Quarterly Report

Houston's 5 most influential sports figures for the first quarter of 2019

Kelvin Sampson. Jackson Gatlin/SportsMap

Houston has no shortage of big-name superstars and top flight coaches. The Astros alone could make up a top five list. As the first quarter of 2019 winds down, here is who has had the biggest impact so far this season.

No. 5: Deshaun Watson

Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Texans disappointed in their playoff game with the Colts, but Watson did lead them to 11 wins, played a full season and should improve. He will likely get knocked off the list once the Astros are playing again, but for now, here he is.

No. 4: Alex Bregman

No, he hasn't played meaningful minute in 2019. But his new contract puts him in the elite level of Houston athletes. He is now the second highest paid Astro behind Jose Altuve, and tied for the second highest ever. It is a six-year, $100 million extension and keeps him an Astro until he turns 30. Leave it to Bregman to crash the off-season party.

No. 3 Tilman Fertitta

Fertitta CenterTilman Fertitta made the Fertitta Center a reality. Houston Cougars Men's Hoops Facebook

Fertitta is not just the Rockets owner, he is on the board at UH and and helped oversee a resurrection of men's hoops thanks to the opening of the Fertitta Center. Now if he can just get a hockey team...

No. 2 Kelvin Sampson

Kelvin Sampson has the Cougars rolling. Bob Levey/Getty Images

Kelvin Sampson's Cougars won the AAC regular season title, went 31-3 and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. No matter what happens, it has been an amazing season for the Cougars.

No. 1 James Harden

James Harden

James Harden.

A year after winning the MVP, Harden has picked up where he left off. He had an amazing scoring streak and helped carry the team through some midseason struggles. In short, he is still the man until someone knocks him off the perch.

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Everyone should be talking about the Cougars! Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images.

You’re burying the lead!

Lately I’ve been watching our local news … “and now here’s (fill in the blank) with sports.”

“Over at Toyota Center, the Rockets came up short and dropped another one to the Jazz or maybe it was the Pelicans or … does it really matter?”

It doesn’t matter. The Rockets have lost 10 games in a row, 15 of their last 16, and they’re in last place in the Western Conference with the NBA’s worst record. They’re on track to finish with an even worse record than last year, when they also had the worst record in the league. Their last three losses were all blowouts, dropping each game by 20-plus points. They’re terrible and getting terrible-er.

Meanwhile in the shadow of downtown there’s another basketball team with “Houston” on the front of their jerseys. That team is a different story, and it should be the lead story.

The University of Houston is 17-1, undefeated in the American Athletic Conference, riding an eight-game win streak, ranked No. 1 in the country and the betting favorite (+550 at Fanduel) to make the Final Four and win the whole March Madness tournament. That’s No. 1 ahead of Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and all the other traditional college powerhouses. The NCAA title clash essentially could be a home game for the Cougars on April 3 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

It all ties into a neat little bow for coach Kelvin Sampson and the red-hot Coogs.

And here’s another reason why the Cougars deserve our support and the sports section headline: every player on the UH team came here because they wanted to play for Houston. Rockets players are in Houston because that’s where they were drafted or traded, or in some cases because they couldn’t get a better deal with any other team.

UH players fell in love with Houston. Rockets players are in arranged marriages.

So why are the UH Cougars relegated to a mere mention before the sports anchor hands it off to the weatherman for a final update on tomorrow’s forecast?

It’s would be understandable why the Rockets hold the media’s attention ahead of the Cougars if this were a typical big market. The pros are bigger, faster and better than college players. But this is Houston, where the local college team is No. 1 in the country and the pro team is dead last in the NBA.

Even if all things were equal, which they’re not, the UH story is more compelling than the Rockets’ tale of woe. UH has a personable, inspirational coach, Kelvin Sampson, one of the most successful figures in the college game. The Rockets coach, Stephen Silas, has a low-key personality and, not entirely his fault, one of the most futile won-loss records in NBA history.

UH has a legit superstar, Marcus Sasser, a first-team All-American pick, a team leader who’s playing in his final season for the Cougars. The Rockets’ top veteran is Eric Gordon, a sourpuss who wants off the team in the worst way and the Rockets are trying their best to accommodate him.

UH is on track to make a lot of noise on the road to the Final Four, like they’ve done six times, the most recent in 2021. UH holds the frustrating record for most Final Four appearances without a championship trophy. Another good storyline. This could be their year, and what better place than their own backyard at NRG Stadium?

It’s not like the Rockets have a serious shot at the NBA Finals, but apples to apples, the NCAA tournament is a bigger deal than the NBA playoffs.

March Madness charges more for TV commercials than any sports event in the U.S. with the exception of the NFL playoffs. March Madness brought in $1 billion in ad revenue in 2021, more than the NBA playoffs and double MLB’s postseason.

Last year’s March Madness championship game had 18.1 million viewers. Last year’s championship game of the NBA Finals drew just under 14 million viewers.

It’s estimated that some 35 million Americans will fill out a bracket for March Madness contests. I’ve never worked in an office where everybody puts down $5 to buy a square in a pool for the NBA Finals. I know a guy who scheduled his vasectomy for the start of March Madness figuring he was due some serious couch time.

March Madness is a national passion. The NBA Finals are a sports event.

Bottom line: the Cougars are the No. 1 team in college hoops, and they’re taking aim at the biggest, most celebrated prize in basketball. They are the pride of our city. So let’s give the UH Cougars the respect they deserve. Give ‘em the top story.

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