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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.