HARRIS COUNTY - HSA INSIDER

A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: Awards night is a big hit

Jose Altuve and J.J. Watt picked have been on the cover of SI and now are Houston Sports Awards winners. Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

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Oh, what a night.

It was glitzy, glittery, show-stopping and head-turning. Everywhere you looked there was a Hall of Famer or a budding superstar. There were two Heisman Trophy winners in attendance and three World Championship teams represented. There were high school stars, fans that set the standard for team loyalty and coaches, general managers and owner who shape their teams’ futures.

There was something for each of the more than 1,000 who turned out for the inaugural Houston Sports Awards Thursday night at the Hilton Americas.

Maybe it was a red-carpet selfie with a hero or a conversation with an old friend. Maybe it was surprise entrance or a face that just stirred memories of great Houston sports moments.

But there were two things for everyone. First, seeing Houston’s iconic 34s – Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell and Hakeem Olajuwon -- together under one roof for the first time. And, second, the news that those three would be the first honorees in a planned Houston Sports Hall of Fame.

"Houston is such a great sports town, such great fans, and as we were dreaming and envisioning what tonight would look like, it just kind of fell into place that we should also have a Hall of Fame,” said Harris County – Houston Sports Authority CEO Janis Schmees-Burke.

"There will be a sidewalk with their name and a star with their team and their number. It’s between where the House of Blues starts and through that (row of restaurants). Eventually, that sidewalk will be full.’’

The announcement – and unveiling of the 34s Houston Hall of Fame rings – capped a night when the World Champion Houston Astros ran the tables with five awards. Jose Altuve won Papa John’s Athlete of the Year, manager A.J. Hinch won POWERADE Coach of the Year, the 2017 World Series won Event of the Year, Alex Bregman’s walk-off single in Game 5 of the Series won Moment of the Year and General Manager Jeff Luhnow was named Executive of the Year.

The award was especially touching to Hinch, who lost his father Dennis 25 years ago to the day.

“To share this award on this particular day in this city after this year means the world to me,’’ Hinch said. “I’ll be forever grateful.”

Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were there to present Altuve with his award.

“It’s an honor to receive this award from two Hall of Famers,’’ Altuve said. “This year has been unbelievable – the World Series and everything we did – because of the fame and because Houston is the best city in the world. And I am happy to be able to call Houston my home.’’

Former Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander was there to accept the first Lifetime Achievement Award.

Houston Texans’ star and Walter Payton Man of the Year J.J. Watt, who helped raise more than $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief, could not attend, but did a video acceptance for the Academy Sports + Outdoors Sportsmanship Award.

The night blended the new stars in with those graying legends of the game, all of whom wore No. 34. Those men are still some of the best to ever play the game and, around Houston, are known simply as Nolan, Earl and Hakeem.

Ryan is one of the best pitchers ever to take the mound. He is the all-time strikeout king and still holds the record for most no-hitters with seven. He grew up in the Houston and was legend by the time he came to the Astros in 1980 after playing with the New York Mets and California Angels.

Olajuwon was the leader of the world’s tallest fraternity at the University of Houston – Phi Slama Jama – then went on to become one of the great centers in NBA history, leading the Rockets to back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. He was surprised by former Cougar and Rockets teammates including Dikembe Mutombo and Clyde Drexler.

Campbell ran his way into history, winning the Heisman his senior season at Texas, then carrying the load for Bum Phillips’ Houston Oilers. A bruising runner, Campbell simply wore down and punished defenses.

Like Ryan and Olajuwon, he was humbled by not just the honor, but also the outpouring of love from Houston and the fans. He summed the honor up in two sentences.

“You people think I made a difference in your life?’’ he said. “You made a difference in my life.’’

Other honorees were Carson Riley, the 12-year-old Astros fan who almost caught Carlos Correa’s homerun ball during Game 2 of the American League Championship Series – a month after Riley’s brother had died in a tragic accident; Houston sophomore Ed Oliver, who was named College Athlete of the Year and St. Pius quarterback Grant Gunnell who was honored as High School Athlete of the Year.

 

 

WWE's Royal Rumble arrives this Sunday at Minute Maid Park. Photo by Paul Muth

I'm not a big sign guy.

You know sign guys. The people who write puns on posters. The ones who carry the letter "D" in one had and a cutout of a literal fence in the other. The "Houston, YOU have a problem" sign guys.

I tried it once when I was 14, was punched in the face, and sort of lost my appetite after that.

Let me explain.

It was April 1, 2001. Wrestlemania 17. I won't ask my parents how much it cost them, but my aunt and uncle scored floor seats to the greatest spectacle in sports entertainment in no better confines than the Astrodome herself and I got to tag along.

It was a hell of a show. Some say it was one of the best Wrestlemanias ever. The card was stacked, including a Triple-H match against the hometown hero The Undertaker that set the stage for the main event.

At precisely two hours and forty-eight minutes into the event, Undertaker sent Triple-H flying over the barricade and "INTO THE STANDS!"

"Holy crap," 14-year-old Paul thought. "They're headed right down my aisle."

Now I'm not sure how it works these days, but back then it was totally customary to bail on your seat and follow the fight as they weaved up and down the aisles. I wasn't about to miss the chance so I grabbed my poorly scribbled wrestling poster, glanced back and my Aunt for the OK, then darted after the action.

The fight snaked its way up to some scaffolding with a camera perched atop. There, the fight would stall as they battled their way to the top. Oblivious to anything but the action in front of me, I threw my sign up as high as I could, probably screamed at the top of my lungs, and my voice probably cracked in the process. I was 14.

Suddenly someone pushed me in the back of my shoulder. I turned around and there was an old lady, maybe five feet tall, standing on her chair. She had the quintessential cowgirl big hair and enough costume jewelry on to short-circuit a metal detector.

"GET THE @#$% OUT THE WAY, BOY," she commanded in the most east Texas accent you've ever heard in your life. I ignored her and turned back around.

Then she pushed me again.

I turned around again and before I had any clue what was happening, this knockoff mini Dolly Parton had already connected a stiff left hook to my temple. She then grabbed my sign and ripped it in half. Stunned, I retreated to my seat while tending to a now bleeding eyebrow thanks to what I assume was a Wal-Mart engagement ring.

Haven't really been a big sign guy since.

But this weekend the WWE takes over Minute Maid Park for their annual Pay-Per-View event known as the Royal Rumble. It will be the first time since that fateful night in the Astrodome 19 years ago that I've returned to a high profile wrestling event.

Now am I looking forward to this weekend as an opportunity to retake the dignity that was ripped away so long ago? Probably not. I'll most likely just drink a bunch of beer and yell at wrestlers with my friends. But I'm not ruling anything out.

Now instead of a power rankings this week, I figured that in the spirit of the Royal Rumble we could rehash some of the best sports fights Houston's served up:

#5 Charles Barkley throws man through window

Now I know this one didn't happen on a court, but the story is just too good. In a classic case of "play stupid games, win stupid prizes," a 5'2" Floridian by the name of Jorge Lugo decided to harrass the 6'6" then-power forward for the Houston Rockets at an Orlando bar . Barkley ignored and avoided the issue until a Lugo-thrown glass intended for Barkley missed and struck a nearby woman. Bad move. When judge presiding over the ensuing case asked Barkley if he had any regrets, The Round Mound of Rebound replied "Yeah, I regret we weren't on a higher floor."

#4 Chris Paul serves a two-piece to Rajon Rondo

This one is actually fairly recent and adds to what I discovered was a hefty list of Rockets throw downs. After breaking up a stare down between Lakers forward Brandon Ingram and James Harden, Paul and Rondo began a heated chest-to-chest exchange. From all replay indications it appeared as if Rondo then spit on Paul, which triggered a disrespectful finger push to Rondo's face, which then descended into a good old fashioned knuckle sandwich exchange. Paul was suspended for two games.

#3 Derrick Lewis verifies amateur of amateur status

Some dude actually had the nerve to walk in to UFC Heavyweight fighter and Houston native Derrick Lewis' gym and pick a fight. The amateur claimed that he would knock Lewis out because he was an MMA fighter, and not a real boxer. "The Black Beast" was more than happy to oblige, and swiftly teleported the no name into the shadow realm.

#2 Vernon Maxwell fights Portland man

Sometimes people forget that sporting events are intended to be family friendly. Some also forget that players are people with actual feelings. Maxwell claims that aside from general harassment, a Portland fan decided to bring Maxwell's wife's recent miscarriage to light as well. Maxwell stood up from the bench, calmly walked up the stairs, and knocked the crap out of the dude. Maxwell was suspended 10 games.

#1 Andre Johnson baptizes Courtland Finnegan

It had been seasons in the making. Finnegan had built a reputation out of adding cheap shots here and there, ripping helmets off at the end of plays, and various other dirty tactics. In late November of 2010 Johnson had reached the end of his rope. Schadenfreude was the flavor of the day for all Texans fans as Johnson manhandled Finnegan, reigning down fists of righteous justice.

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