Meet Mr. Excitement and Mr. Grace, the best of the Houston Rockets’ past and future.
Steve Francis has taken over the team with his flash and scoring, but he accepted his role with modesty and looked to the 38-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon as his role model for being a team leader.
It’s created some thrilling moments for a team struggling to make the playoffs. Going into the weekend, Houston was 3 1/2 games out of the eighth and final spot with 10 games to play.
Despite the odds, Francis will do his best to try to help his team make up the ground.
“He’s starting to find ways in the fourth quarter for us to win like Dream did all those years,” general manager Carroll Dawson said. “If we have to have a bucket, if we have to have a steal or even a rebound in the fourth quarter, he’s the full package.”
With Olajuwon’s career waning and Francis eager to make his mark, there could have been problems with team chemistry.
Olajuwon was upset with his role on the team earlier this year, but that was an issue with coach Rudy Tomjanovich, not a dispute between Olajuwon and Francis.
“It’s been good for me, playing with Hakeem,” Francis said. “I never know where my career might end up. Not that I won’t, but I might not be one of the top 50 players to ever play in the NBA, and definitely I’m happy I was able to play with one or two.
“But to be on the same team and live day by day with the guy has been great for me. I like his style, the way he is as far as being polite and being himself. I’m learning to be myself. He taught me that.”
With Olajuwon slowing down from injuries and age last season, Francis stepped immediately into the lineup. The team shifted from Olajuwon’s inside game to Francis on the outside.
Olajuwon spent time on the injury list twice this season, most recently returning from a blood condition on Tuesday night. He got an emotional standing ovation when he entered the game to start the second quarter of a 109-86 victory over Utah.
Francis led the cheers on the court, raising his hands, continuously encouraging more cheering from the fans.
He came to the Rockets from the Vancouver Grizzlies as part of a 13-player, three-team trade. The Grizzles made Francis the second overall pick in the 1999 NBA draft, and the Rockets got exactly what they wanted.
“They’ve built this team around him,” Utah forward Karl Malone said. “They gave up a lot to get him and he hasn’t disappointed. Last year, he looked to score first and this year he’s getting everyone involved. More importantly, they’re winning.”
Francis earned co-NBA rookie of the year honors with Chicago’s Elton Brand last season and became the seventh rookie in NBA history to average 15 points, five rebounds and five assists.
That alone put Francis in the elite company of Oscar Robertson, Alvan Adams, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill.
The 24-year-old Francis has taken a firmer grip on the Rockets this season.
“Steve is having a great year,” coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. “He does so much for us and he does it in so many categories. He rebounds, he passes the ball, he scores, he steals it and he’s not only good, he’s fun to watch.”
Francis has improved most of his statistics this season, averaging 19.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.85 steals, although his assists dropped slightly to 6.3 a game.
“He wants to win as badly as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Dawson said. “That’s what I’ve liked the most about him, and there is a lot there to like. He hates to lose so badly. That’s when you know that you are building a winner right there.”
Francis has stretched the role of the point guard with his rebounding.
“He doesn’t just go up there but he also has the strength to take it away and he does it all so naturally,” said Olajuwon, who led the Rockets to two NBA titles in the ‘90s. “He’s a combination of a guy who is skillful and strong. He really challenges guys to get rebounds.”
Dawson is amazed by Francis’ jumping ability.
“He really gets up off the floor, must be 45 inches or more, higher than anybody I’ve ever seen. I’d hate to jump off a 45-inch platform to tell you the truth.”
Dawson noted the NBA doesn’t use vertical jumps in evaluating players like the NFL.
If they did, Dawson said, “We’d have to get a new ruler.”