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Rockets wing more than Ming
by Steven Koek / November 29, 2002

In writing about the Houston Rockets without focusing on Yao Ming, two questions come to mind: How and Why?

As to how, it cannot be done. Yao is not just the 7-6 first pick of the Rockets in last summer’s NBA draft. He is an international sensation that will expose NBA basketball to a Chinese population of more than one billion. No matter how well he does this season his every move will be monitored, catalogued and over-evaluated in at least two different languages. As he increases his minutes and production, the attention on Yao will only intensify.

In that case, why would one want to write an article about the Houston Rockets without focusing on Yao? Because basketball is a team game and this team has game beyond Yao’s potential and oddity attraction.

After missing out the last three seasons, the Rockets seem primed to end the longest playoff drought in franchise history behind the dynamic backcourt duo of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. The only backcourt combination to average more than 20 points each last season, “Stevie Franchise” and “Cat” are at it again this season.

Francis is averaging 25 points a game and is an early-season MVP candidate. Still occasionally haunted by migraine headaches caused by Meniere’s Disease, an infection of the inner ear, he insists his surgically repaired shoulder is completely healed. Arguably the most athletic point guard in the league, Francis is not concerning himself with statistics, the Yao hype, or ending the team’s playoff drought. He realizes the marathon nature of the NBA season and the danger of looking too far into the future.

“The further we look ahead, the longer the road is,” said Francis. “Coach [Rudy Tomjanovich] told me the first day after I signed my new [six-year] contract, the way I can be a leader on the this team is to put together a bunch of todays. If you look too far that’s when it gets out of hand, you have to put together a bunch of todays and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Francis spent last summer healing from shoulder surgery. He took that time off to think about basketball and what he could do to return the Rockets to respectability and the playoffs. He consulted with some of the games greatest minds in Michael Jordan, Jerry West and John Lucas, time well spent while unable to work out at all. “I was off for four months and just thought about basketball the majority of the time. With all that time just to sit back and watch the playoffs and watch all the other offseason acquisitions I think that really helped me out.”

Suns guard Penny Hardaway plays with both Francis and Mobley in Houston during the offseason. “Steve, you have to respect him as a guard filling the stat sheet up, and that’s in every area, assists, rebounds, points, steals. Anytime a guard can do that, you have to be considered [for MVP].”

A new diet has helped curb the migraines that plagued Francis last season, but it seems talking about them is more of a pain than the headaches themselves. “I’m maintaining, that’s all I can say,” Francis admits. “The important part is my diet, that’s it. It’s tough, but the more people ask you about it the more frustrated you get. The more frustrated you get, the more tired you get of answering the same questions. The best way to deal with is to relax and not try to stress out too much.”

For Mobley, today means observing from the bench while on the injured list due to a sprained ankle. That’s bad timing for a team on a five-game road swing and trying to build chemistry while easing Yao into the lineup. The dream of making his first All-Star game, already a tall order with so much attention garnered elsewhere on the team in Francis and Yao, will almost certainly have to wait at least another year.

After increasing his scoring average in each of his first four years in the league Mobley was looking forward to continuing that trend and land his first All-Star appearance. However, his scoring was down for the first time this year while being hampered by the ankle that landed him on the injured list for the first time in his career.

When Mobley returns, he and Francis should be able to pick it up right where they left off. “We’re brothers, man,” Mobley said. “We watch tapes together; we know where each other’s at. Me and Steve are so much the same that it seems like it’s a seriously sick intuition-type thing we’re going on.”

As long as they can stay healthy, Francis and Mobley can continue to be the most productive guard pair in the league for years to come, and may at one time be considered among the top guard tandem ever. For Francis, however, it’s not about the points. “Winning. If you win, it’s better than how many points you have. We’re at a point where it doesn’t make any difference how many points you score.”

The drafting of Yao has brought worldwide attention to the Rockets, and Mobley says they can use that to their advantage. “Actually it helps us because we always wanted to be in the spotlight as a team. The world recognizes the Houston Rockets and we have to go out and show we can play.”

Steven Koek is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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