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Inaugural Houston Sports Awards a decade in the making

As you walk into the fourth floor offices in Partnership Tower, the first thing you notice is that no one is sitting still.

Staffers are working the phones to sell the last few tables. Two offices are holding small meetings. Every few minutes someone comes around a corner to check in with someone else.

 
It's a week until the inaugural Houston Sports Awards and the Harris County–Houston Sports Authority staff is putting the final touches on what they hope will be 2018's signature event.

On Thursday, Feb. 8, the streets around the Hilton Americas will be transformed into a dual red-and-blue carpet event, while the hotel will hold a sold-out dinner for 1,000, a televised awards show and a night the likes of which the city has never seen. Think the Oscars or Grammys, sports style.

The legendary No. 34s of the city - Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell and Hakeem Olajuwon - will be on the carpet and top a list of honorees that is, honestly, a Who's Who of Houston sports. Think J.J. Watt, Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and those World Series champion Astros. And that's just a start.

Decade-long dream

Photo: James Nielsen, Staff 
 
Harris County-Houston Sports Authority CEO Janis Burke, left, had envisioned a Houston Sports Awards for more than a decade. This year, it's finally happening.
The event is the culmination of a dream Janis Burke, the CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, has had for a decade. She had the idea and vision, but the timing wasn't right until the summer of 2016, when she hired Patti Smith as her public relations director. Smith, too, had the idea for an awards event and they got to work researching other cities' events. By last summer, they had their plans in place for a theater-style event.

Then, everything changed.

Hurricane Harvey hit and, like the rest of Houston, Burke and Smith had to hit the reset button.

The original site was Wortham Center, but that had been flooded and wouldn't be ready in time. So Burke and Smith pivoted, locked up the Hilton, which meant moving the original date by two days, and started retooling the event into a dinner.

"When you have it set in your mind that it's going be a theater event and it turns into a dinner, everything changes,'' Burke said. "Maybe it was a blessing in disguise because people can get their arms around buying a table easier than just buying tickets."

Added Smith, "We knew it was going to be a tough time with sponsorships given all that had happened. We didn't know how people would react. We wanted to build the glitzy, glamorous event we had planned, but, whatever we did, we had to be sensitive to what the city was going through.''

 

First, Ryan, Campbell and Olajuwon, all of whom wore No. 34 when they played here professionally, agreed to be honored at the event.

Then, all of Houston's professional teams - the Astros, Texans, Rockets and Dynamo - jumped on board. Houston businesses followed.

"I feel that one week out we have exceeded all the dreams and expectations that we had,'' Smith said. "I never had any doubt it would be great. We knew our team would do an awesome professional job and that Houston's teams and athletes would come together and support this.''

More than a dinner

It needed to be more than just a dinner, so they added the major-event feel with the carpet entries along the Hilton footprint. That meant working with the city to close streets, reconfigure traffic and parking and … well, that's just the start.

"One of the things we always talk about is no wonder no one in Houston has ever done this before,'' Burke said. "It's taken all of our energy, all of our attention, all of our expertise to do this. We have a team full of experts here in this room that have every detail.

"It's a push to do a big event like this and do it right.''

With a week to go, the dinner is sold out. The carpets are ready to roll out. The winners' names are in the envelopes.

In addition to the 34s, three Legacy Awards have been announced - Watt will be honored with the Academy Sports & Outdoors Sportsmanship Award, Luhnow will honored as Executive of the Year and former Rockets owner Les Alexander is the Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

Seven other awards, including Athlete of the Year, Powerade Coach of the Year and Moment of the Year will be announced Oscar/Grammy style that night.

"The goal was, and still is, that it's such a premier event, it's hard to get your hands on a ticket,'' Burke said. "Our idea isn't to grow it into a 5,000-person event. Our idea is it's always going to be small, intimate it's hard to get your hands on a ticket.

"The hope is that in 50 years, this is still the premier event of the year; that it becomes a tradition and part of the fabric of the community.''

And, just maybe, the hint of a little more.

"I think and hope when people walk out of the room, they not only thoroughly enjoyed themselves, but they spent time with people they didn't know, they saw athletes up close and they were excited to be part of the inaugural event showcasing their city and some of the best athletes ever to play the game,'' Smith said, pausing.

"I also hope they marveled at the last announcement of the night. I know they will have seen something that will leave a lasting impact on them, on Houston sports and on the city of Houston.''


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