CHAMPIONSHIP DNA?

Why fans may have witnessed the most pivotal day in Houston sports history

Composite image by Jack Brame.

Houston sports fans may look back at Tuesday, Aug. 18 as the day the Astros became legit pennant contenders, and the Rockets took their first serious step toward the 2020 NBA title.

The Astros beat the Colorado Rockies, 2-1, in extra innings, and the Rockets unleashed a wire-to-wire beatdown on the OKC Thunder, 123-108, to take Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

Sure, call me a bigger homer than that hack who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, but don't be surprised if we have two socially distanced parades around the corner in downtown Houston.

So far, the NBA playoffs have been a showcase for big-time superstar scorers, like Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell and … our guy James Harden.

Who has the edge? Listen to Charles Barkley: "James Harden is the best one-on-one player I may have ever seen in my life." And Barkley has seen Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, all the legends. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said it last year: "You can argue for him (Harden) as the best offensive player of all-time."

Harden poured in 37 points Tuesday to lead the Rockets to a statement win over the OKC Thunder. Yeah, there are games when he has more turnovers than Three Brothers Bakery, and more missus than Larry King, but when he's on, nobody tops Harden. Don't forget, this scoring machine led the NBA in assists in 2016-17. He's averaged more than seven assists a game the past six seasons.

Things will only get better when Harden's superstar running mate Russell Westbrook returns from a quad injury. Eric Gordon already is back in form. Add in Danuel House, Robert Covington, Jeff Green, Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker and Austin Rivers, and the Rockets simply are too fast and have too much firepower for an opponent to handle.

Tuesday, the Rockets overwhelmed the Thunder, led 68-52 at halftime and didn't let the Thunder get within single digits the rest of the game. The Rockets were scary good.

Earlier that day, and just as important, the Astros won a game they would have blown two weeks ago. Starter Zack Greinke was magnificent, tossing eight innings of shutout ball. Light-hitting Myles Straw lined a bases-loaded walk-off single in the 10th for the 2-1 Astros win. It was their fourth consecutive one-run victory. That's what champions do, win close games.

It's not just how the Astros are winning, it's with whom they're doing it. Monday, six of the nine hitters in the Astros batting order were hitting .200 or below: George Springer, Abraham Toro, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Dustin Garneau, and Straw. The starting pitcher was rookie Brandon Bielak. Somehow they beat the Rockies, by the same 2-1 score.

Justin Verlander, George Springer (here we go again), Roberto Osuna, Yordan Alvarez, Brad Peacock, Aledmys Diaz, Michael Brantley, and Chris Devenski are on the infirmary list. Joe Smith has an excused absence for the season, but Osuna and Alvarez likely won't return this year.

Yet here they are, with a 13-10 record, riding a six-game winning streak, firmly in second place in the American League West. By this time next week, half the season will be over, that's weird, and the Astros are in the thick of the playoff picture.

Think back to last year, when the Astros won 107 games and the American League pennant. The Astros began the 2019 season with a pitching rotation of eventual Cy Young Award winner Verlander (21-6), Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole (20-5), lefty Wade Miley (14-6), and righty Peacock (7-6). Between them, they started 115 games for the American League champion Astros. That's a pennant-winning staff.

This year, all gone: Verlander is 1-0, on the injured list. Cole is 4-0, but for the New York Yankees. Miley is 0-2 with a 16.20 earned run average for the Cincinnati Reds. Peacock is nursing a shoulder injury and hasn't pitched this season.

In 2020, the Astros are relying on pitchers Greinke and the return of Lance McCullers. After that, it's not a who's who, it's just a "who?" The Astros are throwing pitchers wearing uniform No. 59 (Framber Valdez), No. 60 (Enoli Paredes), No. 53 (Cristian Javier), No. 70 (Andre Scrubb), No. 67 (Cy Sneed), No. 64 (Brandon Bielak), No. 72 (Humberto Castellanos) and No. 66 (Bryan Abreu).

That isn't a pitching staff. That's the Houston Texans offensive line. Still, right now, I wouldn't bet against Houston – the Astros or the Rockets.

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Watson's accusers appeared on Real Sports on Tuesday night. Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images.

HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’s heavily promoted and much anticipated examination of Deshaun Watson’s legal mess involving alleged sexual misconduct shed little new light and merely presented a summary of well worn he said/she (x22) said accusations and denials.

The episode debuted Tuesday night on the premium cable service and will be repeated dozens of times throughout the week on HBO’s platforms. Check your local listings for times and channel.

The segment was hosted by Soledad O’Brien who presented compelling face-to-face interviews with two of the quarterback’s accusers: massage therapists Ashley Solis and Kyla Hayes. Their stories were detailed and graphic. Both cried during the interviews.

Solis: “As I’m working, he deliberately grabs himself and put his penis on my hand. I pulled my hand away instantly and I started crying. I told that I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Solis said she felt threatened when Watson, before leaving the session, allegedly told her: “I know you have a career to protect, and I know that you don’t want anyone messing with it, just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.”

Solis added, “That’s when I got really scared because that sounded like a threat to me.”

Hayes: “He wanted me to kind of make a V motion in his pelvic area. I just kept massaging and did what he asked, until his penis kept touching me repeatedly as I did it.”

Hayes said that Watson had an orgasm, which she said was “mortifying, embarrassing and disgusting.”

O’Brien asked Hayes why she continued to have contact via email with Watson after their encounter.

Hayes: "I wasn't sure what he was capable of. He could've physically assaulted me. He could've bashed my business, so I had to protect myself and my business the best way I saw fit. Did I ever see him again after that? No. Did I give him the runaround? Yes."

O’Brien pointed out that two separate grand juries in Texas heard criminal accusations against Watson and neither found enough evidence to indict him.

Solis and Hayes, and 20 other massage therapists have filed civil suits against Watson. The cases aren’t expected to reach a courtroom until next March. Both sides could reach a settlement before then which would effectively shut down any legal action against Watson. However, both sides say they aren’t interested in any pretrial settlements. That’s what they say now, anyway.

After being banished to the sidelines for the 2021 season by the Houston Texans, Watson signed a historic, 5-year fully guaranteed $230 million contract with the Cleveland Browns.

Hayes said she feels Watson “is being rewarded for bad behavior." Solis said, "It's just like a big screw you. That's what it feels like. That we (the Browns) don't care. He can run and throw, and that's what we care about.”

Watson currently is participating in preseason workouts with the Browns and, at the moment, is cleared to play the upcoming NFL season.

That is unless the NFL suspends Watson for some, most or all of the 2022 season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league is nearing completion of its independent investigation into Watson’s case and will reach a decision “shortly,” probably this summer. The NFL and NFL Players Association mutually agreed to have former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson decide whether or not Watson violated the league’s Personal Conduct Policy and what discipline should be handed down if he did.

The Browns are scheduled to play the Texans on Dec. 4 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

O’Brien said, while producing the Real Sports piece, she tried to interview Watson, his attorneys and the Cleveland Browns for their side of the story. All declined.

During a press conference in March to announce his joining the Browns, Watson denied any inappropriate behavior with the massage therapists.

Watson: “I never assaulted any woman. I’ve never disrespected any woman. I was raised to be genuine and respect everyone around me. I’ve never done the thing that these people are alleging. My mom and my aunties didn’t raise me that way.”

Leah Graham, a member of Watson’s legal team, sat for an interview after O’Brien’s segment was complete.

Graham: "It's 22 women. It's one lawyer. There's only one lawyer who was willing to take these cases. And as we know from Ashley Solis’ deposition, Mr. (Houston attorney Tony) Buzbee was not the first, probably not the second or third lawyer she went to, but he was the only one to take her case. Why? Not because it had merit, but because he would use these cases to increase his social media following and quite frankly to get on shows like this one.”

My reaction after watching the Real Sports segment? We weren’t in the room when the massage therapists worked on Watson. We weren’t in the grand jury room when evidence against Watson was presented. We don’t know what happened. We don’t know what will happen if these cases go to trial.

Until then all we have is one big, lurid, embarrassing mess. In American courtrooms, defendants are presumed innocent. That’s often the opposite in the court of public opinion. We’ll just have to wait while the wheels of justice grind painfully slow.

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