No master of the mystic arts ever made a public declaration that Houston sports fans would suffer. There is no all-time great former Houstonian who uttered an oath that, in response to a grand betrayal, the children of the children of the children who watched him play would endure season after season without a championship. No single grand performance from an opposing team robbed Houstonians of hope for the future. No one brought a goat to the Astrodome and invoked a higher power to descend, snatching hope from the breath of fans from Space City, who simply yearned for the experience of celebrating, with uncomplicated joy, the triumph of a team who, they can believe with childlike wonder, are the Good Guys. Those hexes have been known in sports before—the Curse of the Bambino, the Curse of the Billy Goat, the Cleveland Curse—but Houston has not been placed under such a spell. As believers in science, there is no easy explanation for the circumstances that have befallen Houston sports.
Yet: Houston sports are undeniably cursed. This brutal fact is buttressed by mountains of evidence, the latest of which is that many of the city’s most vital stars—Duane Brown, Jadeveon Clowney, DeAndre Hopkins, and Russell Westbrook—have all engineered escapes from the city. J.J. Watt is virtually certain to depart via free agency. More critically, the two remaining figures most capable of bringing Houston an untainted championship, Rockets guard James Harden and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, are both desperately seeking trades to pursue glory elsewhere.
We have made the argument that Houston is a cursed sports city in the past. In 2015, John Nova Lomax declared in Texas Monthly that “No American town has endured more athletic misery than the Bayou City,” making that case before any of the following occurred: the Astros cheating scandal; an Astros executive berating female reporters and expressing his pride for the accused domestic abuser his team hired as a relief pitcher; the Texans’ off-season maneuvers growing ever more inexplicable and bizarre, until young players who were once cornerstones of a playoff contender all managed to end up elsewhere and the team was left a 4–12 disaster; the Rockets—at best—making a monster out of face-of-the-franchise James Harden and, at worst, creating a breaking point over owner Tilman Fertitta’s politics. Even the XFL’s Houston Roughnecks, in the midst of what might have been a championship season for lower-level spring football, couldn’t catch a break; their league up and folded before the season was done.
Also in that time: Cleveland, the city whose sports curse had taken on the most mythic proportions, won a championship after the city’s favorite son, LeBron James, returned to his hometown and draped the city in glory. Curses are rarely broken in a more storybook fashion than the dramatic come-from-behind victory of the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers over the record-breaking 73–9 Golden State Warriors, and even the Wikipedia page for “the Cleveland Curse” is now written in the past tense. Fans in northeast Ohio, meanwhile, will enjoy watching the Browns compete in the second round of the NFL playoffs this weekend, after the team eliminated its most hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on Sunday.
Buffalo, another perennial candidate for the most cursed city in sports, was also the site of one of the most wretched days in Houston sports history, giving Houston the head-to-head advantage. It’s worth noting that last weekend the Bills advanced to the second round of the NFL playoffs, while the Texans watched their star quarterback petition for a way out of town. Buffalo’s arrow points upward, while Houston’s aims straight down.
And that brings us to the present-day collapse for Houston sports fans. Deshaun Watson wants out of Houston for a few reasons: The franchise’s leadership keeps dismantling the team around him for reasons no one can explain; the person calling the shots is somehow the former team chaplain, whose prior experience running a football team is roughly the same as anybody who’s played Madden in franchise mode; the quarterback’s requests that the Texans at least grant an interview to the wildly successful Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy—a rare Black head coaching candidate—was inexplicably ignored (on Tuesday, the team announced, awkwardly, that they’d finally chat with him sometime in the next few weeks); roster help is not coming anytime soon, as the general manager the team hired without consulting the franchise quarterback will be working without first- or second-round picks in this year’s NFL draft, thanks to trades made by previous management. Is Watson right or is he wrong to want out? We won’t get into that here, but we will let Texans legend Andre Johnson, the only player in the team’s Ring of Honor, weigh in:
If I’m @deshaunwatson I will stand my ground. The Texans organization is known for wasting players careers. Since Jack Easterby has walk into the building nothing good has happened in/for the organization and for some reason someone can’t seem to see what’s going on. Pathetic!!!
— Andre Johnson (@johnson80) January 12, 2021
Could the Texans get a couple first-round draft picks in a trade for Watson? Probably—the Denver Broncos got two of them for Jay Cutler back in 2009, after a similar period of estrangement, and Cutler, who was a promising young Pro Bowler at the time, wasn’t as good as Watson. But the people making those draft picks will be the same people who are chasing Watson off now. The idea that the Texans offense of the future could be Some Guy at quarterback, throwing passes to Some Guys at receiver, and not the Deshaun Watson–to–DeAndre Hopkins connection that was so dominant just a few years ago, would be the sort of collapse Houston hasn’t seen since, well, the second half of the Oilers/Bills playoff game in 1993.
The dynamics at play with the Rockets and James Harden are different, but no less bizarre. According to some sources, which definitely have plenty of incentive to spin the story this way, Harden is a living nightmare of entitlement who has been enabled into a position of believing the rules don’t apply to him; others pinpoint the break between Harden and the Rockets as a result of team owner Fertitta’s support for Donald Trump. Will Harden be a Rocket for the remainder of the 2021 season? Maybe—the team was optimistic on that front after the weekend, even as the rumor mill has churned that he could be gone by the end of the week. Until then, Houston basketball fans are still stuck in a weird liminal space where they can root for the team but not its star, because he doesn’t want to be there and he probably won’t be for much longer. Maybe the Rockets will be good after that, but the “Fear the Beard” merch will probably end up in the back of the closet. More to the point: the era in which it was possible to root for the Rockets and know who exactly you were rooting for is ending poorly.
And then there are the Astros!
How many storybook endings are there that beat LeBron breaking the Cleveland Curse? Perhaps only one: the 2017 Astros, emerging from the wreckage of Hurricane Harvey to win their first World Series title and bring their suffering city a much-needed moment of hope, joy, and inspiration. The organization returned to the World Series the following year, when they promptly threw away all the goodwill they had earned and left every baseball fan whose area code was not 713 singing “Baby Shark” to cheer on the friggin’ Washington Nationals. Was the nadir assistant GM Brandon Taubman’s bizarre locker room outburst, directed at a group of female reporters, in support of accused domestic abuser Roberto Osuna? Or was it the outrageous statement from the organization that reporting on Taubman’s behavior was “an attempt to fabricate a story,” before overwhelming evidence made clear that it was true? Apparently not, because even after those low points, things got worse. The sign-stealing scandal taints the joy of the 2017 championship for all but the most blinkered, my-team-right-or-wrong fan; players who were on the fast track to becoming Astros royalty will now enjoy whatever honors come with asterisks beside their names.
Fans can—and do—continue to cheer for the Astros, of course. Some even take the disgust the team inspired in others as a badge of honor, a “they hate us cuz they ain’t us” sign that the rest of MLB is jealous of Houston’s success. But those fans are bad people, and they should feel bad. It’s natural to want to stand by your team; it’s also only right to acknowledge that the curse of the Astros isn’t just the heartbreak of loss, it’s the heartbreak that even when you’ve won, your championship is tainted.
There just isn’t a single bright spot for Houston sports fans to find comfort in. Are they supposed to celebrate the fact that great athletes like Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt, and—perhaps—Deshaun Watson once played in Houston, struggling through some mediocre and outright bad seasons on their way to occasionally losing in the playoffs? Yeah, that’s fun. Do they look to the fact that the Rockets occasionally came close, that Harden has been one of the NBA’s most dominant players, even as he’s desperate to go to Philadelphia or Brooklyn? Do they look back on the glory of the 2017 Astros’ world championship* without hearing a voice in the back of their heads, nagging them like Jiminy Cricket or the kid from Eight Men Out who mourned, “Say it ain’t so, Joe?” Only if they’re sociopaths.
Other sports curses are heartbreaking, bumbling on-field curses—Merkle’s boner or Steve Bartman’s foul ball—and Houston has their share of those too! “Choke City” didn’t come out of nowhere, after all. But the true curse of Houston sports is management. Can a Houston sports franchise assemble a roster of lovable, talented athletes and capture the city’s hearts once more? Sure. But it’ll probably just trade them all away. That kind of curse takes more than a magic mirror, some talismans, and a few cleansing crystals to shed.