Texas-Sized Basketball: The Houston Rockets and Why I Moved to Texas

Coming as I do from the mid-Atlantic, I’ve experienced no end of questions from people back home as to why exactly I would move to Texas. People from Maryland don’t move to Texas, they argue; they move into D.C. or up to New York or Philadelphia. Maybe, maybe, if opportunity calls, they go as far north as Boston, to suffer through endless winters and an overabundance of fleece vests. Or to California, the other coast, to try to make it in the pictures or join a cult. But anything in between the coasts? Why bother?

And especially Texas. Texas is unimaginable heat and cowboys and guns; cultural conservatives, the death penalty, and Tom DeLay. Texas is George W. Bush, for chrissakes. Why would you move there of all places? Why not just move to Tehran? Fair points all. Texas is hot as all hell, its summers lasting for what seems like endless centuries, its cockroaches the size of small dogs. There are too many guns in Texas, too many trucks that take up two spots in parking lots. And Texas is constantly passing legislation that makes it difficult to be gay or poor or Mexican. Moreover, Texans believe that the best way to keep high school kids from having unprotected sex is to teach them to get a good night’s sleep because you make better decisions when you’re well-rested. (I’ve always found the opposite to be true: If I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, chances are I won’t have the energy for sex, unprotected or not. Get me eight hours, though, and it’s all I think about.) And Texans revel in putting criminals to death on scanty evidence. Underage criminals. Mentally retarded criminals. Unjustly convicted criminals. (I’m getting depressed.) So why, the question remains, why Texas?

One month into the NBA season (and nearly four years into my Texas residency), the answer has finally come to me: The best reason to live in Texas is because this, more than any other place, is basketball country. Not college basketball country: I could care less about UT or A&M or Baylor. I’m talking about the NBA. True, the East Coast is blessed with bagels and pizza and magical skylines and autumn and godless liberalism. But we’re also cursed with the Celtics and the Knicks and the Nets and the Wizards. In other words, it’s a basketball black hole. And, as astrophysicists have been trying to tell us for years, no man can live in a black hole.

But in Texas – oh Texas, my Texas! – our cups runneth over. Bend your knees and bow your heads and gaze upon the bounty that is Texas basketball: the Houston Rockets, the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks: three of the greatest basketball teams in the world, all within a 200-mile radius of Austin. Yao and Manu and Dirk and Tim and Tracy and Avery. All within a stone’s throw of Austin. This is ground zero for all things basketball. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

The 2006-2007 season is shaping up to be the finest of all possible seasons to be a professional-basketball fan in Texas. Take my Rockets, who, it appears, have finally gotten their act together. Building on the improvements he made in the closing weeks of last season, 7-foot-6-inch center Yao Ming has become all but unguardable in the low post, averaging 26 points a game on 52% shooting and generally dominating every game he’s in. Back on Nov. 18 he went 33 and 16 against the vaunted Detroit Pistons' defense. On Nov. 10 he dropped 35 on the New York Knicks and grabbed 17 boards. And two weeks ago he scored 150 points against the Charlotte Bobcats while wearing nothing but a blindfold and a burlap sack.

And Tracy McGrady is starting to wake up again after recovering from a lingering back injury. Tracy McGrady: I’ve loved the man since he dropped 13 points on the Spurs in the final 35 seconds – 35 seconds! - of a regular-season game two years ago. My hand to God, I was alone in my house watching that game on TNT, 11 o’clock at night, jumping up and down on my couch and shouting like a little kid on Christmas who had asked Santa Claus for Tracy McGrady dropping 13 points on the Spurs in the final 35 seconds of a regular-season game. The man looks like he just got out of bed, like he hasn’t even brushed his teeth yet (if he had hair, it would be all tousled and mussed), but he plays basketball with an incomparable grace. For my money, when he’s playing at the top of his game, no one can touch McGrady for sheer natural ability and ease – not Kobe, not LeBron, not no one. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” say English lyric poet John Keats and Irish soccer announcer Tommy Smyth. They could have been ode-ing on Tracy McGrady. The only criticism I think you could level at him is that he’s not blessed with a killer instinct to win. But then again, what has a killer instinct to win ever gotten anyone but a lifetime of disappointment and misery and the occasional championship trophy?

Add to these two superstars the lockdown defense of new acquisition Shane Battier, the surprising offensive play of Rafer Alston, and the dead-eye outside shooting of still-acclimating Greek guard Vassilis Spanoulis (the only player in the world feared by LeBron, D-Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and every other American wunderkind who remembers his play in the semifinals of last summer’s FIBA World Championships. Dollars to doughnuts, when those guys have trouble sleeping, it’s Vassilis’ face they see in their minds’ eyes, and you’ve got a team that’s 8-4 and only two games back in the mighty Southwest Division. Remember, this is a team that finished last season 34-48. I think four of my best friends from the Hyde Park courts and I could manage 34 wins in the NBA. Provided we only played the Knicks. And provided every player on the Knicks had one broken leg and was dead.

Look for McGrady to get his first playoff-series victory this April. And look for Yao to be on the short list for MVP. And look for my keys because I need them to get into my house.

Next column: The mighty, mighty Spurs and the fightin’ Mavericks – the fiercest rivalry in the NBA, not to mention along I-35.

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