As the remote control hit the floor, pieces went flying in multiple directions. It was early 1994 and the Rockets had blown another lead in some meaningless late-season game. Even though they were one of the best teams in the NBA that year, the frustration of this long-suffering Houston sports fan mounted and I smashed that TV remote onto the carpet in my apartment off Memorial Drive. I was about to turn 25.
As with most Houston natives, my list of memorable sports moments has more Ls than Ws. Up until that moment, for me there were ONLY losses: the AFC title games at Pittsburgh, the debacle in Buffalo, Rockets and Astros close-but-no-trophy moments and, of course, NC State, still the most painful sports memory of my life. At 24, it was all I knew of sports in Houston and really all I expected. And it pissed me off.
By the end of that 1993-94 season for the Rockets, the poor remote was being held together with Scotch tape. The battery cover was gone and adjusting the volume sometimes meant spinning the batteries a bit so they made contact inside the case. One of the buttons was missing, a small black nub left in its place. Before, during and after games, I was a mess. Wins brought spectacular highs and losses — well, you get the idea.
Then it happened. The minute Game Seven was over, I stood for a moment in front of the TV before running out the door and aiming my truck in the direction of Greenway Plaza where the Summit was located. Along Richmond, total strangers embraced one another and me. Three men with a boom box leaped into the bed of my truck, blasting music and dancing. It was euphoric.
After that season, something changed. The roller coaster of emotions I had felt tempered slightly and I recognized a need to find greater balance. The Rockets championship had given me perspective.
So, I started taping (this was LONG before the DVR) games and watching them after the fact, not all the time, but as often as I could. The wins weren't quite as exhilarating, but the losses weren't accompanied by crippling depression either. I spent time focused on strategy and not caught up in the emotion of the moment. I studied as if I was taking a class, dramatically deepening both my appreciation of the games I was watching and my reverence for them.
Sure, there were plenty of ups and downs in the next 20-plus years, from John Stockton's three in the Western Conference Finals in 1997 to the Damian Lillard 0.5-second game winner that nearly sent my good friend, Rudy, into a complete mental breakdown outside a sports bar in Austin. There were the brutal anticlimaxes of the Astros in 1998 and the World Series sweep in 2005, never mind the Oilers leaving town, only to be replaced by the perpetually mediocre Texans.
Yet I was able to appreciate it with a carefully developed sense of cool objectivity.
I don't know how to explain it exactly. It just kind of crept up on me. Maybe it was everything we had to go through as a city in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Maybe it was the fact that, for the first time since 1993, Houston had a sports team that was a frontrunner for much of the season. Maybe it was the prolonged drought for baseball, in particular. Whatever the case, my sports-related anxiety skyrocketed as the season progressed.
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By the postseason, I was almost unable to watch, and, admittedly, I was difficult to be around. My heart raced with every pitch. I lived and died with every inning.
On Wednesday night during Game Seven of the World Series, I had a moment. In the middle innings with the Dodgers threatening, I threw my phone onto my sofa, hard. It hadn't broken, thankfully, but it triggered the memory of that broken remote so many years ago. I walked out of the room, took a few deep breaths and regained my composure.
A few minutes later, the Astros were out of the jam and I was back on the couch. I felt better. I was still nervous, but I wasn't having a full-blown panic attack. All those years of controlling my sports emotions against the backdrop of some really depressing moments gave me just a few seconds of calm, enough to enjoy the rest of the game and, more important, savor the moment.
Then the Astros won the World Series for the first time in franchise history and I ran into my front yard and screamed like a banshee. You can only keep your emotions under wraps for so long, and 23 years seems like enough.