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HOUSTON — Near the same spot where, 22 years ago, John Stockton hit his now-immortalized shot to send the Utah Jazz to their first NBA Finals, stands a man who refers to himself simply as Tony the usher.
He begins walking down the aisle greeting each guest with a beaming smile and a welcoming handshake. He hands out brochures to new faces while asking why they have chosen to join the congregation. And as he makes his way back up the aisle playfully waving at a small child, he walks the same path that Bryon Russell hopped and skipped down celebrating the proudest moment in Jazz history.
But on the night the Houston Rockets are playing the Utah Jazz in Game 2 of the first round of the NBA Playoffs, basketball isn’t close to his mind. The same can be said for the other few thousand people who have come into the place formerly known as The Summit.
That’s because the building that was home to "The Shot" is no longer a basketball arena: It's a church.
The lights fade and a crescendoing bass drum fills the old arena causing the few thousand in the arena to stand and clap. On the three large video screens, a silhouette of the earth appears with the light of the sun pulsing around it to the beat.
Images of the cosmos flash on the screens, followed by people of Houston and of light splashing through a star-filled sky. The music might not have quite fit — with the stars, shots of Houston and lights twirling around the cosmos — but it’s hard not to think that this fast-moving montage would fit right in with a Rockets hype video.
But then lights shower the stage and the band and congregation sing together: “Up and alive in Jesus, into a life of freedom. Hallelujah, Christ is risen.”
In July of 2005, after signing a 30-year lease, Lakewood Church — a megachurch run by pastor and televangelist Joel Osteen and boasts a membership of 43,000 people — moved into the arena. The church later bought the building outright in 2010.
The court that the Jazz celebrated on — and to be fair, where they had plenty of heartbreak — was converted into seating. A large stage was built where the basketball standard once stood. And one locker room, a Lakewood Church spokesperson didn’t know if it was the visiting or home locker room, was made into a children’s playroom.
In total, the church spent $95 million to renovate the building. They put in a half-mile of carpeting and even added indoor waterfalls. They turned a sports arena into a place of worship.
“We are so honored to have this facility, the former Compaq Center home of the Houston Rockets,” Osteen said in a video for Inside the NBA last year. “I used to have season tickets right over there — Section 104, Row 4. I loved watching the Rockets, and in fact, I saw them win two world championships right here.”
With a playoff game about to begin a few miles to the east at Toyota Center on Wednesday, there aren’t many Rockets fans in the congregation on this night to reminisce about the days when the arena was filled with fans eager to cheer for the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Kenny Smith.
But Margaret Smith attended a few Houston Comets games during the arena’s sports days. She said that outside some obvious things, it still looks similar.
“It’s just the center seating is permanent now,” Smith said. “There are chairs where there used to be a court. The chairs are different colors and there have been upgrades to the lights. Oh, and you have the stage part.”
But the structure, the concourse, the hallways, they are still there.
In the concourse, there’s a wall that tells the story of how the building went from a sports arena to a church. The first placard is a celebration of the two Houston Rockets championship teams and features a front page of the Houston Chronicle on the day after the Rockets’ second title.
“The Rockets’ determination to battle back and win despite impossible odds earned Houston the title of ‘Clutch City’ and endeared them to millions of fans,” the placard reads.
But the banners and retired jerseys have been taken down. And Rockets memorabilia isn't sold in the book store. Outside of that placard, there aren’t any easily-found references to what the arena was once used for.
Good thing Stockton’s shot is easy to remember.