By Scoop Jackson
Page 2

109-75.

Let's not go there.

*****

The banners are up. Everywhere.

The minute you land in the city, you know the business. That annual feeling.

The All-Star Game is in town. H-town. For the first time since '89. Les Alexander is sitting somewhere, proud.

Basketballs in the shape of states. Nike's alphabet campaign all along I-610. Building-size images of Tracy McGrady on the front of the Toyota Center.

Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady
AP
It's been a tough season for T-Mac and Yao Ming.

When I asked a brotha in a T-Mac jersey at the airport what the feeling about the Rockets is in the city, his one-word answer was: "Whatever."

Could it have gotten to that already? This soon? Only four months after talking about balling for the Western Conference crown?

Less than three weeks ago the Rockets had the worst record in the Western Conference. With Yao (foot), Tracy (back) and Rafer (leg) missing almost an entire half-season due to injuries, the prediction that the Rockets would make a serious run at dethroning the Spurs seems now, as one gentleman in Houston said to me, "dumber than a house plant."

But in the last two weeks, ever since Yao and T-Mac have been on the floor together, Alexander's squad has won seven out of eight. Including a beatdown of the team that has benefitted the most from the Rockets' downfall: the Clippers.

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Then Phoenix embarrasses them 109-75.

And all over the city people feel like it's all over. A wrap. Fin.

The love is gone like a Rick James classic.

The All-Star Game was supposed to come to Houston in the middle of a season the Rockets hadn't seen since Dream was wearing pinstriped uniforms. The addition of Stromile (Swift) and Skip … a year past T-Mac and Yao's learning to play with each other … a year past Jeff Van Gundy's finding his coaching comfort zone …

Basically, the Rockets were supposed to be the Mavericks right now. This was supposed to be their time to shine.

Instead, in this city, the Texans are getting the above-the-fold-line love.

*****

At George Bush Intercontinental, skycap Utopia Lastrap, a "born here, gonna die here" Houston native who at one time had the mayor speak at his wedding, gives a synopsis of the feeling around the city about the Rockets. "There's no excitement here. The fans are somewhere between being blaze-blah and being mad. Is it the players or is it the coach? That's the vibe. It's like that comment Tracy McGrady made last year about [Van Gundy's] coaching the team that he has and catering to their talents as opposed to coaching them to what he thinks they should be doing."

Rafer Alston and Jeff Van Gundy
AP
Jeff Van Gundy hasn't been able to work his magic ... yet.

Inside the Red Cat Jazz Cafe, Julius Erving and Clyde Drexler are in the back in lounge mode, while Frankie Beverly's "Joy and Pain" gets a live impromptu solo from saxophonist Mike Phillips. When asked about the Rockets, one patron drinking Patron screams out, "The Rockets are a sorry-ass team!" But Nicole Thomas, massage therapist, a Lafayette, La., native but Houston resident for 10 years and former Rockets employee, clears up the general feeling.

"We're happy the NBA is here for the All-Star Game, but in Houston fans are frustrated. probably as frustrated as the players. We understand the injuries, but coming into the season there were expectations. They only love you unless you're losing. Yeah, the Rockets are on a winning streak right now, but can they salvage the season? Because if you're not talking playoffs in Houston, then what are you saying?"

Closer to the Galleria, at Smith and Wollensky, CitiGroup investment banker Andy Bynam, a Houstonian and die-hard Rockets fan, sings the same chorus as it seems everyone else in the 713 seems to be Luther'ing. "If you aren't winning in Houston the city doesn't give a [expletive]," he says. But … "There's a lot of skepticism about the Rockets, they're only four games behind the Lakers, but they can't afford any games lost to injuries or long losing streaks. And a lot of people here are down on Yao, but without him they don't win."

Ah, the Yao factor. The dilemma. The drama.

It seems all over Houston the center is at the center of everything. And that ain't cool.

Regardless of whether the team wins or loses games, the fate of Yao is … is … well, it's somewhere in between what Ralph Sampson did while he was here and what Olajuwon did. It's somewhere the city has been before.

And that ain't cool.

Inside County Hospital, emergency room services employee Vance Kendall, a Houston resident for over 10 years, spits the Yao truth: "Yao is on the bubble," he says. "The city is over him right now."

Do they need Yao to dominate, I ask? "Yes," Kendall responds.

Can he dominate, I ask him? "He never has. And his body language and mentality tells me that he probably never will."

He holds his breath. "He's too mechanical."

Then he furthers the Houston paradox. "It's very hard to get behind this team, they're asking Tracy [McGrady] to provide too much at too many positions. You are looking at a team that at best is a 7-8 spot team in the playoffs with their major weakness being defense. And they'll have to get by either S-A, Dallas or Phoenix? Everyone in Houston knows that's not going to happen."

Inside the lobby of the JW Marriott, Terrance Harris of the Houston Chronicle verbalizes the sum of all fears. "At the beginning of the year everyone had high expectations of what the Rockets were going to do … now, everyone is like, 'whatever.' The people here are over it, they're through. I'm not saying that they've given up [on the Rockets' season] but for them to think this team is going to get past San Antonio, they know better."

And that ain't cool. At all.

*****

I made a prediction in ESPN The Magazine at the beginning of the season. I said that if the Rockets were ballin' solid by April 22, 2006, they would be the team that nobody wants to see.

Especially not in the first round.

Yao Ming
AP
Yao could use some support from H-town.

I said Dallas would not be a problem. I said Phoenix wouldn't have an Amare or a prayer against them.

I came close to saying that this year the Rockets would shake up the world and screw up the West like the clique inside the city they dwell.

That island is empty now. And I'm Richard Hatch.

Now is not the time to give up on Yao, Van Gundy, this team. Now is the time for the city to rediscover the love for a team that it hoped was going to rekindle memories of '94-95.

A team that the city was ready to wrap its arms around. And now it can't. Or it won't.

But I don't live here. I'm not stuck inside the fifth-largest city in the country supporting a basketball team that -- with the help of God's sick sense of humor with injuries -- has turned a potential season of heaven into a perpetual season from hell.

Hell, I've had to live with loving the Cubs for a lifetime. Empathy doesn't live here.

But after being here for two days before the All-Star jump-off, I have learned one thing: The biggest concern in Houston right now is not -- as Mr. Lastrap said at the airport -- whether the Rockets make the playoffs or ever live up to their potential.

It's whether the Texans are going to draft Vince Young.

Scoop Jackson is an award-winning journalist who has covered sports and culture for more than 15 years. He is a former editor of Slam, XXL, Hoop and Inside Stuff magazines and the author of "Battlegrounds: America's Street Poets Called Ballers" and "LeBron James: the Chambers of Fear." He resides in Chicago with his wife and two kids. You can e-mail Scoop here. Sound off to Page 2 here.


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