How the pin got pulled on an issue that could splinter Houston in pieces

Who is Houston's best? Composite image by Jack Brame.

The debate started even before we sat down for Christmas dinner. Now that J.J. Watt has announced his retirement from the NFL, his work nearly complete, is he the greatest athlete in Houston history?

Wait. What about Nolan Ryan, the strikeout king and officially named a “Texas hero” by state legislators? Roger Clemens, 7-time Cy Young winner? Brittney Griner, 8-time WNBA All-Star, 2-time scoring champion, two-time All-American, WNBA and NCAA champion, two-time Olympic gold medalist? Carl Lewis, nine Olympic gold medals and one-time fastest human ever? A.J. Foyt, four-time Indy 500 winner? Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, played their entire careers with the Astros, both Hall of Famers? Jose Altuve did something that Biggio and Bagwell never did, and then did it twice?

As the debate wore on into dessert, two athletes stood head and shoulders, by height and accomplishments, over the rest: J.J. Watt and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Who you got? They both present a heck of a case.

Olajuwon spent four years at the University of Houston and 17 seasons with the Houston Rockets. His UH teams made two Final Fours, and he led the Rockets to consecutive NBA titles in 1994-95. He played more basketball games with the word “Houston” on his jersey than anybody ever.

Born in Nigeria, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1993 and helped the U.S. win an Olympic gold medal in 1996. The Dream is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was first-team NBA six times, Defensive Player of the Year two times and league MVP in 1994. He is the NBA’s all-time leader in blocked shots and now the Defensive Player of the Year award is named for him.

Put it this way, he was drafted No. 1 overall by Houston in 1984, ahead of Michael Jordan, and nobody thinks the Rockets made a bad choice. Foreign-born players seem to win the NBA’s MVP award routinely these days, but Olajuwon was the first.

J.J. Watt’s career stats are eye-popping, too. Drafted 11th overall by the Texans in 2011, Watt quickly developed into an unparalleled defensive force in the NFL. He was named first-team All-Pro five times and won Defensive Player of the Year three times. He led the league in sacks two times and forced fumbles once. He even caught three touchdown passes in 2014.

Watt never was named NFL MVP because, well, that award typically goes to an offensive player. The award has been handed out the past 65 years – only once to a defensive player, Alan Page in 1971.

Statistically, Olajuwon gets the nod as Houston’s best. But should popularity and accomplishments off the playing field enter the discussion? If yes, then we must do a recount.

While Olajuwon was a titan on the basketball court and beloved by fans for his talent, his connection and involvement in the community don’t compare to Watt.

Watt was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 2017, partly for his fundraising efforts after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Houston. That same year he won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, the sport’s most prestigious honor, for representing “values of respect, integrity, resiliency and responsibility on and off the field.”

Before games, Watt walked around NRG Stadium playing catch with young fans. His commercials for H-E-B made him a celebrity. Watt hosted Saturday Night Live in 2020 and appeared in the films Bad Moms and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. He once played congas at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion while Jimmy Buffett sang Margaritaville. We don’t know if Watt is a Republican or Democrat, but he’s so admired that it’s difficult to imagine anybody beating him for mayor of Houston.

So who wins? Who is the greatest athlete ever in Houston? Olajuwon has the numbers, but Watt plays a more popular sport (OK, maybe not at the moment in Houston). The NFL is bigger and more important than the NBA, MLB, and NHL combined. That counts.

Here’s how revered Watt is. Two years ago the best player ever for the Texans made it known that he wanted off the team, get me outta here … and Houston fans took his side.

With 100-percent of precincts reporting, let’s call it a dead heat for greatest, while Watt doubles up as most popular.

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