonight. When not working a mechanical engineer or raising her 13-year-old child, she’s usually out skating. “Through hard work and determination I have become not only a better Derby Girl but also a better person and a better leader, teacher, teammate and athlete,” she says. “[But] derby is a rough sport. In the three short years I have played, I have suffered a few injuries and some of them [were] major. But even with the setbacks, it has taught me to appreciate everything I have.”
For a casual fan, roller derby can get confusing. But if you can’t follow along, you can always check the rules (listed as "derby basics" in the program) or just ask your neighbor. Mine, a man named Jarrod, agrees to help me along. Unlike some of the other spectators tonight, Jarrod is not related to any of the ladies. He’s a fan.
"I used to watch it on TV,” he says. “Now I watch derby stuff on YouTube."
He gives me the derby rules in a nutshell. Two teams to play for two 30-minute periods; each one consists of multiple jams. Each team has four blockers and one jammer. The lead jammer, meaning the lady who gets by all the blockers, controls the scoreboard. She can either score points or end the jam. Offense and defense are played at the same time. Lots of strategy is involved. Obviously, there are penalties and a penalty box. Luckily, the refs are keeping track of everything.
Houston Roller Derby is now in its tenth season, and the sport is all grown up and better than ever. It has evolved from its humble (grass) roots and outgrown venues like the Pasadena Convention Center. The roster of women has grown and matured, and the fly-by-night early days seem amateurish compared to the game of today. I've been courtside for a basketball game and right behind first base for a baseball game, but nothing compares to this.
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As cliched as it might sound, the sense of community is undeniable here. People chip in where needed. Some are helping out at the merch booth, while others help by scoring or even announcing. People help out where they can. At halftime, derby alumni come out and are given corsages by the girls of Junior Derby. There’s also a danceoff between the dads that strikes an equal amount of fear and laughter.
“I love that derby brings in all walks of life,” says the captain of the Brawlers, Flyon Maiden, after her match. “It's not a mainstream sport...I've never been athletically good at anything until roller derby, so it's a very empowering force in my life.”
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