In the Rockets' glare

NBA: Ex-Maryland star Steve Francis is learning some hard lessons as Houston struggles to win. But some see the rookie guard blossoming as the aging team's future leader.

November 28, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON -- There is a lot here to remind Steve Francis of home. The suburban sprawl puts this Southwestern city right up there with Washington when it comes to horrendous rush-hour traffic. The 3-11 record amassed so far by the Rockets is way down there, even below that of the Wizards. Wait until the humidity hits next summer.

By then, though, Francis will likely be back in Takoma Park, Md., back with his beloved grandmother and the rest of the family that helped assure him that any other NBA city was better to play in than Vancouver. By then, the Rockets might be Francis' team.

For now, they still belong to Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley, aging warriors playing out their Hall of Fame careers, still game but increasingly gimpy; Olajuwon went down with a groin injury Friday night.

For now, Francis is caught in the middle of this transition period for a team that won NBA championships in 1994 and 1995. Olajuwon is the storied past; Francis is the promising future.

The present is downright depressing. But in Francis' mind, the situation could be worse: He could be playing for the Grizzlies.

"I know a lot of people are saying, `This is what he deserved,' " Francis said recently. "But since this is going to be my job, I've got to fight for what I want. And things couldn't have turned out better."

It has been nearly five months since the former University of Maryland star was picked second in the NBA draft.

Francis pouted on national television that night when he heard NBA commissioner David Stern announce Vancouver had drafted him. Francis then warned that the Chicago Bulls had made a mistake by not choosing him and snubbed the Canadian city considered one of the most beautiful and livable in North America.

"I'm a very emotional person," he said, recalling that night. "If I'm happy, I'll show it. If I'm angry, I'll show that, too, just like I do on the basketball court. I was upset, because I left Chicago [the week before] thinking I wanted to go to the Bulls and they wanted to pick me. When they didn't, I was ticked. And when I reacted the way I did, people seemed to say, `We're going to bash him for this.' "

While things have quieted down back home, where Francis was widely criticized for his draft-night tantrum at MCI Center, Vancouver has not quite forgotten what happened.

Nearly two months after being the centerpiece of an 11-player, three-team trade -- the largest transaction in NBA history -- Francis finally will play his first game against the Grizzlies on their home court, General Motors Place, tomorrow night.

He goes in with impressive personal statistics -- a team-leading 16.6 points and 6.1 assists a game -- that seem to camouflage the bumpy adjustment he has had to make from shooting guard, the position he played with the Terrapins last season, to the point.

The NBA doesn't keep numbers on points allowed, but starting with Sam Cassell's 35-point outburst on opening night, Francis has been burned consistently by opposing point guards. He also is averaging more than four turnovers a game while shooting 41.3 percent from the field.

"Last year, people were asking me, `Why don't you take the game over?' and this year they're saying I should be more like an Allen Iverson and take more shots," said Francis, who was told that recently on his weekly, one-hour radio show. "But that is not how you earn the respect of your teammates or the fans."

Nor is talking trash, something Francis kept to a minimum last year at Maryland but was accused of this year before the season even began.

After Francis got into a jawing match with the Detroit Pistons' Jerry Stackhouse during a preseason game, Stackhouse suggested that the rookie get "his mouth wired shut."

After committing a flagrant foul against Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki in a recent road game, Francis was confronted by Robert Pack and a couple of other Mavericks before being ejected.

"Anytime you get a rookie with a lot of publicity, [he's] going to be tested," Barkley said.

Said Francis: "One thing about me is that I'm not going to back down. That's how I got to where I am."

It was after Francis got tossed that Barkley, upon returning to the team's locker room, dressed down the highly touted rookie. It was the kind of conversation that Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Moses Malone had with Barkley at the beginning of his career, when they were teammates on the Philadelphia 76ers.

"A month ago, he thought he was just playing basketball," Barkley said. "After that fight, I told him, `You're the best player on this team. With that comes a lot of responsibility. You have to play well every night.'

"He's a good kid. I'm just trying to get him off on the right track."

Francis works out with Barkley every morning the Rockets are in town. He defers to Olajuwon and Barkley and has tried not to get swallowed in the controversy surrounding their sometimes questionable shot selection. It is reminiscent of the way Francis tried to quietly fit in with a veteran team at Maryland last season.

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