Before You Go. Most Americans hear "bayou" and think "Louisiana." But Houston is known as, among other things, the Bayou City. It can get hot, it can get humid, and it gets a lot of rain. Why do you think the world's 1st indoor stadium designed for baseball and football was built there? So while the Rockets play indoors, the weather could still be a factor.
The Houston Chronicle is predicting daytime temperatures in the mid-70s, and nighttime temperatures in the high 60s, plus a 20 percent chance of rain on Wednesday. You won't be indoors for the entire visit, so dress accordingly, with lighter clothes than you would wear in New York at this time of year, and bring an umbrella.
Houston is in the Central Time Zone, so you’ll be an hour behind New York time. Although Texas is a former Confederate State, you will not need your passport, and you won't need to change your money.
Tickets. The Rockets averaged 18,229 fans per game last season, more than a sellout. They are Houston's most successful sports team, and, having won their Division last season, are the hardest local team for which to get tickets.
Seats in the lower level are insanely expensive, running over $200. Seats in the upper level are $50 between the baskets and $25 behind them.
Getting There. It’s 1,629 miles from Times Square in New York to downtown Houston. You’re probably thinking that you should be flying.
The good news: Flying to Houston can be done for as little as $623. Considering how far it is, that is relatively cheap. The bad news: Your flight won't be nonstop: You'll have to change planes in either Dallas or Charlotte to get to Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport. (That's named for the father, not the son.) Bus 102 will get you from the airport to downtown in an hour and 20 minutes.
There are 2 ways to get there by train. One is to change trains in Chicago, and then change to a bus in Longview, Texas. The other is to change trains twice, in Washington and New Orleans, and then stay overnight in New Orleans. No, I'm not making that up. You don't want that -- and don't be fooled by the fact that Houston's Union Station and the ballpark are next-door to each other, because Amtrak uses a different station a mile away, at 902 Washington Street. Round-trip fare is $448, almost as much as flying. Maybe we should just forget Amtrak, and move on.
Greyhound has 8 runs a day from Port Authority Bus Terminal to Houston, averaging 42 hours, and requiring you to change buses in Atlanta and New Orleans. It's $220 round-trip, but it can drop to $149 with advanced purchase. The Houston Greyhound station is at 2121 Main Street, a mile from the arena.
If you actually think it’s worth it to drive, get someone to go with you so you’ll have someone to talk to and one of you can drive while the other sleeps. You’ll be taking Interstate 78 across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania to Harrisburg, where you'll pick up Interstate 81 and take that through the narrow panhandles of Maryland and West Virginia, down the Appalachian spine of Virginia and into Tennessee, where you'll pick up Interstate 40, stay on that briefly until you reach Interstate 75, and take that until you reach Interstate 59, which will take you into Georgia briefly and then across Alabama and Mississippi, and into Louisiana, where you take Interstate 12 west outside New Orleans. Take that until you reach Interstate 10. Once in Texas, Exit 770 will get you to downtown Houston.
If you do it right, you should spend about an hour and a half in New Jersey, 3 hours in Pennsylvania, 15 minutes in Maryland, half an hour in West Virginia, 5 and a half hours in Virginia, 3 hours and 45 minutes in Tennessee, half an hour in Georgia, 4 hours in Alabama, 2 hours and 45 minutes in Mississippi, 4 hours and 30 minutes in Louisiana and 2 hours in Texas. Including rest stops, and accounting for traffic, we’re talking about a 40-hour trip.
Even if you’re only going for one game, no matter how you got there, get a hotel and spend a night. You’ll be exhausted otherwise. Trust me, I know: Trains and buses are not good ways to get sleep.
Once In the City. Houston was founded in 1836 as Allen's Landing, and was renamed for Sam Houston, "the Father of Texas." There are 2.2 million people in the city proper, making it the 4th-largest in America, and 6.3 million in the metropolitan area, making it 5th. But with multiple teams, it's only the 10th-largest market in the NBA, and the 7th-largest in MLB and the NFL.
The sales tax in the State of Texas is 6.25 percent, but in the City of Houston it goes up to 8.25 percent. The city doesn't appear to have a "centerpoint," where the address numbers start at 1, but there is a Main Street, running northeast/southwest.
There is a light rail system, called METRORail, but you probably won't need it to get from a downtown hotel to the arena. One zone is $1.25, and the price rises to $4.50 for 4 zones, so a daypass is a better bargain at $3.00.
The court is laid out north-to-south -- or, given the actual directions of Houston's street grid northeast-to-southwest. It is 32 feet below street level, because Alexander didn't want fans, having already gotten through Houston's weather, to have to walk upstairs to their seats. (But they'll have to walk upstairs to get out.)
Food. Being a “Wild West” city, you might expect Houston to have Western-themed stands with “real American food” at its ballpark. Being a Southern State, you might also expect to have barbecue. And you would be right on both counts.
Baskets Grill, featuring burgers, chicken and corn dogs, can be found at Sections 113, 125, 403, 408 and 427. H.O.U. B.B.Q. is at 125 and 403. Space City Dogs, featuring customized hot dogs, is at 102 and 114. Bell Street Grill, featuring the Double Dribble Burger, is at 102 and 433. Taqueria Roja, featuring Mexican food, is at is at 125 and 433. TC Wings is at 102 and 433. Copper Canyon Carvery, featuring barbecue, is at 115. And Courtside Creamery, featuring ice cream, is at 124 and 432.
Clutch City Pizza is at 102, 113, 125, 403, 408, 427 and 433, but don't go there: The pizza in question is Papa John's. Not only is it not very good, but the owner won't pay living wages or for his employees' health insurance, and doesn't deserve your money.
Team History Displays. The Rockets have been around since 1971, and have the best history of any of Houston's sports teams, especially now that the 4-time WNBA Champion Comets have folded. At one end, next to the U.S. and Canadian flags, they have banners for each of their back-to-back NBA Championships, 1994 and 1995, plus a banner listing all of their Conference titles (1981, 1986, 1994 and 1995), and another for all of their Division titles (1977, 1986, 1993, 1994 and 2015).
* From their 1981 Conference Champions: 45, forward Rudy Tomjanovich; 23, guard Calvin Murphy; and 24, center Moses Malone.
* From their 1986 Conference Champions: 34, center Hakeem Olajuwon. Forward Ralph Sampson, Number 50, is in the Hall of Fame, but the Rockets have not retired his number. But neither is it currently being worn.
* From their 1994 NBA Champions: Tomjanovich, by this point head coach, and Olajuwon.
* From their 1995 NBA Champions: Tomjanovich, Olajuwon, and 22, guard Clyde Drexler. Hakeem the Dream and Clyde the Glide had been teammates on the University of Houston team that made 3 straight NCAA Final Four appearances, 1982 to 1984, but didn't win the title.
Forward Elvin Hayes (11, another University of Houston star), forward Charles Barkley (4, as Hakeem was wearing his usual 34), and center Dikembe Mutombo (55) have also played at least 4 seasons for the Rockets and been elected to the Hall, but have not had their numbers retired.
The Rockets do not have a team Hall of Fame. Kevin McHale is now in his 5th season as head coach, but he's in the Hall of Fame for his playing with the Boston Celtics. Hayes, Malone, Olajuwon, Barkley, and McHale (obviously not for anything he's done with the Rockets) were named to the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players in 1996.
The Comets retired the Number 10 of Kim Perrot, who died in 1999 of a brain tumor while still an active player. They also retired the 14 of Cynthia Cooper, but not the 22 of Sheryl Swoopes or the 7 of Tina Thompson. Coop, Swoopes and Tina were named to the WNBA's 15th Anniversary 15 Greatest Players in 2012.
UPDATE: A week after I posted this, McHale was fired as head coach. Five months later, Swoopes and Yao Ming of the Rockets were elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. It remains to be seen if Yao's 11 will be retired, but, as the Comets have folded, Swoopes' 22 is virtually, if unofficially, retired.
FURTHER UPDATE: The Rockets have now announced that they will retired Yao's 11 during the 2016-17 season.
Stuff. The Team Shop is on the north, Polk Street side of the arena. The usual NBA fan gear can be found there. Since this is Texas, you might find cowboy hats, boots or belt buckles with the Rockets logo on them.
In spite of the Rockets' success, there aren't many books about them. (Houston doesn't exactly scream "literary city.") Ron Berman wrote the Rockets' entry in the NBA's On the Hardwood series, and Clayton Geoffreys wrote the biography Hakeem Olajuwon: The Remarkable Story of One of 90s Basketball's Greatest Centers.
Official NBA Finals highlight films were released for their back-to-back titles in 1994 (Clutch City) and 1995 (Double Clutch).
During the Game. A November 13, 2014 article on DailyRotoHelp ranked the NBA teams' fan bases, and listed the Rockets' fans at 16th, on the bottom side of the exact middle. If you were wearing Dallas Cowboy gear to a Houston Texans game, you might be in trouble. But Rockets fans aren't especially hostile to New Yorkers, so safety won't be an issue.
The Rockets hold auditions instead of having a regular National Anthem singer, but, during last year's Playoffs, 12-year-old Nicholas Connors brought the house down with his rendition. A group called Clymax produced a theme song for the Rockets, "Blasting Off." Badluck Traffic King produced another, "Red Nation."
The Rockets' mascot is Clutch the Bear. I'm not sure what a bear has to do with rockets, but he's named for the Rockets' 1994 and 1995 titles, when the former "Choke City" became known as "Clutch City." He was named NBA Mascot of the Year in 2013. They have a female dance team called the Rockets Power Dancers, a male dance team called the Launch Crew, a drumline called Sonic Boom, a dunk team called Anti-Gravity, a coed kids' dance team called the Little Dippers, and a coed senior citizens' dance team called the Space City Seniors. No, I'm not making any of that up.
Clutch and Dwight Howard
The Red Rowdies sit behind the north end (Polk Street side) basket in Section 114, and are a fan group in the style of European soccer "ultras." Not hooligans: They are not violent. They are, however, loud, and very well organized.
After the Game. Houston is a comparatively low-crime city, and as long as you behave yourself, the home fans will probably behave themselves, win or lose.
The Grove, at 1611 Lamar Street in park named Discovery Green, calls itself "upscale-casual," which sounds like a contradiction to me. Andalucia serves Spanish food, and Guadalajara serves Mexican; both are at the buildng at 1201 San Jacinto Street. China Garden is at 1602 Leeland Street. All of these are within 3 blocks of the Toyota Center.
Lucky's Pub appears to be the go-to bar for New Yorkers living in the Houston area. It is at 801 St. Emanuel Street at Rusk Street, a 12-minute walk from the United Center, adjacent to BBVA Compass Stadium, the new home of MLS' Houston Dynamo. I've also heard that Twin Peaks is a Giant fans' bar, at 4527 Lomitas Avenue, about 4 miles southwest of downtown, Bus 041; and that Stadia Sports Grill is a Jet fans' bar, at 11200 Broadway Street in Pearland, 16 miles south of downtown, and unreachable by public transportation.
If your visit to Houston is during the European soccer season (which we are now in), and you want to watch your favorite club play, the best place to do so, because of its early opening, is BarMunich, 2616 Louisiana Street at Dennis Street, just south of downtown. Light Rail to McGowen.
Sidelights. Before the Toyota Center, the Rockets played at The Summit, later known as the Compaq Center, from 1975 to 2003. It's been converted into the Lakewood Church Central Campus, a megachurch presided over by Dr. Joel Osteen. 3700 Southwest Freeway at Timmons Lane. Number 53 bus.
The arena/church today
Before that, between their 1971 move from San Diego and the 1975 opening of The Summit, they played some home games at the Astrodome, some at the Astrohall, some at the Sam Houston Coliseum, and some at the Hofheinz Pavilion.
In 1965, the Astrodome opened, and was nicknamed "The Eighth Wonder of the World." It sure didn't seem like an exaggeration: The first roofed sports stadium in the world. (Supposedly, the Romans built stadia with canvas roofs, but that's hardly the same thing.) The Astros played there until 1999, and then moved into Enron Field/Minute Maid Park for the 2000 season. The AFL/NFL's Oilers played at the Astrodome from 1968 to 1996, when they moved to Tennessee to become the Titans.
In 2002, the new NFL team, the Houston Texans, began play next-door to the Astrodome, at Reliant Stadium, now named NRG Stadium, which, like Minute Maid Park, has a retractable roof. Suddenly, the mostly-vacant Astrodome seemed, as one writer put it, like a relic of a future that never came to be. (This same writer said the same thing of Shea Stadium and, across Roosevelt Avenue, the surviving structures of the 1964 World's Fair.)
Once, the Astrodome was flashy enough to be the site of movies like The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training and Murder at the World Series. (Both were released in 1977. In the latter, the Astros, who had never yet gotten close to a Pennant, played the Series against the Oakland Athletics, who had just gotten fire-sold by owner Charlie Finley.)
The Astrodome, with NRG Stadium behind it
The Astrodome also hosted the legendary 1968 college basketball game between Number 1 UCLA (with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then still Lew Alcindor) and Number 2 University of Houston (whose Elvin Hayes led them to victory, before UCLA got revenge in that year's Final Four); the 1971 NCAA Final Four, with UCLA defeating Villanova in the Final; and the cheese-tastic 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the "Battle of the Sexes."
The place was not designed with basketball in mind.
Elvis Presley sang there on February 27, 1970 and on March 3, 1974. It hosted Selena's last big concert before her murder in 1995, and when Jennifer Lopez starred in the film Selena, it was used for the re-creation. In 2004, the same year NRG (then Reliant) Stadium hosted the Super Bowl (which was won by... Janet Jackson, I think), the Astrodome was used to film a high school football playoff for the film version of Friday Night Lights; the old Astros division title banners can be clearly seen.
Today, though, the Astrodome seems, like the Republican Party that held a ridiculously bigoted Convention there in 1992, stuck in the past -- and not because they renominated failed President George H.W. Bush. The former Eighth Wonder of the World is now nicknamed the Lonely Landmark, and while it served as a shelter for people displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, since 2008, when it was hit with numerous code violations, only maintenance workers and security guards have been allowed to enter. The stadium's future is not clear: Some officials are worried that demolishing it would damage the new stadium and other nearby structures.
NRG Stadium was built roughly on the site of Colt Stadium, which was the baseball team's home in their first 3 seasons, 1962, '63 and '64, when they were known as the Houston Colt .45's (spelled with the apostrophe), before moving into the dome and changing the name of the team. Astrohall, built in 1971, was torn down in 2002 to make way for parking for the new stadium (which, after all, was built on Astrodome parking).
The climate-controlled Astrodome was necessary because of not just the heat and the humidity, but because of the mosquitoes. Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles Dodgers said, "Some of those mosquitoes are twin-engine jobs."
Later, seeing the artificial turf that was laid in the Astrodome for 1966 after the grass died in the first season, due to the skylights in the dome having to be painted due to the players losing the ball in the sun, Koufax said, "I was one of those guys who pitched without a cup. I wouldn't do it on this stuff. And Dick Allen of the Philadelphia Phillies, looking at the first artificial field in baseball history, said, "If a horse can't eat it, I don't want to play on it."
The Astrodome hosted a 1988 match between the national soccer teams of the U.S. and Ecuador, which Ecuador won. NRG Stadium has hosted 2 such matches, a 2008 draw with Mexico and a 2011 win over Panama. The Mexico team has made it a home-away-from-home, playing several matches there. NRG Stadium hosted the NCAA Final Four in 2011 (Connecticut beating Butler), and will do so again in 2016. It will host Super Bowl LI in 2017.
The NRG complex, including the Astrodome, is at 8400 Kirby Drive at Reliant Parkway. Number 700 bus, or Reliant Park station on METRORail.
Minute Maid Park opened in 2000, at 501 Crawford Street, attached to Union Station. The Astros were able to play on God's own grass for the 1st time since 1965, and under God's own sky for the 1st time since 1964. They have now reached the postseason there 4 times: The 2001 National League Division Series, the 2004 NL Championship Series, the 2005 World Series, and the 2015 American League Division Series. Preston Station on METRORail.
The Houston Aeros, with Gordie Howe and his sons Mark and Marty, won the World Hockey Association championships of 1974 and 1975, while playing at the Sam Houston Coliseum, before moving into the Summit in 1975 (where they reached the Finals again in 1976), and folding in 1978. Larry Lund, Ron Grahame, Terry Ruskowski and all 3 Howes were named to the WHA All-Time Team.
The Beatles played the Sam Houston Coliseum on August 19, 1965. It was built in 1937 and demolished in 1998. It replaced Sam Houston Hall, where the 1928 Democratic Convention nominated Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, who thus became the 1st Catholic nominated for President by a major party. The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts is now on the site. 801 Bagby Street, at Rusk Street, downtown.
With even the minor-league Aeros gone, the closest NHL team to Houston is the Dallas Stars, 242 miles away, although some Houstonians would rather vote for a gay black Democrat than root for a Dallas team. Gary Bettman is still Commissioner, he still prefers the Sun Belt to Canada, the city has a relatively new arena, and Houston would rank 10th in population among NHL markets, so it is still possible that they could get a team.
The Houston Oilers played at Jeppesen Stadium from 1960 to 1964. They won the 1960 AFL Championship Game there, won the 1961 title game on the road, and lost the 1962 title game there -- and, as the Oilers and the Tennessee Titans, haven't gone as far as the rules allowed them to since 1961.
Built in 1942, it became Robertson Stadium, and was the former home of the University of Houston football team and the former home of MLS' Houston Dynamo. The new John O'Quinn Field at TDECU Stadium (named for Texas Dow Employees Credit Union) has been built at the site. 3874 Holman Street at Cullen Blvd., about 4 miles southeast of downtown. Number 52 bus.
The Dynamo and the National Women's Soccer League's Houston Dash have moved to BBVA Compass Stadium, at 2200 Texas Avenue at Dowling Street. Within walking distance of downtown. On January 29, 2013, it hosted its 1st U.S. national team match, a draw with Canada.
The Oilers played the 1965, '66 and '67 seasons at Rice Stadium, home of Rice University. Although built in 1950 and probably already obsolete, it seated a lot more people than did the Astrodome, and so Super Bowl VIII was played there in January 1974, and the Miami Dolphins won it -- and haven't won a Super Bowl since. It has been significantly renovated, and Rice still uses it. University Blvd. at Greenbriar Street, although the mailing address is 6100 S. Main Street, about 5 miles southwest of downtown. Number 700 bus.
Before there were the Astros, or even the Colt .45's, there were the Houston Buffaloes. The Buffs played at Buffalo Stadium, a.k.a. Buff Stadium, for most of their history, from 1928 to 1961, when the Colt .45's made them obsolete.
They were a farm team of the St. Louis Cardinals, and as a result in its last years Buff Stadium was renamed Busch Stadium. The Cardinal teams of the 1930s that would be known as the "Gashouse Gang" came together in Houston, with Dizzy and Daffy Dean, Joe Medwick, Pepper Martin and Enos Slaughter. Later Buff stars included Cleveland Indians 3rd baseman Al Rosen, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Wilmer "Vinegar Bend" Mizell, Negro League legend Willard Brown, Cardinal MVP Ken Boyer, and Phillies shortstop Ruben Amaro Sr.
Wanting to lure in more customers but also to beat the infamous Houston heat, lights were installed in 1930, 5 years before any major league park had them. The Buffs won 8 Texas League Pennants: 1928, 1931, 1940, 1947, 1951, 1954, 1956 and 1957. The stadium was at the southwest corner of Leeland Street & Cullen Blvd., about 2 1/2 miles southeast of downtown. A furniture store is on the site now. Number 20 bus.
There's another notable sports site in Houston: The U.S. Military Entry Processing Station, in the Customs House, where Muhammad Ali, then living and training in Houston, had to report to fulfill his draft obligation. He did report there, on April 28, 1967, and refused to be drafted. (To be fair, they did call his birth name, Cassius Clay, not his legal name, Muhammad Ali.) Ali was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of the Heavyweight Title. He stayed out of prison on appeal, and case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned the conviction.
The Customs House is still standing, and still used in part by the U.S. Department of Defense. 701 San Jacinto Street. Central Station on METRORail.
The tallest building in Houston, and in Texas, is the JPMorgan Chase Tower, formerly the Texas Commerce Tower. It was built in 1982 at 600 Travis Street at Texas Avenue, downtown, and stands 1,002 feet tall, rising 75 stories above the concrete over the bayou.
Houston's version of New York's American Museum of Natural History is the Houston Museum of Natural Science, in Hermann Park, at Main Street and Hermann Park Drive. The Sam Houston Monument is a few steps away. The Houston Museum of Fine Arts is at 1001 Bissonnet Street, just 5 blocks away. Both can be reached by the Number 700 bus.
Of course, the name "Houston" is most connected with two things: Its namesake, the legendary Senator, Governor and war hero Sam Houston; and the Johnson Space Center, the NASA control center named after President Lyndon B. Johnson, who, as Senate Majority Leader, wrote the bill creating NASA and the Space Center, because he thought it would bring a lot of jobs and money to Houston (and he was right).
Aside from his Monument, most historic sites relating to Sam are not in the city that bears his name. As for reaching the Johnson Space Center, it's at 1601 NASA Parkway and Saturn Lane. The Number 249 bus goes there, so if you don't have a car, Houston, you won't have a problem.
Although Houston is the post-Presidential home for George H.W. and Barbara Bush, his Presidential Library is at Texas A&M University, 100 miles away in College Station.
The Alley Theatre, downtown at 615 Texas Avenue, opened in 1968, and in 1976 hosted the Vice Presidential debate between Senators Walter Mondale and Bob Dole. This is where Dole named World War I, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars as "all Democrat wars" -- forgetting that the Republicans wanted America to get into all but World War II, and didn't want that one because they liked the Nazis' anti-union status; and that it was actually the Republicans who got us into Vietnam.
There have been a few TV shows set in Houston, but the only one that lasted was Reba, starring country singer Reba McIntire. But it was filmed in Los Angeles, so if you're a fan, you won't find the house in Houston. Films set in Houston, in addition to the sports-themed ones, include Brewster McCloud (which also used the Astrodome), Logan's Run (which used the Houston Hyatt Regency for some scenes), Telefon (set there but filmed in California), Terms of Endearment, Reality Bites, and, perhaps most iconically, Urban Cowboy.
Houston can be hot, but it's a good sports town, and, best of all, it's not Dallas. So there can be a good old time in the hot town tonight.