SHINING STARS IN SPACE CITY

John Granato: There is no city in the country with more sports star power than Houston

Justin Verlander (and Kate Upton) are just part of Houston's star-studded sports landscape. Roland Martinez/Getty Images

We were at Gulf Coast Chevy Wednesday morning and there was a buzz in the air. Unfortunately we didn’t create that buzz. Not that people don’t like us -- well, some people don’t like us -- and that’s fine. No. The buzz was swirling from something much bigger than me and Lance Zierlein.

Jose Altuve was coming.

Now that’s big. Last year there he drew about 700 people who waited in line for hours. The Academy appearances after the World Series were ridiculous. Fans camped out as the lines wrapped around the building.

Lance posed the question of who would draw more people: J.J. Watt in El Campo, Jose Altuve in Angleton or James Harden in Pearland? It got me to thinking about the era that we are in right now in Houston sports history.

Has there ever been a better time to be a Houston sports fan? If you’re looking for star power the answer is no. Never. The only time that’s even comparable is the early to mid 90’s. The Astros were building a team destined for an extended playoff run, the Oilers were one of the NFL’s best in ‘92 and ‘93 and the Rockets inspired Clutch City.

Unfortunately they were the only organization delivering championships. Not long after, the Oilers were history, the Astros failed time and again in the postseason and the Rockets went through a dark and dismal era led by Steve and Cuttino.  

There were plenty of stars though. The Dream, Charles and Clyde, Bagwell and Biggio, Warren Moon and Ray Childress.

The mid to late 80’s had some great teams that fell just short too. The ‘86 Rockets made it to the finals, the ‘86 Astros provided the country with one of the best series in baseball history and the ‘87 Oilers started a string of seven straight playoff appearance teams.

But history will look back on this era as our best and brightest. There is no city in the country with more sports star power than Houston. Let me say that again. There is no city in the country with more sports star power than Houston.

My definition of a sports star is someone who the casual or even non-sports fan would recognize or would at least recognize their name. I’m limiting the list to the NBA, NFL and MLB. There may be plenty of stars in the NHL, WNBA and MLS. I just don’t know who they are.

Let’s rank the cities by their sports stars:

5. Boston

Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Dustin Pedroia and Kyrie Irving. Brady and Gronk make the list easily. They are recognizable almost everywhere. Irving is iffy but even the casual fan should know him. He’s a former No. 1 overall pick and he hit the game winning shot in the NBA Finals. The problem is he really hasn’t crossed over into the pop culture scene. The only commercials he is in he’s in disguise but he is still deserving with his resume. Pedroia is on the back end of a nice career. He’s not a huge name but every sports fan should know him and his filthy helmet.  Close but not yet there: Chris Sale, Mookie Betts and Gordon Heyward.

4. Oakland

Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Marshawn Lynch. This list is self explanatory. The Warriors are the ‘27 Yankees of basketball. Their record 73 wins and two titles with more pending have put the NBA in a stranglehold. It’s the Warriors and everyone else until proven otherwise. Marshawn has one of the coolest nicknames in the game, won a title and had one of the greatest runs in NFL history. He made a bigger name for himself by not cooperating with the media than he would have by doing interviews. Derek Carr is close and could have gotten there if not for an off year. Oakland would be higher on this list if not for the A’s. You could hide a mafia informant on their roster and he’d never be found.

3. Los Angeles

Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Lonzo Ball, Todd Gurley, Phillip Rivers. You could make the argument that the only true star that crosses over to non-sports fame is the guy who’s accomplished the least in sports; Lonzo Ball. His dad’s marketing ability has made everyone in the family a household name. He’s a 10-7-7 guy but that doesn’t seem to matter. He’s the sports version of Chloe Kardashian. Aaron Donald is the NFL’s defensive player of the year but most sports fans couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. He’s close but not yet there. So is Jared Goff. Kyle Kuzma will be on this list someday as well.

2. New York

Eli Manning, Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Krystaps Porzingis, Matt Harvey. Eli and OBJ are no-brainers. Their Super Bowl ad was spectacular and added to their brands. Judge and Stanton are this era’s bash brothers (hopefully without the juice). People will flock to parks all across the country this year to see their majestic home runs. If not for Porzingis there wouldn’t be any reason to watch Knicks basketball. He’s an international star. His injury is a blow to the entire league. You may be wondering how Matt Harvey made this list. Here’s why:

https://www.maxim.com/women/matt-harvey-model-girlfriends-2017-11  He’s putting together a roster that could someday rival Derek Jeter’s. ‘Nuff said.

1. Houston

...and I’m not sure it’s even close   

James Harden.  The beard is iconic but he’s more than just a hairy guy. He’s going to win the MVP and the scoring title this year. He’s scored 15,000 points and barring injury could be one of the great scorers in history. He was a Kardashian for a brief spell which sidetracked his basketball career but added to his brand.

Chris Paul.  One of the truly great point guards in NBA history. His 9.83 per game is third all-time. He crossed over into pop culture with his State Farm ads. He and Cliff Paul are recognizable anywhere. The only thing lacking in his life is the Larry O’Brien trophy.

J.J. Watt. If his three defensive MVP awards didn’t make him recognizable enough, his man of the year award for his work raising money after Hurricane Harvey should have. He became the face of the recovery effort on every national newscast for over a week. If you don’t know J.J. you probably live in a cave.

Deshaun Watson. This may be premature to some but he’s been in the public consciousness for three years now. His two national championship games were arguably the greatest performances in college football history. He topped that off with a rookie of the year performance that was cut short by injury. Forget rookie of the year. He was being talked about as league MVP. He’s a bonafide star already.

Jose Altuve. What else does he have to do? Three batting titles, four straight years of leading the league in hits, two stolen base titles, a gold glove, 5-time all-star, AL MVP and now a World Series champion. At first he was known as the little guy who made it to the big leagues. Hopefully that will stop and we can just talk about him as the greatest Astro ever.

Justin Verlander. He added world champ to an arsenal of awards. Rookie of the Year, AL MVP, Cy Young, ALCS MVP, 6-time all-star and on and on and on. Married Kate Upton. Case closed.

Carlos Correa. This may be premature as well but he’s an overall No. 1 pick that’s considered by many as the best shortstop in the game already. He was rookie of the year and made an all-star team in less than three years of MLB time. He finished ninth in the league this year in wins above replacement. He made national news by proposing to his girlfriend on the field right after game seven. He can be the next A-Rod (hopefully without the steroids and chach)

Close but not quite there yet: Deandre Hopkins, JD Clowney and George Springer. They’re all great but not household names yet.

It’ll be interesting to see how the NFL views Watson. We’ll know when the schedule comes out. Without him the Texans would get their mandatory Thursday night game and maybe a Monday nighter. With him there should be at least one Sunday night game. Any more than that and we’ll know he’s big-time. A league that’s seen declining ratings isn’t wasting prime time games on teams without star power. He has star power.

The Rockets were just on prime time last Saturday and showed they belonged. They’ll get prime TV slots in the playoffs. That’s where James and Chris can take their fame to yet another level.

And the Astros will enjoy the most media attention they’ve ever gotten this season and deservedly so. They showed the world that they’re fun and clutch performers. ESPN won’t miss a chance to highlight them on prime time especially against the Red Sox or Yankees. That’ll be money in the bank.

Yep. It’s good to be a Houston fan right now.

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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