Beyond The Boxscore
Sports' strangest doubleheader: Combine Baylor with LeBron in Houston andnothing's safe
When I showed up hours early to the Texas Bowl, an Illinois fan offered to let me share her umbrella. When I arrived late to the Houston Rockets-Miami Heat game, a driver tried to cut me off to steal one of the few parking spots left around the Toyota Center.
This pretty much sums up the different feel at the two big games, in two different major sports, played just 7.72 miles apart in Houston Wednesday night. If the Texas Bowl was a feel-good affair filled with mostly happy out-of-towners (even the Baylor fans squirming through a 38-14 loss to Illinois could console themselves with the fact they weren't in Waco), the Rockets-Heat game was the frenzied place to be seen whether you are famous (Hakeem Olajuwon, Andre Johnson) or just think you should be.
Two different guys seated in rows near me sported the Tony Romo-popularized flat cap hat and one could actually be overheard asking, "Do you think I look like Romo?"
No and you're in Houston, so shut up and watch the game.
That's what I set out to do — to catch as much of both the Texas Bowl and the Heat's one visit all season as possible, turning arguably the most major-event packed Wednesday sports night in Houston history (or at least this year) into something of a mismatched doubleheader.
No matter how many people tried to talk me out of it. "Are you sure you really want to do that?" CultureMap editor-in-chief Clifford Pugh asked me several times.
Of course, this turned into a different query once I was inside Reliant Stadium's press box. "If you could be at the Heat game, why are you here?" more than one person inquired.
Yes, the Texas Bowl takes some flack. And it had some horrible luck this year with the skies suddenly erupting with near torrential downpours on its day after weeks and weeks of virtually no rain whatsoever. That forced the planned, rollicking TexFest party to be condensed and pushed inside. It also seemed to convince many Baylor fans to stay home (there were 68,211 tickets sold, the largest number for any of the pre-Jan. 1 bowls so far, but it looked like nearly a third of those ducats went unused).
Still, this bowl in only its fifth year is only destined to get bigger — and with the praise its drawing from the participating teams — it's not hard to imagine a day soon when it puts on a game that causes as much commotion locally as Heat-Rockets. Seeing Illinois rack up 533 yards of total offense, including a Texas Bowl-record 187 rushing yards from Mikel Leshoure, isn't bad either. It's the type of performance that will probably get Fighting Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino (who's already one of the highest-paid assistants in college football at nearly $500,000 a year) serious consideration for the head coaching shot he's always desired.
Even if it made this game essentially over four minutes into the third quarter with the Illini up 24-0.
"I think y'all was there like I was," Baylor coach Art Briles said in his homespun way, trying to explain a bowl loss despite a clear crowd advantage, a loss that surely delighted all the University of Houston fans still mad at him for bolting from UH for the Big 12.
"Coach Petrino emphasized setting the tone early," Leshoure said.
Early being the key word. That's when I found myself leaving for the Heat game — with plenty of company from Baylor fans looking to make it an early night. Not that LeBron was on their agendas.
Even with the parking space drama, I made it into my seat at the Toyota Center with a few minutes left in the first quarter.
"You look like a typical Rockets' fan," a buddy cracked. And yes, it was true, even with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the house, finding a seat before the second quarter proved to be a challenge that a fair share of Rockets fans wanted no part of (though less than usual).
Going straight from an NFL press box to the 11th row of an NBA arena does drive home how much more dynamic the NBA experience is in person. Not to go all David Stern, but a good NBA seat is the best seat professional sports offers. You get a real feel for just how built LeBron is and how high D-Wade can still fly — and fake fall.
You also get a sense of just how much the Heat concentrated on Kevin Martin and made sure anyone but the smooth-shooting guard had the chance to hurt them.
The game went by without a lot of unnecessary whistles, (always an NBA experience danger) and soon it was time to look at the stats from an unconventional doubleheader adventure:
Touchdowns seen in person: Three
Points scored by Miami's Big Three: 86
Points scored by Rockets' three of the night: 63
Times Briles and Illinois coach Ron Zook said proud in their postgame press conferences: Nine (with the winning coach barely winning the race 5-4)
Combined announced attendance for two games: 86,720
Big Texas Bowl moment: When Illinois beat a Texas team in the rodeo Monday night, the Bears should have known they were doomed.
Dwyane Wade pratfalls seen but not believed: Three
Hours spent in stadium seats: Six and a half
Island Man Award: The one guy at the Rockets game who determinedly screamed "Delonte West" toward LeBron James, futilely trying to create his own Cleveland moment.
Most disappointed: Tie between every face-painted Baylor fan and the Rockets backer who caught a free "T-shirt" only to discover it was a free brown Rockets apron instead.
Editor's note: Check out the stories from the Texas Bowl and the Heat-Rockets game as well: