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Red Dawn: The Greatest Stretch In Houston Pro Sports History (and How It Could Have Been So Much More)

Sometimes the most beautiful of starts does not result in the most beautiful of days.

SCM/personal collection

Sometimes the most beautiful of sunrises are vivid red. The way the light bounces off the sky, especially if there are clouds that can amplify those rays of light. If you can time the view right, there is something almost indescribably awe-inspiring about such an event. It can be one of those moments that might auger great things.

Yet, those sunrises can also foretell brutal futures. There is a reason that the old sailor’s line about “Red in the morning, sailors take warning” entered the lexicon. The atmospheric conditions that lead to such vivid sunrises can also give rise of various storms and other significant disturbances. Perhaps it is fitting that the most vivid sunrise I ever saw, where the sky was a bright, almost fluorescent red, would affirm that saying. Later that day, we received the first of 30 inches of snow that shut down all aspects of business and school for a week.

What does a sunrise have to do with Houston sports history? Imagine if you will, you woke up one morning in the fall of 2017, and, being the dedicated Houston fan that you are, you took a glance at your favorite sports news site dedicated to Houston sports. What do you read? The city basked in the glow of the Astros, overcoming years of ineptitude and a massive storm to win its first World Series in dramatic fashion. The Houston Rockets found themselves primed to annihilate all comers in their quest to dethrone the Warriors and the Houston Texans, while stumbling toward a 4-12 season, appeared to have found the missing quarterback of their future, and with the fortune of good health, looked to be on their way to assured football glory.

Given the talent and success of the teams at that stretch, and the potential all three squads showed, it seemed that Houston was entering its Sports Golden Era. The Astros’ 2017 victory seemed not only to portend the first of multiple World Series wins, but multiple championships for the city. That all three major teams were rising to those levels at the same time was unprecedented in Houston history. In the scattered and disappointing history of the city’s pro franchises, one squad might be excelling and possibly two at the same time were in the ascendancy, but never all three (when the city had an NFL, MLB and NBA franchise) simultaneously.

This is not to say that Houston sports teams lacked success before 2017. The last time the city of Houston had none of its Big Three teams in the playoffs was 2010. Going back to 2015, the city has continued to hold at least one division title (currently the Rockets are defending NBA Southwest Division champions). From 2015-2020 (completion of the 2019-2020 NFL season), only the 2016 Astros (cursed by a brutally slow start) and the injury-ravaged 2017 Houston Texans missed the playoffs, with only those same 2017 Texans suffering a losing record.

Yet, not only were the teams great, each squad possess transcendent superstars, the type of players that were perennial MVPs and the type of individuals that would lead teams to ultimate glory. While Jose Altuve won AL MVP for 2017, the Astros had no shortage of All-Stars, from World Series MVP George Springer to eventual Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. The Houston Rockets had the greatest player since Hakeem Olajuwon leading the team in the form of James Harden, who brought the franchise its third MVP in 2018. As for the Texans, Deshaun Watson seemed primed to replace J.J. Watt as the face of the team and the franchise’s first league MVP.

As 2017 moved into 2018, the Houston sports fan could not help but feel that fantasy could become reality. The Rockets won a league-best 65 games and had the vaunted Golden State Warriors one game away from elimination. The Astros improved by three (101 to 104) and returned to the ALCS. The Houston Texans, in spite of a 0-3 start, rode a solid defense and a full season of Deshaun Watson to 11 wins and legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. 2018 emerged as the year of absolute sporting greatness for Houston.

Until it didn’t. The Rockets, doomed by a critical injury and a horrific shooting stretch, could not conquer the Warriors. The Astros, despite a 1-0 ALCS lead, could not stop the best Red Sox team in history. The Texans offered meager resistance against the Colts in a wild card defeat. Painfully, all three season-ending losses came at home. Yet, the future seemed more hopeful than past Houston failures.

2019 brought more chances for glory. The Rockets shrugged off a slow start to resume their winning ways and came into the 2019 playoffs as dangerous a team as any in the league. Somehow, the Houston Astros only got better, winning a league-best 107 games and home-field for the World Series. The Texans, with another season of Deshaun Watson, clinched another division title, and Deshaun got his first playoff win in dramatic fashion. 2019 might now become the year of ultimate Houston sports glory.

Until 2019 didn’t. The Rockets, in perhaps the most competitive playoff series in NBA history (all games decided by 6 points or less), lost to Golden State yet again. The Astros, in the strangest World Series in history, lost all 4 home games, include Game 7 and a 2-0 7th inning lead to the Nationals. The Texans held a 24-0 2nd quarter lead at Kansas City, only to channel the 1992 Houston Oilers and lose 51-31. Yet again, Houston came so close, but it could not fulfill the promise.

However, this era saw its high-water mark. The optimism of 2018 and 2019 gave way to unforeseen darkness for 2020. January 2020 marked the point when the glorious dawn gave way to the brutal storms for all three teams. In a span of a week, the Texans blew their best chance to host a conference title game and get to the long-desired Super Bowl. A retooled Rockets started to take a radical approach to their roster in a vain attempt to chase one more title, but it started to yield mixed results. As for the Astros, the foundation of their glory came into question with the official confirmation of an elaborate sign-stealing scandal.

2020 lacked both optimism and on-field success, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rockets bowed out in the second round, overmatched by the Lakers. The Astros struggled through a bastardized regular season, and while they did return to the ALCS and offered a brief bit of drama rallying from a 3-0 series deficit, they fell in Game 7 to the Rays. The Texans, having made so many short-sighted moves for a shot at glory, paid for it with a horrid 4-12 record, even with Deshaun Watson playing his best individual season.

At the individual player level, the promise from 2017 disappeared in a torrent of disgruntled and dispirited players. Within the span of a month, Houston lost three of its greatest stars. George Springer, he of the legendary SI covers and the greatest sports hink-pink (Springer Dinger), but also victim of underhanded management moves denying him a year of free agency, sought more dollars/loonies with the Blue Jays. James Harden, weary of so many near-misses at championship glory and facing the prospect of a declining team, forced his way off the Rockets in a trade to the New Jersey Nets. Yet, the most inexplicable and painful was the completely needless alienation of Deshaun Watson. While he is (as of this writing) still on the Texans, the head-scratching moves of the team’s front office left the star QB in a position where he is now demanding a trade.

As 2021 moves forward, the Houston sports scene enters new territory. The Astros still have the core of a good team, but are no longer the juggernaut of the past few seasons. The Rockets enter a new era, where they are not title contenders, but have the pieces of an entertaining, young team. The Texans face a most uncertain future, not knowing if they will ever see their star quarterback suit up again and having no idea what the immediate future holds (although it does not trend well).

The loss of these three superstars (Watson not expected to return to the fold) signals the close of arguably the greatest era in Houston pro sports history. Taking into account the Astros 2017 season after Harvey until the Jan 2021, the city saw:

  • 1 World Series win
  • 2 AL Pennants
  • 4 ALCS appearances
  • 1 NBA Conference Finals appearance
  • 7 Combined Division Titles
  • 2 League MVPs
  • 1 World Series MVP
  • 13 Combined Playoff Series Wins
  • 1 NFL Playoff Game Win.

Great results, but there is also the sense that the teams left so much on the table. It may be a long time before Houston sees such a run of simultaneous success from its Big Three franchises. The dawn was beautiful, and the day had its moments, but storms battered the teams, and the sun set on as much disappointment as success. Yet, as the Houston fan will continue to lament, there is always tomorrow.