REMEMBER YAO MING? Well, with LeBron James taking over as the NBA’s alpha male of endorsements, magazine covers, and SportsCenter, Yao is just a potentially great center on a potentially good team. And this year, that would seem to suit the Houston Rockets fine. Last season, even with the eventual NBA champions down Interstate 10 in San Antonio and the league’s best offense up I-45 in Dallas, the Rockets were incredibly high profile for a team that missed the playoffs by a single game—all because of one 22-year-old, ninety-inch-tall rookie out of the Shanghai Physical and Sport Technic Education Institute. When Yao and the Rockets took on the Lakers and Shaquille O’Neal last January, it was one of ESPN’s most-watched games of the season.
Now hoops-watchers can care about the Rockets for a different reason: Led by the league’s most inadvertently colorful coach, Jeff Van Gundy, and two of its least glamorous scorers, Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley, the Rockets, 43-39 a year ago, began the current campaign 8-3, putting them atop of their division—ahead of the Mavericks and the Spurs—for the first time since 1997-1998. Despite injuries (Adrian Griffin, Eric Piatkowski), a six-game suspension for Maurice Taylor, and a felony assault charge against forward Eddie Griffin (who’s suspended indefinitely), the Rockets haven’t wavered, allowing the fewest points per game (82.7) in the entire NBA by playing “ JVG basketball,” as rejuvenated center-forward Kelvin Cato calls his new coach’s brand of hoops. It may be premature to call the Rockets title contenders in the loaded Western Conference—after a long road trip against tougher competition, their record was back down to earth at 9-7—but it’s not too soon to say they’ll make the playoffs. “We just have to take our time, slowly climb up the charts,” says Francis. “The sky’s the limit if we keep believing in each other.”
And believing in Van Gundy, who never missed the playoffs in twelve seasons with the New York Knicks, six of them as head coach. The 41-year-old with the hangdog mug and not-there hair steps into the shoes of franchise legend Rudy Tomjanovich, who underwent successful treatment for bladder cancer and is now a “personnel consultant.” Under Rudy T. and assistant-coach-turned-general-manager Carroll Dawson, Houston became Clutch City in the mid-nineties, as the Rockets rode Hakeem Olajuwon and Co. to two NBA titles. The new man on the bench is perfectly aware of this; Dawson jokes that when Van