Hakeem Olajuwon and two other 34s -- Nolan Ryan and Earl Campbell -- will be honored Feb. 8 Photo by Tim DeFrisco/ALLSPORT/Getty Images
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Nolan. Earl. Hakeem.
No last names needed.
They are larger than life and Houston legends. The city’s Mount Rushmore. A trio of Hall of Famers who didn’t waste any time redefining their respective positions the second they put on their Houston jerseys.
And we know there’s no need to remind you they all wore No. 34.
It’s not the least bit of a reach to call Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell and Hakeem Olajuwon the top three athletes in Houston sports history. You can parse the order of that list, but the 34s, as we know them, are simply the best of H-town’s best which is why they’ll be celebrated at the inaugural red-carpet Houston Sports Awards February 8, 2018.
“Somehow, Hakeem, Nolan and myself all ended up with No. 34,’’ Campbell said. “This is extremely rare air to be flying in and I'm truly honored to be surrounded with two of the best to ever do it."
Rare air, indeed.
But did you know that Olajuwon is the only one of the three to wear Number 34 his entire college and pro career?
Olajuwon wore 34 first as the center during the Phi Slama Jama days as a Houston Cougar, then as one of driving forces in the Houston Rockets’ back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995.
Ryan was drafted out of Alvin High School by the New York Mets and wore No. 30 both there and when he played for the California Angels. When he signed with Houston after the 1979 season, Astros outfielder Jeffery Leonard already had No. 30, so Ryan took No. 34. He kept that number when he finished his career with the Texas Rangers.
“I didn’t feel like it was right that I ask for somebody else’s number,’’ Ryan said of the number change. “The number that was available closest to 30 was 34 and it just happened to work out that way.’’
Campbell’s legend began at Texas where No. 20 – the same number he wore at John Tyler High School -- ran for 1,118 years and 13 touchdowns on his way to All-American status as a freshman and, eventually, won the Heisman Trophy as a senior. But when he arrived at the Houston Oilers, safety Bill Currier had No. 20, so Campbell took 34.
Campbell’s No. 20 was the first jersey the Longhorns retired (1979). The Oilers retired No. 34 in 1987.
“ I remember going to the Astrodome for the first time to play Austin Reagan in our high school state championship game,’’ Campbell said. “It seemed like a world away from Tyler, Texas.
“Little did I know that I’d be back there five years later starting another chapter in my life with the Houston Oilers and the great Bum Phillips.’’
Campbell was the first pick of the 1978 NFL draft and wasted no time establishing himself as one of the league’s most powerful running backs. He won the league rushing title with 1,450 yards and was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player, All-Pro, and Rookie of the Year in his first season with the Oilers, The now 62-year-old was named to the Pro Bowl in five of his first six seasons and finished his career with 2,187 carries for 9,407 yards.
Ryan was simply amazing. Dale Murphy, a two-time National League MVP, described Ryan as “the only pitcher you start thinking about two days before you face him.” Ryan, now 70, was one of the best power pitchers of all time. His fastball was close to unhittable for much of 27-year career, as evidenced by his Major League records of 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters. His curveball wasn’t far behind.
Olajuwon’s career started slowly, because the Nigerian native wasn’t cleared by the NCAA to play his first season. He was used sparingly the next season, but after a summer working with then-Rockets center Moses Malone, Olajuwon dominated.
His inside dunks – a smooth combination of head fakes and footwork – seemed so effortless the late UH coach Guy V, Lewis said they “looked like a dream.’’ Suddenly, Olajuwon was “The Dream” and those moves were “Dream Shakes.” He helped lead the Cougars to three Final Four appearances, then dominated inside with the Rockets.
The 34s are just three of the players who will be honored at the Houston Sports Awards at the Hilton Americas. Ten other awards honoring professional, college and high school athletes, as well as awards for sportsmanship and lifetime achievement will be given Feb. 8.
Nominations are open to the public. For more information on the awards and to submit a nomination, go to www.houstonsportsawards.com
The biggest news from Astros spring training in West Palm Beach has been the arrival of muscle-packed third baseman Alex Bregman, who’s in the final year of his contract with free agency looming.
Facing a battalion of microphones, Bregman has been saying all the right things – all the right things that Astros fans are happy to hear.
“I feel like I’ve never been in better shape in my life.”
“I expect to have the best season I’ve ever had.”
“I absolutely love every single second here. Being able to put on this jersey is an absolute honor and a dream come true for me as a kid. When it comes to the contract, I just let Scott do that.”
"Scott" is Bregman’s cold-blooded agent Scott Boras who is known for taking his clients to free agency and playing hardball with owners. Bregman, who will be 30 at the end of the season, is expected to draw offers perhaps as rich as $250 million over seven or eight years.
When I watched Bregman talk about his love for Houston and how he’d love to stay an Astro, I was half looking for an earpiece like the Impractical Jokers wear, with Boras whispering to Bregman what to say.
At the same time, but not the same place, Astros general manager Dana Brown was gushing over the Astros third sacker.
“He’s locked in. He is a special talent.”
“I’m expecting he’s going to have a really good season. I’m excited.”
“He has the heartbeat of a champion.”
The way Bregman and Brown are talking … I’ve heard less flirty prom invitations.
Now cue the scary music from horror movies. When Bregman was asked, have the Astros approached you with any offer of an extension, he answered a simple “no.”
When pressed for a timetable on a Bregman extension, Brown admitted, “at some point we’ll put together an offer. But right now we’re not engaged in an offer.”
In other words, both sides are talking. But not to each other.
Spring training is in full swing. Often players say if they don’t have an extension by the start of the season, they’ll shut down contract talks. They don’t want to think about a contract when they’re in the batter’s box and the games count. We don’t know if that is Bregman’s position, but it’s Boras’ modus operandi. It’s looking more and more like hello free agent Alex Bregman.
If Bregman is looking for a long-term deal at $200 million-plus, that’s more than Astros have ever offered a player. It could be too costly for owner Jim Crane’s blood.
Where do you stand on the Astros-Bregman dilemma? If you were Jim Crane, what would you do?
Break the bank and pay the man? After all, Bregman is a key piece of the Astros lineup. He’s been a dependable, hard-nosed player, a bit of a lovable wise ass and a huge part of the Astros’ dynastic run since 2017. Last year Bregman played 161 games, batted .262 with 25 homers, 98 RBI and 103 runs scored. He was a Gold Glove finalist at third base. He’s well liked in the clubhouse and adored by Astros fans. He has his own line of condiments.
Or let Bregman walk and save the money to make a run at keeping Kyle Tucker? As old school sports writers would say, you can look it up. In 2019, his career year so far, he batted .296, belted 41 homers, drove in 112 runs and led the league with 119 walks. He finished second in MVP voting behind Mike Trout. He hasn’t made an All-Star Game since then. His numbers, while not in free fall, have dwindled the past four years. He still is an above average player, though. Some team looking to go deep in the postseason will offer him big bucks at season’s end.
If it were up to you, would that team be the Astros?