I’ve been derelict in my duties. I’ve been slow to post travel blogs, which some readers really like. I’m really good at it with college football, but the NBA playoffs are such a grind, I get behind. So I’ll try to do better. Starting here with Houston. We headed to Houston on April 26 for two Thunder-Rocket games, came back on April 30, then jumped back in the car on May 3 for a single game and returned home May 5. Here’s what happened.
HOT SPOT, AND I DON’T MEAN HOUSTON
We were about an hour down the road, oh, just before Pauls Valley I assume, and I got an email from OSU announcing its home-and-home football series with Boise State.
So I forwarded to sports editor Mike Sherman with this message: “Hey, this is big.”
Then just north of Ardmore, I learned what big news really looks like.
That’s when the email arrived from the Thunder, announcing that Russell Westbrook would have surgery.
Here we were, 100 miles from Oklahoma City and some 350 miles from Houston, and the biggest story of the NBA playoffs had just broken. The Thunder was still in OKC but soon to leave for Houston.
We had a thousand questions, and maybe a million eyeballs waiting to read what we knew and thought about the loss of Peter Pan, and right then and there, technology paid off.
We had a hot spot with us, which is a mobile internet modem. If you’ve got cell service, the hot spot gives you internet service. Which means we went into high gear.
Mayberry RFD and I started answering emails and firing off interview requests, and doing the same thing for John Rohde, who was driving.
We fielded questions from Sherman, and talked about plans. When Sam Presti held a press conference, we listed for awhile over a cell phone, though the reception was not great. We contacted doctors and we scoured the Internet for information on meniscus injuries. I swear, by the time we got to Corsicana, I knew more about the meniscus than I did about the Dallas Mavericks’ roster. Which certainly was not true back in the Arbuckles.
We did radio interviews – RFD went on SportsCenter, remotely – and our crack crew back in the office gathered a ton of stuff for us from the Thunder press briefings.
By the time we rolled into Houston, we had a bunch of stuff already written and sent in. Blogs, charts about NBA injuries, a story on exactly what meniscus surgery means. It was something.
I had so many wires sitting in my lap in the front seat, I looked like I was in ICU. I had the Hot Spot, and I had an electrical converter, which kept our laptops charged, and I had earphones attached to my cellphone and/or my laptop.
Just in case the converter wouldn’t suffice, when we stopped for gas at a Valero station, I took out my laptop and plugged it into a wall. Did the same at a Rudy’s in Denton, Texas, where we stopped for a little lunch.
It was a wild trip. Those last five hours of driving seemed about 45 minutes.
We tried to do a video conference — we call them Google hangouts – but the screens of both RFD and myself went totally blue, which is the curse of death in the computer world. So we bailed on that and just did phoners back to the office.
When we rolled into Houston, we had maybe two thirds of our work behind us. We finished up and called it a night.
It certainly was quite a day.
HAIL TO HOUSTON
I owe Houston an apology. I’ve been bad-mouthing it for years. Seemed like nothing but traffic and humidity to me. But it grew on me a little in my six days there.
First, the traffic isn’t bad if you can plan around it.
We stayed about 10 miles north of downtown on the first trip, and getting to the Toyota Center wasn’t too bad, even though we went twice a day on both Saturday and Monday. Hit a little traffic but nothing that was a killer.
If I was trying to go from downtown to The Woodlands at 5:15 I think I’d go bananas, but we mostly survived.
We drove around a little, found some cool areas and neighborhoods. The weather was mostly solid, even with a flash flood that popped up one day. Found some good places to eat.
Houston is not a place I’ll pencil in to vacation. But it’s not a place I’ll dread to go.
PARKING LOT ROBBERY
For Game 3 shootaround, we drove downtown and parked in a virtually empty lot across the street from the Toyota Center. A guy comes up and says it’s game day, $30 to park. The sign said $5, except for special events parking. The sign also said pay at the box in the middle of the lot.
Well, I knew one thing. I wasn’t paying anybody $30 to park in an empty lot. But I didn’t know how they considered it. Was it game day, even though tipoff was 10 hours away? Finally, the guy said, OK, $5, but get out of there well before the game. Which we most certainly planned to do.
And of course, when we returned a couple of hours later, there was a boot on our tire.
Yep, we had been scammed.
The guy was a bum, a confidence man. We were supposed to pay at the box, though it seemed a little confusing on just when the special event parking started and the daily parking ended, and I knew they weren’t having Rocket fans all plug that box in the middle of the lot.
We called the number they left, and they said they’d send somebody over, and sure enough, here a parking enforcement guy. Gave us a lecture on how we’d been scammed. Said it was going to cost us about $100 to take the boot off.
We had no other options, so we gave the guy a credit card, he gave us a receipt and he said someone would be along to remove the boot.
About 20 minutes later, here they came. And that someone was him. The same guy took the boot off, and away we went.
A little educated on the perils of downtown parking.
And our man Rohde was incensed. And he wasn’t mad the con man. Rohde’s point: There was a thief involved, and the crook was the parking guy. He knew we’d been scammed and didn’t care. He could have taken the boot off but wouldn’t.
Rohde’s point: There is no incentive for the parking agency to address the problem. The bum is a boon to their ledger. Instead of $5, they made $105 off us.
I have to say, Rohde had a point. And next time, we’ll know better. Pack a blowtorch in the trunk.
The Thunder practiced the day between games at Rice University. Which was a fun day trip.
The Thunder practiced in Tudor Fieldhouse, which is the renovated Autry Court. When I was a kid, my dad would buy the Sunday Dallas papers, and I developed sort of a romantic notion of all the Southwest Conference venues. Football and basketball.
Later, when I got to most of them, I realized there was nothing special about a Saturday night football game in Waco or a Wednesday night hoops game in Lubbock.
But reading about those places required some imagination, and I had plenty of that.
So it was fun to go onto Autry Court, though Houston veterans were quick to tell me it’s nothing like the old days. Autry Court was a total dump, I guess.
And of course, Rice Stadium sits on campus, a monument to times past. A Super Bowl was played at Rice Stadium, for crying out loud – Dolphins-Vikings, Super Bowl 8 – but these days, the huge stadium that seats 70,000 (tarps cover the end zones, reducing capacity to some 50,000) rarely houses more than 15,000 for Owl games.
Aside from the stadium, though, the Rice campus is fabulous. As collegial as it comes. Reminds me a lot of SMU in Dallas.
And it got me thinking. Why is this pristine university called Rice? So I looked it up.
It’s a fascinating story. William Marsh Rice was a Massachusetts-born businessman who made his fortune in Houston and bequeathed his fortune to the city of Houston for an institute for the advancement of literature, science and art.
The will stated that work on the new institute would begin only after Rice’s death.
In 1900, Rice was murdered by his valet, who had conspired with a lawyer. They claimed his estate using a forged will. The valet turned state’s evidence and testified against the lawyer, who was found guilty of murder. He was pardoned in 1912, the same year classes began at the Rice Institute.
Last year, the Dish and I discovered a couple of shows we’ll watch if we catch them on the Food Network. Restaurant Impossible and Restaurant Stakeout. Shows about struggling restaurants and how experts go in and try to fix them.
Our photographer on the trip, Bryan Terry, was a little skeptical of the shows. He’s seen them and thought they might be a little fake. Hard for restaurants to be that bad, was his theory.
But we found one that put it to the test.
On our second trip to Houston, we went to Pappa’s Seafood, hard by I-45. It’s actually a subsidiary of the Pappa franchise – Pappadeaux, Pappasito’s, Pappa Brothers Steakhouse.
Pappa’s Seafood sported a menu very close to Pappadeaux, which we all love when we go to Dallas or somewhere. And turns out the food was excellent.
And still it was a ridiculous experience.
We arrived almost at 9 p.m., on a Thursday, and the place wasn’t very busy. We went to the front desk and waited to be seated. And no one came. And no one came. And no one came.
A girl emerged from a side room twice to answer the phone. And neither time even looked at us.
I went to the bar area and asked if they could seat us. He said someone would get to us.
Finally, after 6-7 minutes, someone came. They seated us right by the kitchen door, which doesn’t bother me but I thought was curious, since that’s always been considered the worst table in a restaurant, and there were plenty of open tables.
Our waiter was a friendly young guy but a little over his head, seemed like. He went over the menu for us. Literally. Went to every area on the menu and told us about it, as if we couldn’t read. Even went to the back, with the lunch menu, and informed us lunch stopped at 4 p.m. – and then proceeded to tell us about the lunch menu.
The service ended up being a little slow, but we eventually got our food ordered. I ordered a grilled medley. They brought me fried. RFD ordered salmon. They brought him halibut. Photographer Bryan Terry ordered something that came over jambalaya. They brought it out, no jambalaya. So they batted 25 percent.
To Pappa’s credit, they just left me the fried fish and said they would bring out the grilled. So I gave RFD some of my fried stuff, and it was a good thing. Because when they brought his salmon, it wasn’t cooked. He was halfway full – we had a great Greek salad, which we shared – so he said don’t bother with any more.
And finally, when we finally got the bill paid, we headed out and couldn’t go through the front door. It was locked. And apparently incapable of being unlocked. So they had us exit through some banquet room.
This was a place with a great product but crying out for some management.
Here’s what else I found in Houston eateries:
* We found a great Cajun-type deli, Antone’s, right next to our Courtyard hotel. I love a good shrimp Po’Boy, so I had that twice. Very good. RFD went to Antone’s three times. We would go back.
* We had dinner one night with David Bassity, who formerly was an OU football publicist and now is the University of Houston athletic media relations director. Super guy. From Chickasha. He took us to a place called BB’s Café, another Cajun place in an area just north of downtown Houston. Cool area. A little like Midtown in OKC. Lots of cool restaurants, people out on the street. Parking was a problem.
* Twice we had lunch at Mondela’s, an Italian deli just south of the Toyota Center. Bassity turned us onto it. Great place. I love Italian delis. I had an olive salad and some peppers and deviled eggs and some good sandwiches. John Rohde particularly liked the place, and John is not easily impressed in the restaurant wars.
* We found a Sonic close to the hotel, and you know me. I need my Sonic. But this place was funky. An all-drive through Sonic. No stalls. No pull-ins. Totally drive-through or walk-up. It made for long lines. Not good. Not good at all. But we stopped on both trips at the Sonic in Corsicana, Texas, and it was the high quality you’ve come to expect from America’s best fast food.
* We stopped by a Whataburger around 1:30 a.m. after Game 3. Good place to get a late-night snack. It’s an Oklahoman tradition, on late nights driving home from Dallas. I usually just go for the milkshake – Whataburger has great milkshakes. But mine was a little slow in arriving, and when the guy handed me the vanilla shake, he apologized, saying they had to wait for the machine to freeze up. Uh-oh. That means a thin shake is likely. And that’s what I got. Whataburger’s shakes are great because they’re so thick. But this one was milky. I left milk behind long about 1965. I don’t plan on going back.
* We rented a Chrysler 300 for the trip. Good car, if you like those sort of things. I drive a pickup or my wife’s Mazda SUV, so I’m never partial to a car anymore. But this one was good, except for living in fear the entire way. The key was one of those fancy jobbers that does everything including singing Broadway show tunes, and Rohde was informed that the key cost a cool $1,500. Better not lose it.
NOT SO SCENIC
The drive from Dallas to Houston is not one I make often, and really, there’s not much there. The highlight is going through Huntsville, where you’ve got the 40-foot (I’m guessing) statue of Sam Houston and the Texas State Prison. Including the prison museum.
One question. What the heck do you put in a prison museum? Maybe next year we’ll stop in.