Exactly one year ago, I was bemoaning the fact that the Houston Rockets had concluded their disappointing 2005-06 season with a loss to San Antonio. The Rockets ended that injury-plagued season with a rather poor 34-48 record and a distinct lack of local attraction. As I noted at the time, the Rockets were "something of an afterthought on the local sports scene;" a team that many local sports fans, myself included, just didn't care all that much about.
Exactly one year later, the Rockets, having just ended a reasonably successful 52-30 regular season campaign, are preparing to start the first round of the playoffs against the Utah Jazz tomorrow night. Improvement on the court has resulted in improvement in the stands as well; the 2006-07 Rockets averaged 16,542 fans per game during the regular season; an improvement of over one thousand fans/game from the previous season. Not a dramatic change, but enough to jump the Rockets from 28th to 21st in the 30-team league's attendance rankings. From a more subjective point of view, it seems clear that the Rockets have managed to create a bit of a buzz about themselves among the local populace as well, a buzz that simply did not exist one year ago.
Nevertheless, there's still a perception that the Rockets remain "something of an afterthought in the local pro sports scene;" the Astros still command the city's attention, the Texans - as woeful as they might be - still generate considerable attraction simply because they're a football team in a football-rabid locale, and even the Dynamo managed to upstage the Rockets when they won the MLS championship last fall. The Rockets, improved though they might be, still have a lot to prove to the jaded and fickle Houston sports fan who still remembers those halcyon years of the mid-90s, when Rudy Tomjonavich, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the rest won those two NBA championships. A win over the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs - something the team hasn't managed to do since they defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the 1997 playoffs, one decade ago - would be a big step forward for the Rockets.
I'm not going to pretend that I like the Rockets' owner, Leslie Alexander, or their insufferably whiny head coach, Jeff Van Gundy. But I'll be paying close attention to, and heartily rooting for, the Rockets as they begin the playoffs tomorrow night. I am undoubtedly not the only local sports fan who is paying more attention to the Rockets now than they have in many years, and that's a good thing for a franchise that is desperately trying to succeed, and recapture the city's imagination in the process.
UPDATE: The Rockets, once again, were unable to get past the first round of the playoffs, losing the series to Utah 3 games to 4. This only adds to the aura of disappointment that has hung over the Rockets for the last decade; it appears that the Rockets will just have to try to "recapture the city's imagination" once again next season.