In Texas, Winning Is the Name of the Game

Times Staff Writer

Once football was their only king in sports, but these days, they're at least tipping their 10-gallon hats to baseball and basketball

It's starting. In a few weeks, there will be less oxygen in the air as Texans across the state begin yelling at football games.

They won't stop until January. That's when the Super Bowl is played. And if there isn't a Texas team in that football game, you'll really hear some screaming.

Texans are sentimental. They have to have something to love. Something to have pride in. Something to brag on. Something to be rabid about. Something to inspire bumper stickers for their pickup trucks. Something to care enough about to defend, by fighting if necessary.

It used to be that cattle was king here. Then there was oil.

And always, there has been football: Sand-lot football, Pop Warner football, elementary school football, high school football, junior college football, college football, semipro football, pro football, Sunday-in-the-front-yard football.

Now there is an interloper, an outsider. Now there is basketball. That dirty, city game smuggled into the state by the unemployed carpetbaggers who migrated from the Northeast during the recession to leach out the riches from the great state of Texas.

Now, too, a sport that was once dormant--lulled to sleep by its existence in the shadow of football--has awakened. Now there is also baseball, the All-American game played in Texas by boys and abandoned by men.

Imagine the confusion, the schizophrenia in Texas on the part of sports fans, which is to say anyone living in the state. Now they have to spread their love among three sports. What a situation! It's not unlike the choices that fans in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Chicago have had to make for a couple of generations. So, sports fans in Texas are rejoining the Union. Have mercy.

"Things are changing here, but very slowly," observed Marti Broussard, manager of a photo store in Houston. "The Astros are big now, but, remember, football hasn't started. Now, the Rockets, when they started winning, really boosted Houston up. Something exciting was happening here. We had something to boost things up.

"It's basically the love of winning. When you have a team in a slump, people here are going to back off. People are not going to be supportive. They want teams from Texas to do well. I guess Texas loves winners."

That's not exactly the revelation of the decade. But it is the truth on which much in Texas is based. What other goal but winning would drive college boosters through deceit to the edges of felony? For what other cause does America's Team fight?

But what happens when winning is no longer the exclusive province of football? What you get is what is happening in Texas right now. And what has been incubating for several years.

"I think this is something that has been going on for the last 10 years," said Ray Patterson, general manager of the Houston Rockets. "When we came here from Milwaukee (Patterson had previously been with the Bucks) there were really no places to play basketball in the whole state.

"They didn't have the Summit (in Houston), they didn't have Reunion Arena (in Dallas), they didn't have the facility in Austin at the University of Texas. There was a place to play in San Antonio, but there was no team there.

"I think basketball has risen with the migration of people to Texas from the Northeast and the East. These people grew up as children with the game. Football is more established in Texas, that's why we have to win. There was a time when you had to sustain your own ego by strong identification with a sport. In the small towns here, that sport was football."

What Patterson, and other professional basketball franchises, are hoping for is the maturing of the first generation of Texans to be weaned on basketball. The sons and daughters of those migrants from the East are the hope for the sport in Texas.

"I don't think we'll get to be No. 1," said Robert Reid, a guard on the Rockets. "A lot of people here still think of basketball as a sissy sport. We need more kids playing in the schools. Right now, all the emphasis is on football. It's tough. We are talking about football people, where you get back into the country and all there is is cornbread and rodeos.

"I wouldn't say we have fair-weather fans, but the fans we have now want more. They want to see Texas do well. We'll have to do well next season to keep them."

The Rockets helped themselves by making it to the National Basketball Assn. final last season. The rewards of that accomplishment: 12,500 season tickets have been sold so far for next season. Last year, only 9,000 were sold.

"We did have a lot of marginal fans last year," Patterson said. "When we were losing, we had no fans. I never lost hope that the fans would come out. There really aren't that many experienced basketball fans here, but it's changing. But I can say this: I wouldn't want to hold the NCAA final here."

Dallas did, and are the folks there glad they did. Basketball people in that city say events like the Final Four go a long way to raise the consciousness of sports fans. They see basketball played at a high level and want to see more.

Dallas, though, has always embraced basketball. The Mavericks were the first NBA team to make money in their first season of operation. They averaged 7,789 fans a game then, much to the astonishment of those who predicted that professional basketball would be as welcome to the football crowd as the arrival of sheep were to cattle ranchers.

"There was no question that the city was ready," said Kevin Sullivan, director of media relations for the Mavericks. "We have seen an increase in interest, mainly from people who moved here from the East, the transplanted Knick and Celtic fans. By the time they got here in the late '70s, it was too late to claim Cowboy fanhood. They couldn't get season tickets even if they wanted to. So we filled the void for them."

Television, though, created the void. With cable sports channels, Texans were, for the first time, able to watch basketball played in Boston and New York and Detroit, before the state had its own teams.

"We see basketball game after basketball game," said Bill Little, sports information director at the University of Texas. "There are more Celtic fans in Austin than you'll find Rocket fans.

"When Abe Lemmons was coaching basketball here, it became the thing to do to watch basketball. Texas fans will come to see what is winning. If Texas is winning, they'll come to see the Texas Relays or Texas swimming. Football is king, but it's more balanced than ever."

Baseball has been in Texas longer than basketball, but that means it has also been second to football longer. One theory about baseball is that kids in Texas like to be out of doors, hence baseball over basketball. But in the fall, when the end of baseball season overlaps with the start of football, baseball players jump ship to football.

"The history of schoolboy football in Texas is so long and so colorful that football in the small West Texas towns is the major event of the year," Mike Stone, president of the Texas Rangers, said. "I don't think baseball will ever compete with that."

Stone, too, counts his fans as transplants from other regions.

"I do think baseball is gaining some popularity in the state," he said. "When we are playing the Tigers, I think there are more Detroit fans in the stands than for the Rangers. I think a lot of that is the result of the significant infusion of people from the Midwest into the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. This has been in the last three to four years. "

The growth has been apparent. The Rangers experienced a 31% increase in attendance last season, the second-highest increase in the American League. Another significant factor is that the Rangers are winning. At the moment, the team from Arlington is right behind the Angels in the American League West. The Houston Astros hold a solid lead in the National League West.

"There is a certain fickleness if you don't produce wins," Stone said. "But I think a large part of it has to do with the success of the Cowboys. It's almost as if: 'You don't win in Texas, you're nothing.' You know, you have kids in Boston who will go to Red Sox games no matter what. But more and more people are watching baseball here, and we have more knowledgeable fans.

"To be perfectly honest, I don't think the Rangers have earned a lot of fan expectation in the 14 years we have been here. In the fall, when football exhibition games start, we haven't been in the race. There are plenty of fans to go around. We don't really view ourselves as being in competition with the Dallas Cowboys."

Good thing, because the Cowboys are far and away the No. 1 sports draw in the state. No one wants to say they are in competition with the Cowboys. Implicit in such an admission is, "We are No. 2, distantly."

Sullivan of the Mavericks said everyone in Dallas knows that Tuesday is the day Cowboy Coach Tom Landry has his media luncheon. "I could schedule a press conference the same day, but why would I?" he said. "No one would be there. They'd all be at the Cowboys' luncheon."

In the colleges, what were once football factories have become multi-sport factories. The University of Texas is now producing some of the most successful all-around sports teams in the nation. Still, football has not suffered. Far from it. In fact, it has been the success of football as an income-producing sport that has bankrolled the rest.

It's the same at other schools. "Football pays our way," Larry Hays, baseball coach at Texas Tech, said. "We don't feel like we are in competition with them--we all work together. If football does well, it seems like the total program does better. Out in West Texas, we talk about baseball and football going hand in hand."

Except that the football hand holds the money. The Longhorns know all about that, too. The school is all-football from the start of summer drills straight through to spring practice. And even though the Texas baseball team was the Southwest Conference co-champion with the Aggies, they get the impression in Austin that their fans are simply killing time before the "real" season starts.

James Michener, yet another transplant--wasn't anyone born in this state?--studied Texas football long and hard before he wrote his big book with the witty title, "Texas." He knew that to understand the social fabric of the state, he needed to understand football mania.

"I think it was in the 1920s that this mania started," Michener told The Times in 1984. "The Friday afternoon of football was the great social equalizer, particularly in the oil-field towns where the bully boys went out and bought themselves teams.

"It and church on Sundays were the major entertainments of the period, and the habit of attending games and supporting the local high school really became endemic, more so than (in) any other state I know. In the old days, it was more spectacular, maybe, but even today a town rises or falls on its football team."

Make that, "A state rises and falls on its football team." So it is and so it has been. So it may be, but with a twist. The future for Texas sports fans holds in it not just King Football but heir apparents baseball and basketball.

When these nouveau-Texans grow old enough to ask Daddy for money to buy tickets, they will be watching basketball and baseball and football, the sports they grew up on.

Then there will be even less air to breathe in Texas, and most of what's left will be hot.

THE PERCEPTION OF TEXAS SPORTS

Dallas Cowboys: No one touches the Cowboys. They are the undisputed big gun in Texas sports. The Cowboys are the stick by which all other professional franchises are measured. "We can have a good year, but the Cowboys do so well all the time that we can't afford to fail," lamented one Texas baseball executive. "They set that high a standard." Miraculously, even when the Cowboys fail to make the playoffs, their fans are steadfast.

Houston Oilers: They suffer by comparison to the Cowboys but benefit from Dallas' high-profile wake. This has not been a highly stable franchise, but football is football, and fans have flocked. It is thought that if two high school teams suited up in the Astrodome, it would sell out.

Dallas Mavericks: A hit from the start, perhaps because Dallas sees itself as more sophisticated than country-bumpkin Houston. Dallas residents, ever eager to spot trends and beat them to death, have supported basketball in a big way, "even when we were really terrible," said a team official. The Mavericks are entrenched, but the Cowboys remain the team of choice in the city.

Houston Rockets: Fans were originally drawn to Moses Malone and have stayed on for Ralph Sampson and Akeem the Dream. The franchise was greatly buoyed by its dismantling of Los Angeles in the NBA playoffs. This unexpected triumph over the Lakers heightened fan interest in the NBA final against Boston. Fan loyalty is suspect, however. The next big rodeo in town could seriously cut into the Rockets' attendance.

San Antonio Spurs: Mediocrity, a Spur byword, is not tolerated well in Texas. Lately, this has been the third-best team in the state. Still, the existence of a big-time team gives local folks a diversion. This franchise is alive and in the midst of a rebuilding process but would be smothered in fan interest by a National Football League team.

Houston Astros: There's nothing like the smell of a winner to attract fans. In Houston, the humidity often cancels any olfactory sense, but the fans know what's going on. If there is an Astro bandwagon, it's groaning under the weight of Bubba-come-lately fans. It's difficult to say whether the Astros have surpassed the Oilers in the hearts of Houston fans, since both teams have broken hearts with such regularity.

Texas Rangers: A hot team that has lukewarm fan support. It's thought that as long as they are winning, the Rangers will continue to draw well. The first sign of a slip, however, and it's adios. After all, it's such a brief wait until the Cowboys begin their season.

University of Texas: The Longhorns like to boast about the university's well-rounded and successful athletic program. And it's true, they do win. We have not yet seen the day, however, when Texas fans discuss the triumphs of the golf or swimming teams. It's football they love and football they crave. Those other sports are simply viewed as off-season conditioning.

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