HOUSTON -- Window washers swiped squeegees across gigantic images of Dwight Howard and James Harden towering over the plaza of the Toyota Center on Friday, sprucing up the arena for what fans dare to dream might become a championship season.
As the men riding the cherry picker glimpsed downward, they beheld a sight seen all too infrequently in Houston: Cheering Rockets diehards who genuinely believe their team could actually deliver the city another world championship.
“Playoffs, baby,” one of them hooted. “Woo!
A line of men, women and children – wearing everything from Rockets T-shirts to Rockets sunglasses – stood on the plaza patiently waiting for their chance in a raffle giving away tickets to the playoffs.
“I see us going all the way,” said Stuart Smith, one of the fans gathered outside the arena. “I think we have the team – with James and Dwight -- put together. We’re going to make a run. It’s going to be fun and I’m ready to watch it.”
The irony is that most Houstonians haven’t had much chance to watch the team this season. The ongoing stalemate between partners in the Comcast SportsNet – a never-ending mess that began after Astros owner Jim Crane decided he wanted out of the deal – has kept the Rockets’ telecasts out of most Houston homes.
But those frustrating days that have driven many Houstonians to watch games at sports bars or friends’ homes are over. Now the season moves onto national networks as the Rockets move into the first round of the playoffs with a series against the Portland Trailblazers that begins Easter Sunday.
Ticket prices are rising, though not as dramatically as they will if the Rockets move into the next round. The average price for a ticket to the series beginning this weekend is $208, according to the ticket resale website TiqIQ, which amasses data on such things. That’s an increase of about 23% over last year’s first round.
Kayla Ramsey, a ticket broker at the Houston Ticket Store, scanned her computer screen and came to the conclusion you could get a decent seat to Sunday’s game on the lower level of the Toyota Center for about $125.
“That’s about normal for the first round,” Ramsey said. “For the second and third rounds, they tend to go double that.”
Twenty years have passed since the Rockets delivered Houston its first NBA championship, ending a drought of major sports league championships. Houston teams, it seemed, always played just good enough to break their fans’ hearts – until 1994.
In that championship season, the city just went nuts. On the night the Rockets beat the Knicks in the season’s final game at what was then called the Compaq Center, crowds boiling out of bars on Richmond Avenue screamed and cheered and honked their horns for hours. The team was hailed with a parade through downtown Houston wilder than anything that ever greeted astronauts returning from the moon.
“There were grown men crying!” said one woman screaming over the crowd noise on Richmond that storied night. “They were so happy!”
A year later, it happened all over again when the Rockets swept the Orlando Magic. Other cities had their “three-peats,” but Houston had a “sweep-peat.”
Since then, Houston has lost one NFL franchise and gained another. The Astros brought the first World Series to Texas, but they got swept by the White Sox. And despite the sensational phenomenon generated by Yao Ming, the Rockets have never repeated their electrifying performances of the mid-1990s.
Now a whole generation of Houstonians has grown up without knowing what it’s like to watch their team win a world championship. Nonetheless, they’re dreaming.