When I was first brought onto CultureMap a few months after the site first launched and tasked with helping increase the readership of a publication already high on quality content, I wasn't sure if sports would be part of the equation. At that point, we were still defining what our definition of "culture" would be and hadn't arrived at the what people are talking about in the city litmus test that's steered this grand adventure so well for years now.
No back then, I thought I might be done with sports after having spent more than a decade reporting on it professionally. The whole everyone writes the same story, everyone's afraid to break from the herd, aspect that often defines modern sports writing had grown tiresome. Luckily for sports to succeed at CultureMap, they'd have to be done differently. No writing scared. No doing a story just because somebody else is doing it. No limitations.
Five years later, Sports is one of the most read sections in CultureMap — with sports stories all over the most read CultureMap stories of all time — and it's the section that draws the most reader comments, inflaming plenty of passion. More importantly, CultureMap Sports is unlike any other sports section in the city.
This pleases many loyal fans and drives many haters — who are even more loyal — absolutely crazy. I even enjoyed the guy who wrote in that I was a waste of sperm. It's all part of fun. It's sports after all. It's supposed to be fun.
Looking back on five years of CultureMap Sports has been more enjoyable than that guy starting out wondering if it'd part of the equation ever could have imagined. With that in mind here are five of the most compelling CultureMap Sports stories ever. Somehow nothing on Arian Foster — my favorite athlete to cover about during this run — made the cut. (I have to work on writing about Arian as memorably as Arian talks about anything more important than football.)
Freelancer Kim Davis' interview with Calvin Murphy on his return to being involved with Houston Rockets' broadcasts and his frank thoughts on the child abuse accusations that pushed him out of game before his acquittal also deserves special mention.
One of CultureMap's first big sports scoops came when we uncovered the other major partners in the Jim Crane-led new Houston Astros ownership group. This story showed some of the real behind-the-scenes power involved with the Astros and made it clear that Crane would be expected to run the franchise like a true business with cost limitations rather than as a vanity toy.
"I'm not a baseball fan," one of the investors told us then. "I don't go to the games. I'm actually doing it because of Jim Crane.
"I'm betting on Jim. I believe in him. I think he's a good manager. He has a good track record."
"I'm not a baseball fan. I don't go to the games. I'm actually doing it because of Jim Crane."
Yes, Jim Crane is expected to make some high-powered people some major money as he rebuilds the Astros. That dynamic is still very much in play today. And it plays a factor in almost every move the Astros make. Or don't make.
More recently, CultureMap was the first outlet in the country to identify Bill O'Brien as the Texans' clear No. 1 target in their head coach search. A source close to the search detailed Bob McNair's fascination with O'Brien to me and CultureMap followers read it first.
We don't have the sports staff size to be first on every hamstring pull and minor level roster move (and that's not really CultureMap's mission either), but for major sports news that changes the course of franchises, we'll break more than our share.
Jeremy Lin's one of the most compelling and most misused athletes who's ever donned a Houston uniform and the Houston Rockets' often inexplicable treatment of him became regular column fodder. There are a number of pieces I could have picked for this slot. The secret story of the angry Leslie Alexander phone call that pushed the Rockets to resign Lin in free agency only months after cutting him is an old favorite. It soon seemed apparent that Daryl Morey and Kevin McHale never truly wanted Lin back themselves and their resentments would haunt the Rockets for seasons to come.
But it's this column from last January when I detailed how McHale's absurd benchings of Jeremy Lin and related coaching blunders would doom the Rockets to a first round playoff loss that is the most representative.
At the time, Rockets honks (including several team employees) rushed to leave comments mocking the very idea of a James Harden and Dwight Howard team bowing out in the first round. What happened against Portland months later, again?
Sports commentary is not always about being right, but when the signs were so obvious and so many willingly and eagerly blatantly ignored them in fits of Lin Only Hate, there's something to be said for not following the crowd.
When I reached out to MoiseKapenda Bower and asked him to become a CultureMap contributor, I was surprised he hadn't been locked up in an exclusive contract by some big money outfit. Bower's a unique, thinking man's sports writer. He's on top of the sports analytics movement and he often brings out a stat you may not have considered.
The Houston Chronicle's loss and blunder has turned into CultureMap readers' big gain. All of Bower's gifts are on full display in this column on the Rice University football team's first conference championship in 56 years. While others only saw the celebratory Gatorade bath that coach David Bailiff joked he wished was chicken soup, Bower looked back and put it all in perspective by detailing how far Rice had crawled since the deception of a "traitorous former coach."
This one's worth reading again.
My draft-night deadline column arguing that the Texans made a serious blunder by picking the high-character J.J. Watt over maverick Auburn superstar Nick Fairley is certainly one of the major flash point CultureMap stories of all time. J.J. Watt's talked about it motivating him to work even harder in interviews (you're welcome, Houston!) as if this ultra-driven force really needed an extra push. It's also one of the most read and commented on CultureMap articles ever.
Houston's sports radio giant 610 AM was filled with Watt questioning talk from its hosts on the night of the 2011 NFL Draft. Those hosts just don't admit it now. I do.
Yes, I turned out to be colossally wrong on Watt. But the people who think I should be ashamed over that amuse me to no end. Do you think Peter King is torn up over having picked Brooks Reed to be the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in a season in which Reed ended up finishing with a paltry 27 total tackles and two and a half sacks?
Sports writing isn't about predicting the future ( if it was, we'd all be in high-rollers suites in Vegas not high up in the rafters of NRG Stadium). Sports Illustrated's almost made it a point of honor to get its championship predictions spectacularly wrong. Heck, SI likely dubbed the Houston Astros the "2017 World Series Champs" just so that cover will be brought up again and again when it doesn't happen.
Sports commentary's about offering compelling takes with the information you have at the time. That's what I did in that J.J. Watt draft night column. Plenty of other media voices railed against the Watt pick at the time. Fans booed the Watt selection at the Texans official draft party. Houston's sports radio giant 610 AM was filled with Watt questioning talk from its hosts on the night of the 2011 NFL Draft. Those hosts just don't admit it now.
I do and still own that column years later. You'll be able to still read this Watt column, and laugh if you want, on CultureMap's 10th anniversary too. You should still be able to read it when J.J. Watt's inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And I'll still get a little thrill and smile whenever anyone comments on it and calls me an idiot all these years later.
A tiny Orthodox Jewish day school's quest to be able to play in the state high school basketball tournament while staying true to its religious beliefs captured national attention. The New York Times, CNN and NBC Nightly News were just a few of the major outlets that swooped into Houston to cover Robert M. Beren Academy's fight against Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS).
It was a stand for religious freedom, with the Beren kids standing strong on their vow to forfeit their once-in-a-lifetime state semifinal run if TAPPs insisted on making them play on the Sabbath.
CultureMap stayed a step ahead of the story all the way, becoming the first outlet to call for TAPPS to reverse its small-minded decision and providing a rare look behind the big gates of the school. But it's a column about the aftermath of Beren's heartbreakingly close loss in the state championship game — the end of the opportunity they fought so hard to get — that stands out as the most powerful CultureMap sports story of all time.
This is a story about a kid's heart and what happens when the cameras flee.