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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Keep an eye on Alex Bowman this weekend. Image via: Wiki Commons.

For the first time since July 1984, NASCAR returns to one of its most popular cities in Nashville, Tennessee for the inaugural Ally 400 at Nashville Super Speedway. This track is a 1 1/3rd mile concrete oval that was dormant for nearly ten years and was only used as a testing facility. So it came as a bit of a surprise last season when it was announced that this track would be getting a date. For a lot of drivers, this will be a brand new racetrack, but we will see practice and qualifying, so that will be a huge help for the newcomers that haven't raced here before. Back when the Xfinity and Trucks ran here, this track featured a lot of first time winners. Back in 2008, future NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski shocked the world by jumping in Dale Jr's car and capturing his first win here. There will be a lot of veterans like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who have plenty of experience at this track, but it will be tough to compare. It should be fun with everyone coming into this race with minimal knowledge.

Last week, Kyle Larson continued his hot streak by winning the All-Star Race. Overall, while Larson and his Hendrick teammates probably enjoyed the race, the feedback from crews and fans was less than positive. As I was walking through the garage area and talking to a few crew members, a lot of them were very critical of the 450 horsepower motor and the tall spoiler to try and keep the cars bunched up. When I asked one of the crew-members what he thought about the package he told me, "Oh it's awful. The track is terrible, the package makes it impossible to pass and it's super hot out here." On green flag runs, it was the same as it ever was as the lead car would pretty much take off and the only time there was really any "pack racing" it came after there were restarts. The whole race was well-intentioned and the fans showed up as it was nearly a capacity crowd, but the whole thing just didn't make any sense. From the start time being in the nearly 100 degree heat to the wacky full-field invert at the end of each stage. Let's hope that next season's All-Star Race is a lot more concise.

In Silly Season news this week, Truck Series regulars GMS racing announced that they would be fielding a full-time cup series team. The team is currently owned by Allegiant Airlines CEO Maurice Gallagher and his son, Spencer, who used to drive for them in the Xfinity Series. This move seemed to come from out of nowhere as there was never any indication that this was a move they were exploring anytime soon after they turned down the opportunity to purchase Furniture Row Racing in 2019. This is certainly a great sight for the sport as there will be more new teams on the track and with their close relationship with Chevy, it wouldn't be a surprise if they step in and help this team become competitive. The favorite to drive their car has to be 2020 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed. He has easily been their best driver in trucks, and it would make the most sense for him to get the promotion.

This week at Nashville, the driver that I have winning is Alex Bowman. Now while this is a brand new racetrack and he has a grand total of zero starts here, this track suits his driving style perfectly. With the inclusion of this track, there are now four tracks with a concrete surface. Nashville, Bristol, Dover and Martinsville. At the three of the tracks they have run at, he has shown a lot of speed, including a victory at Dover this season and a top ten finish at Bristol. This is also a track where crew-chief Greg Ives said Bowman has gravitated towards during testing. In an interview with Sirius XM Ives was quoted as saying "we used to have a lot of fun testing there," so this is clearly a track that they both enjoy going to. Another big factor going into Sunday will be just how fast these Hendrick Motorsports cars are, they have finished 1-2 over the last four points races. He has watched his teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have immense success, and now this week I think he is due for a third win of the season. Look for the bright purple #48 Chevy to go to victory lane this week at Nashville.

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