UNCHARTED TERRITORY

How the current climate puts the Rockets in an especially complex position

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This season of meaningless sports played in empty arenas and stadiums has suddenly become a year that will have its own chapter in history books.

History will note that NBA players led the charge to change how America deals with race, with law enforcement, and how society moves forward chasing an elusive more perfect union.

And NBA players will be on the right side of that history.

Sunday night, a police officer in Kenosha, Wisc. fired seven bullets at a black man, striking 29-year-old Jacob Blake four times in his back, in front of Blake's three children. Blake survived the shooting, but his family says he is paralyzed from his waist down and "chained" (handcuffed) to a hospital bed.

The Kenosha incident was just one more in a seemingly endless series of excessive force by police against people of color in America. As happened before, in the spirit of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, athletes are shouting loudest in protest.

NBA stars, who play on a court in Orlando emblazoned with "Black Lives Matter" and wear jerseys carrying messages of social change, woke the sports world to stand against racial injustice.

On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA team geographically closest to Kenosha, refused to take the court to play their scheduled game against the Orlando Magic. Within hours, the Houston Rockets game against Oklahoma City was postponed, followed by the Lakers vs. Portland game. The NBA playoffs will continue on Saturday.

Other leagues and sports followed the NBA lead. Several baseball games were postponed, while individual players on teams that continued to play sat out their games.

Many NFL teams canceled practice. The WNBA postponed games. MLS postponed five matches. Some colleges canceled football practice. The Western & Southern Open tennis tournament switched Thursday's semifinal matches to Friday after Naomi Osaka, a black player, said she wouldn't play because of "continued genocide of black people at the hand of police." The NHL postponed playoff games for two nights. Television analyst Kenny Smith took off his microphone and walked off TNT's Inside the NBA set in support of players.

Rockets forward Robert Covington told Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, "We are doing all this to really bring about awareness and it's not too much that's been done. Every day we fear going outside that friends and family, you never know that you might get a phone call that someone that's close to you might not make it to see the next day."

Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, on the verge of tears, said "It's amazing to me that we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back." Rivers is the son of a police officer.

While some players and two teams in particular (Lakers and Clippers) wanted to end the NBA season immediately and return home, Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, NBA Players Association president Chris Paul and Rockets guard Russell Westbrook reached an agreement that the playoffs would continue. Jordan is the only African-American majority owner of an NBA team. Westbrook is a longtime endorser of Jordan's marketing brand.

Houston Rockets multi-billionaire owner Tilman Fertitta, an outspoken supporter of President Trump, was critical of the president's response to the players' protest. Trump said, "I think people are tired of the NBA, frankly." The president earlier waved off the NBA as "a political organization" and called the Black Lives Matter movement a "symbol of hate." Another administration official labeled the players' protest "absurd and silly."

It's hardly absurd when there's video of police saying "thank you" and offering a bottle of water to a 17-year-old white supremacist openly brandishing an assault rifle on the streets of Kenosha. Minutes later, that child shot and killed two people protesting the Blake shooting.

It's not silly when former MLB player Aubrey Huff, who describes himself as "protector of toxic masculinity," tweets that the 17-year-old murderer is a "national treasure."

Fertitta, who has donated $140,000 to President Trump's re-election campaign, supported NBA players during an interview on CNBC.

"I love that they all stood together. We all have to work together and recognize what other people are dealing with. It's a different world. It's a different generation. If you're not a flexible person and you don't see other people's views, you're not going to do well in the world today. And so I respect them. I stand by them. They're my partners," Fertitta said.

Fertitta's simple response to Trump's dismissal of NBA players, "I don't know why he made that statement. It's disappointing … I'm sorry he said that."

The next day, the Rockets announced that Toyota Center would be a voting center leading to the Nov. 3 election. "Vote" is one of the messages that NBA players are wearing in Orlando. The arena will be open for early voting 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Oct. 13 to Oct. 30. Any registered voter in Harris County can vote there. Toyota Center also will be open on Election Day. Voters can park for free in the Toyota Tundra Garage.

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Houston scored in droves

Astros drub Twins in finale to take series win

Houston's offense showered Minnesota with hits in Sunday's finale. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games, with Houston's offense uncharacteristically ineffective in the loss on Saturday, they tried to turn things around with a win to take the series on Sunday. The Astros would bounce right back at the plate, getting hits and runs all through the afternoon to rout the Twins.

Final Score: Astros 14, Twins 3

Astros' Record: 37-28, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Framber Valdez (3-0)

Losing Pitcher: Michael Pineda (3-4)

Valdez keeps rolling

Framber Valdez continued to impress in 2021 after starting his season on the IL, posting another quality start with a win against the Twins. After four scoreless frames, he allowed a solo homer to start the bottom of the fifth, just the third hit of the game for Minnesota to that point. He went on to retire the next three batters to get through the inning.

He faltered a bit in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff double followed by a single, with a run coming across on an error on that play. He once again rebounded to finish that frame, then put up a 1-2-3 seventh to finish his day off, notching another quality start and a win. His final line: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, 97 P.

Houston keeps their foot on the gas

While Valdez's outing was a highlight of its own, Houston's offense was the story of the day. They put their foot down on the pedal all day and did not let up, starting in the top of the first when Jose Altuve turned the first pitch of the game around for a single, later scoring on a sac fly by Alex Bregman to put the Astros in front 1-0.

After two scoreless innings, they got right back on the scoreboard in the fourth with a two-run homer by Kyle Tucker, then kept pouring it on with two runs in the fifth on a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel and an error, making it 5-0 at the time. The runs kept coming in the top of the sixth, with a two-RBI double by Michael Brantley, who would score later on a two-run bomb by Yordan Alvarez. Then, in the top of the seventh, Brantley struck again to push it to double-digits with a two-RBI single to make it 11-2 and give Brantley 4 RBI on the afternoon.

With Houston swapping out starters with the hefty lead, even their pinch-hitters were getting involved, with Chas McCormick leading the top of the eighth off with a solo shot to make it a ten-run game. They then loaded the bases with no outs, setting up a sac fly for Myles Straw to make it 13-2.

Astros take the series

In the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Garza Jr. came in as the first reliever out of the bullpen for Houston. He recorded two quick outs but then met Nelson Cruz, who lasered a solo homer to put it back at a ten-run game before finishing the frame. Houston put their twentieth hit on the board in the top of the ninth, their highest total this season, en route to another scoring inning with a sac fly by Robel Garcia to make it 14-3. Garza came in for his second inning of work to wrap things up in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Astros a successful end to this series and road trip.

Up Next: Houston will travel home before an off day on Monday to rest before 20 days of consecutive games. They'll kick off a six-game homestand on Tuesday, welcoming in the Rangers for two starting at 7:10 PM Central. Lance McCullers Jr. (3-1, 2.96 ERA) will make his return from the IL for the Astros, though Jake Odorizzi will "piggy-back" him, and Kyle Gibson (4-0, 2.13 ERA) will take the mound for Texas.

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