BEST OF THE BEST

The case for Houston's Mount Rushmore: Introduction and honorable mentions

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Forty-one Hall of Famers. Twelve MVPs. Nine professional championships. And a myriad of Olympic medalists and individual accolades to count. The city of Houston has a storied list of the greatest pro-athletes in sports history, and can only be equaled or exceeded by the likes of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

To get a complete sense of its vibrant history, try to assemble a list of the city's most prominent athletes who are qualified to be forever engraved atop the Mount Rushmore of Houston sports. What should be a simple task becomes an unenviable one when trying to simplify the list down to four.

Craig Biggio (Astros), Brian Ching (Dynamo), Carl Lewis (Olympian) and Moses Malone (Rockets) are just a few legends who deserve a rightful spot on the mount, but fell short of receiving the honor when compared to their contemporaries whose resume and representation of the city exceeded their respective careers.

In what will surely spark an enormous debate among fans throughout Greater Houston, every Wednesday for the next four weeks, the series, "The Case for Houston's Mount Rushmore," will highlight the four best athletes in Houston's history who have etched their name atop of the city's pinnacle.

The criteria will be based on the athlete's overall body of work — whether they played for one of the city's professional franchises or homegrown prodigy who went on to achieve greatness in their respective field. To begin, here is an honorable look at five athletes who have a strong argument to be implanted on Houston's Mount Rushmore, but fell just short of receiving the honor for one reason or another.

James Harden — Houston Rockets (2012 - Present)

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When James Harden arrived in Houston during the fall of 2012, no one knew what was in store for the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. He notched 37 points and dished a then career-best 12 assists in his debut for the Rockets, en route to a 105-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons during the season opener. After his debut performance on a nippy October night inside The Palace, Harden has been the face of the franchise, and one can argue Houston sports for nearly an entire decade.

In eight seasons with the Rockets, Harden's accolades include eight NBA All-Star selections. Five All-NBA First Team honors. A two-time scoring champ. And league MVP honors in 2018. He currently holds several franchise records: 3-point field goals made (1,976), assists (4,651) and free throws (5,428) — while making his claim as the second greatest player in team history trailing only the great, Hakeem Olajuwon.

Similar to his ranking as an NBA all-time great, the only factor that is preventing Harden from Houston's Mount Rushmore is a championship title. Once he captures that elusive goal, Harden's ranking in league history and Houston sports will skyrocket through the stratosphere.

J.J. Watt — Houston Texans (2011 - Present)

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It seems like a lifetime has passed since the city of Houston booed a young prodigy coming out of Wisconsin during the 2011 NFL Draft. Nine years later, no player has captured the heart of Houstonians during the 2010s more than Houston Texans' defensive end, J.J. Watt. Outside of another legend who will make an appearance on Mount Rushmore, Watt is arguably the second-best player to step foot on Houston's gridiron field for both the Oilers and Texans.

He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. A five-time Pro-Bowler and three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, Houston's appreciation for Watt goes far beyond his production on the field. In 2017, he raised over $37 million to help the city recover from its destruction of Hurricane Harvey.

Not to undermine anything he has accomplished so far in his career, Watt is in a similar position that imitates Harden's omission from Houston's Mount Rushmore — the lack of a championship title. For a career that is still in the making, if Watt ever gets his hand on the Vince Lombardi Trophy draped in the Texans' red, white and blue, there will be a new face entrenched on Houston's mount.

Jeff Bagwell — Houston Astros (1991 - 2005)

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Even without a World Series title added to his name, Jeff Bagwell is still arguably considered the best player in Houston Astros history. The Hall of Fame first-baseman spent his entire 15-year professional career as a member of the Astros recording three Silver Slugger Award while becoming a four-time MLB All-Star.

During the strikeout-shortened season in 1994, Bagwell put together one of the greatest individuals seasons in league history. He posted a batting average of .368 with 147 hits, to go along with 39 home runs and 116 RBI's in 110 games. The result led to his only Golden Glove award while receiving National League MVP honors by a unanimous decision.

The 1991 NL Rookie of the Year winner finished his career as the Astros all-time leader in home runs (449), runs batted in (1,529) and WAR (79.9).

Simone Biles — Olympian (2013 - Present)

Treino da Equipe de ginástica estado-unidense

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Although she never suited up for any of Houston's professional franchises, it's impossible to discuss Houston sports without considering Simone Biles. At 23-years-old, she has already composed a resume en route to her title as "The Greatest Gymnast Ever" — given to her by Olympian legend, Mary Lou Retton.

Biles is currently the most decorated gymnast in history with 27 gold medals since 2013. During The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Biles dominated her opponents, collecting four gold medals in five competitions. If not for the cancellation of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Biles' reign would have continued in Japan.

Warren Moon — Houston Oilers (1984 - 1993)

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Warren Moon went from an undrafted prospect in 1978 to the first African-American quarterback to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame nearly 30 years later (2006). One of the most underrated quarterbacks on a national scale, Moon's legacy in Houston is one only a handful of athletes in Houston sports can exceed.

Prior to ending his career with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2000, Moon established him as one of the league's top quarterbacks during his nine-year tenure with the Houston Oilers — where he recorded six of his nine Pro-Bowl selections. In 1990, Moon took home league MVP honors, Offensive Player of the Year, and received his first All-Pro selection while leading the NFL for most passing yards (4,689) on the year.

By the time he was traded to the Vikings in 1994, Moon left the Oilers as the franchise leader in passing touchdowns (196), pass completions (3,988) and passing yards (33,685) — all of which still stands in Oilers/Texans history.

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J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans all-time leader in sacks (96.0), is entering his ninth season with the franchise ahead of what will certainly be an anomaly year for the NFL. Due to the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, there is serious doubt that the NFL will be able to play a full 16-game schedule, while others express their concern with the league's inability to play any form of football come the fall of 2020.

There are a lot of uncertainties surrounding the league this coming season, which is becoming a theme for Watt's future in Houston.

The 31-year-old defensive end has two years remaining on his six-year, $100 million contract extension he signed in September of 2014. But as he prepares to embark on another year with the Texans through Zoom meetings with his teammates, a new contract is not on Watt's priority list.

"No, I don't think that's necessary," Watt told Houston reporters on Wednesday. "I fully understand and respect the situation that I'm in at the moment, and what's happened in the past few years, so I'm not gonna sit here and demand anything. I think if I went back and asked for an extension or more money, I think that would be the wrong move. I am just going out there to prove my worth and to help this team win games."

As of now, it is unsure what the future holds for Watt's career with the Texans. Should management re-sign the three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner (2012, 2014 & 2015), the question becomes: How much is Watt worth as he enters the twilight of his career? It's the subject that will be the driving force when discussing Watt's future with the team, and the segment that sparked a trade rumor of his departure to the Chicago Bears.

Although his on-field production remains extremely valuable, Watt has had a difficult time trying to stay healthy. Since 2016, he has missed 32 out of a possible 64 games due to an abundance of injuries. In 2019, Watt missed half of the season after suffering a torn pectoral during the Texans' 27-24 victory over the then-Oakland Raiders.

"My goal for every season is to do whatever possible to help this team win, and number one, that means staying healthy," he said. "You have to be on the field in order to help the team win, and then it is to play at the peak physical level I am capable of. It is just making sure I am in the best possible shape to perform that way."

Contract and injuries aside, the five-time Pro-Bowler is excited about his opportunity to play under new defensive coordinator, Anthony Weaver. During his introductory press conference two weeks ago, Weaver said Watt will remain the focal point for the Texans' defense in 2020, but acknowledged getting the future Hall of Famer through 16 games remains a hurdle.

After four seasons serving as Houston's defensive line coach, the Texans promoted Weaver to defensive coordinator in January to replace Romeo Crennel.

"I love [Anthony] Weaver... I think that he has a great mixture of knowledge of the game, experience, but also personality to be able to handle the players in the room," Watt said. "To be able to inject some fun and excitement into meetings, practice and everything, all while bringing the knowledge necessary to run a good defense."

Under the guidance of a new defensive coordinator, Weaver may be just the coach to help Watt rekindle the potential that made him an All-Pro defensive end. Regardless of the uncertainties surrounding his future at the conclusion of his contract, Watt is hoping he will have the opportunity to finish his career where it started — in Houston.

"That is a goal of mine, and this city [Houston] has been incredible to me since I got here," Watt said. "I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but I certainly hope that's the case."

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