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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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"To me, if it's not exactly the same, there are a lot of similarities," Francis said. "The only difference is that last year, people were picking me to take the team to the Final Four. This year, they're not picking me to take the team to the NBA Finals."

The playoffs, which Houston has made the past seven years, seem a long shot in the top-heavy Western Conference. Some believe that the Rockets, whose success was built around their half-court, low-post offense featuring Olajuwon, might have been the worst team on which Francis could wind up. From a distance, the Grizzlies are enjoying what they see in the nightly box scores.

While Vancouver is struggling -- the Grizzlies are 3-10 and have lost seven straight -- coach Brian Hill and president-general manager Stu Jackson think they got the better of the deal. The Grizzlies wound up with two starters, power forward Othella Harrington and shooting guard Michael Dickerson, as well as veteran reserves Brent Price and Antoine Carr.

"From my perspective, the trade made sense," Hill said last week, when the Grizzlies were in Washington. "It had nothing to do with Steve or his wishes. It had to do with which lineup made us a better basketball team."

When Francis told Jackson he wanted to be traded, he spoke of his desire to play point guard, to be closer to home and to not have to pay what he considered exorbitant Canadian taxes. Jackson thought Francis would be better off starting his career at shooting guard alongside Mike Bibby but understood the issue of playing in the NBA's most distant outpost.

"To me, growing up in grade school, Canada was this big place on top of the United States in huge letters -- CANADA," Jackson said. "That was Steve's and his family's perspective."

Former Maryland teammate Obinna Ekezie, whom the Grizzlies drafted in the second round, said he spoke with Francis several times a week last summer.

"I was disappointed in that he's a friend, and it would have been great to be on the same team," said Ekezie, who has played a limited role this season. "But I think the Grizzlies got what they wanted, and the Rockets got what they wanted. And there's no state income tax in Texas, so Steve is probably saving a lot of money."

Francis came back to a town that was part of his personal odyssey. Three years ago, he led San Jacinto to the final of the national junior college championship before he returned to Maryland, where he was a JUCO All-American at Allegany College in Cumberland and led that school into the national tournament. The Rockets believe Francis could be the kind of player who someday leads them to an NBA title.

"I think he's going to be a phenomenal player, like an Isiah Thomas," said Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

Said Olajuwon: "You're not talking about another rookie entering the league. You're talking about a future superstar."

Calvin Murphy, the team's second-leading all-time scorer behind Olajuwon and now its television analyst, says Francis belongs in select company. "The Rockets have been trying to find a point guard to replace me for 16 years," Murphy said. "And now they have."

Before trading for Francis, Tomjanovich and his staff called around to those who had coached him. And then Tomjanovich called Francis.

"He said it would be the beginning of a family," Tomjanovich said. "I loved that."

Francis has been surrounded by his real family since arriving here. He bought a place in Grapevine, a suburb about a half-hour (depending on traffic) outside the city. Terry, one of his two older brothers, has moved down. Their grandmother, Mable Wilson, has been back and forth a couple of times already. She's the matriarch of the clan; Francis' father deserted the family when Steve was 6, and his mother died of cancer 10 years later.

He also has one of his teammates looking out for him. Back when Walt Williams was playing at Maryland, a small, feisty kid from Takoma Park always showed up at summer camp. Williams had the image of that kid in his head for many years until he met up with Francis a couple of years ago in a pickup game at Cole Field House.

"He looks exactly like he did back then," said Williams, a starter at small forward and one of six players traded to the Rockets by the Portland Trail Blazers for Scottie Pippen. "When I saw him, I recognized him immediately."

The face remains remarkably fresh for someone who had endured such tumult for at least half his lifetime. It's not quite as familiar here as it was last year in Maryland, but give Francis some time. Eventually, this will be his town -- traffic, smog and all -- and the Rockets will be his team.

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