Thursday, May 3, 2018

Houston's Top 10 Athletes

Yao Ming and Hakeem Olajuwon

This week, the Yankees are in Houston to play the Astros, the defending World Champions.

Houston's Top 10 Athletes

Honorable Mention to Joe Morgan, 2nd base, Houston Astros, 1963-71 and 1980.
Baseball's greatest 2nd baseman since World War II (but a really annoying broadcaster), he has become so identified with Cincinnati's Big Red Machine that it's easy to forget that he played more seasons with the 'Stros than with any other team. This includes helping them win their 1st Division title in 1980.

Honorable Mention to Gordie Howe, right wing, Houston Aeros, 1973-77. On the one hand, it was the World Hockey Association, and it was only 4 years. On the other hand, show me another guy who could win the Most Valuable Player award of any league with the pretense of being "major" at age 46. It was the Gary Davidson Trophy, named for the league's founder. After Gordie won it in 1974, the name was changed to the Gordie Howe Trophy.

Together with his sons Mark and Marty, he helped the Aeros reach the Finals 3 times, winning twice. I don't care what league you're in: If you can score 121 goals in 4 years in your mid-40s, you deserve to be called "Mr. Hockey."

Honorable Mention to Houston Oilers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who didn't otherwise make this Top 10: George Blanda, Ken Houston, Elvin Bethea, Charlie Joiner, Curley Culp, Robert Brazile, Mike Munchak, Bruce Matthews and Warren Moon. Some of them might have made this list had they spent their entire careers with the Oilers.

Honorable Mention to J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans, 2011-present. A 4-time Pro Bowler, he's been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012, 2014 and 2015. In 2017, following their fundraising after Houston was hit by Hurricane Harvey, he and José Altuve of the Astros were named Sportsmen of the Year by Sports Illustrated.

Honorable Mention to Houston Rockets in the Basketball Hall of Fame, who didn't otherwise make this Top 10, any one of whom could easily have made the Top 10 had they spent their entire careers in Houston: Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Yao Ming, Dikembe Mutombo and Tracy McGrady.

Honorable Mention to Houston Dynamo stars DaMarcus Beasley, Brad Davis, Brian Ching and Pat Onstad.

10. Mario Williams, defensive end, Houston Texans, 2006-11. Oh, how Texans fans ranted when their team chose Williams with the top pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, instead of native son Vince Young, one of the best quarterbacks in college football history -- and it got worse for them when Young was drafted by the former Houston team, now the Tennessee Titans.

But just as the Philadelphia Eagles got it right in 1999 when they drafted Donovan McNabb instead of the people's choice, Ricky Williams (another University of Texas star), the Texans got this one right. Maybe Young would have had a good pro career playing for a coach other than Jeff Fisher. But Williams has had a good pro career, making 4 Pro Bowls (in with Houston, 2 with Buffalo, and becoming the team's 1st real star. He last played in 2016 with the Miami Dolphins.

9. José Altuve, 2nd base, Houston Astros, 2011-present. Already a 5-time All-Star, he's won 3 American League batting titles, 2 stolen base titles, a Gold Glove, and the 2017 AL Most Valuable Player. In 2017, he led the Astros to their 1st World Championship, and, as I said, he and Watt were named SI's Sportsmen of the Year last year. His lifetime batting average is .317, and, turning 28 next week, he already has 1,293 hits and 232 stolen bases.

8. Andre Johnson, wide receiver, Houston Texans, 2003-14. Somebody has to be the greatest player in the Texans' brief history, and he's the 1st guy they named to their Ring of Honor.

Here's why: 7 Pro Bowls, 1,062 receptions, for 14,185 yards and 70 touchdowns. Having finished his career with, oddly, the former Houston team, the Tennessee Titans, he will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022.

7. Yao Ming, center, Houston Rockets, 2002-11. Given the hype around the 7-foot-6 Yao upon his arrival from China and the Shanghai Sharks, it would have been easy to call him the Ichiro Suzuki of basketball. He didn't quite rise to that level, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. He made 8 NBA All-Star Games, the Rockets retired his Number 11, and he's been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

6. Nolan Ryan, pitcher, Houston Astros, 1980-88. Probably the greatest baseball player from Houston or its suburbs, we can only count what he did in the 9 years he pitched in his hometown. This included 3 Playoff berths, a 106-94 record, 1,866 strikeouts, and a no-hitter. The Astros retired his Number 34.

5. Calvin Murphy, guard, Houston Rockets, 1971-83. In 1967, at Norwalk High School, he was named Mr. Basketball USA -- the best high school basketball player in the entire country. In his honor, the school's address is now 23 Calvin Murphy Road. He attended Niagara University in Buffalo, and was drafted by the Rockets in 1970. They moved to Houston the next year, and he played for them his entire career.

At 5-foot-9, he may have been the shortest great basketball player ever. He was an All-Star in 1979, and helped them reach their 1st NBA Finals in 1981. He set records, since broken, for highest single-season free throw percentage and most consecutive free throws made. The Rockets retired his Number 23. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

4. Earl Campbell, running back, Houston Oilers, 1978-84. The relative brevity of his career keeps him from being ranked higher, possibly even Number 1. But the 1977 Heisman Trophy winner was, at the time, right there with Walter Payton as the NFL's best runner.

In his 1st 3 seasons in the NFL, he led the League in rushing all 3 years, was named Offensive Player of the Year all 3 years, led the League in rushing touchdowns twice, and was named NFL Rookie of the Year in 1978 and MVP in 1979. He made 5 Pro Bowls, and rushed for 9,407 yards and 74 touchdowns. But his style took its toll, and not only did he play his last game at age 30, but he's got back problems so severe that he's used a wheelchair the last few years.

Lester Hayes, a nasty cornerback for the Oakland Raiders, said, "Earl Campbell was put on this Earth to play football. Cliff Harris, one of those Dallas Cowboys that you just loved to hate, called him "the hardest-hitting running back I ever played against." And his Oilers coach, Bum Phillips, one of the game's great quipsters, was asked if he was "in a class by himself." Bum said, "I don't know. But if he ain't, it don't take long to call the roll."

He was elected to the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. The Oilers retired his Number 34 before they moved. When the team moved to Tennessee and began its Titans Hall of Fame, he was named to it, even though he never played in Tennessee. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked him 33rd on their list of the 100 Greatest Football Players. In 2010, the NFL Network ranked him 55th on their 100 Greatest Players.

3. Jeff Bagwell, 1st base, Houston Astros, 1991-2005. He was born on May 27, 1968, the same exact day as Frank Thomas, also a big strong 1st baseman who ended up in the Baseball Hall of Fame. "Bags" played his entire career with the Houston Astros, batting .297, and is their all-time leader with 449 home runs.

A 4-time All-Star, he was National League Rookie of the Year in 1991, won the NL MVP and a Gold Glove in 1994, and helped the Astros reach the postseason in 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2004, before, in his final season, getting them their 1st Pennant in 2005. By a weird twist of fate, they played Thomas' Chicago White Sox, who won, though Thomas was injured. The Astros retired his Number 5.

2. Craig Biggio, 2nd base, Houston Astros, 1988-2007. A 7-time All-Star, he collected 3,060 hits, including 668 doubles and 291 home runs. The former is a total exceeded in history only by Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial and Pete Rose (in other words, nobody currently under the age of 77); the latter is a pretty good total, considering he played his home games in the Astrodome for the 1st half of his career.

He was no one-dimensional player: He stole 414 bases, including 50 in 1998 and was leading the National League when the Strike of '94 hit. He also had 44 doubles, and was a legitimate threat to the single-season record of 67 set by Earl Webb of the 1931 Boston Red Sox; he topped out at 56 in 1999. And he won 4 Gold Gloves.

He helped the Astros reach 6 postseasons, including the 2005 World Series. He, Bagwell and Derek Bell formed an attack known as the Killer B's. The Astros retired his Number 7, and he's in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

1. Hakeem Olajuwon, center, Houston Rockets, 1984-2001. Between UH's "Phi Slamma Jamma" and leading the Rockets to 3 of their 4 NBA Finals thus far, he is easily the greatest figure in the history of Houston sports.

A 12-time All-Star, Hakeem was the Most Valuable Player of the regular season and the NBA Finals in 1994, when he led the Rockets to their 1st title. In 1995, he led them to their 2nd title, and was named Finals MVP again, the award now named the Bill Russell Award. That season, he had been joined by his Phi Slamma Jamma teammate, Clyde Drexler. With Hakeeem the Dream and Clyde the Glide reunited, a sign was held up in The Summit during the clinching Game 4 of the Finals against the Orlando Magic: "HEY CLYDE WHAT'S YOUR RING SIZE?"

Two years later, the Rockets were back in the Conference Finals, but lost to the Utah Jazz, including Karl Malone, known as "The Mailman" because he delivers. That same fan, noting the day of the week on which Game 6 was being played, held up a sign saying, "THERE'S NO MAIL ON SUNDAY!" But the other Jazz superstar, John Stockton, hit a buzzer-beater to send the Jazz to their 1st NBA Finals.

The Rockets retired Hakeem's Number 34, and he was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame and, while still active, to the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players.

Since his retirement, the Rockets have moved from The Summit to the Toyota Center, which could easily be called The House That Hakeem Built. The Summit has been converted to the "megachurch" owned by Dr. Joel Osteen. Something tells me Osteen is not happy that a black Muslim from Africa got more cheers in that building than he ever will.

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