Francis hoping new-found maturity helps strengthen Rockets' title hopes

HOUSTON -- Steve Francis is no longer Houston's

But the man who was once the anchor of the Rockets' rebuilding
effort was elated Friday to be back at the place he calls home.

Francis, who earned the nickname "Franchise" during his first
stint in Houston from 1999-2004, signed a two-year deal to return
to a team that now boasts the superstar duo of Tracy McGrady and
Yao Ming.

He won't be the star of these Rockets, might not even start and
his nickname could be retired, but the 30-year-old Francis said
that's OK with him.

"I have no problem with somebody calling me that," he said of
the moniker. "But if the Rockets win and I'm out there, I'll be
more happy if that happens."

Francis was a three-time All-Star with the Rockets before he was
traded to Orlando in 2004 in a multiplayer deal that brought
McGrady to Houston.

He went to the New York Knicks in another trade in early 2006
and was dealt to Portland on draft-night this year. The Trail
Blazers bought out his contract for a reported $30 million last
week, making him an unrestricted free agent.

Francis was pursued by Miami, Dallas and the Los Angeles
Clippers, and agent Jeff Fried said he was offered more money to
play elsewhere.

"We were thrilled," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said.
"I think it speaks a lot to Steve's character that he's chosen
winning over everything else. We really feel like he's a strong
piece to get us, deeper and farther into the playoffs."

The Rockets were ousted from the playoffs in the first round by
the Utah Jazz last season, but things were worse for Francis. He
played just 44 games for the Knicks while dealing with injuries,
averaging a career-low 11.3 points. He has averaged 18.4 points and
6.1 assists in his eight-year career.

Back in Houston on Friday, Francis made jokes, laughed easily
and his grin was brighter than the yellow button-down shirt he wore
under his cream-colored suit. He sat down for a news conference,
glanced at the Rockets logo behind him and did a double take, as if
he couldn't quite believe he was back.

Francis will reclaim the No. 3 jersey he wore the first 6 1/2
years of his career. He took No. 1 in New York because Stephon
Marbury had No. 3.

The importance of the number wasn't lost on Rockets officials,
who planned his introduction to begin at promptly 3:33 p.m.

In the days leading up to his trade in 2004, he made it clear he
didn't want to leave Houston. The success he found in his time with
the Rockets has proven elusive in his subsequent stops.

"I never thought that this day would come where I would
actually be back here playing for the Rockets," he said, shaking
his head. "It's been overwhelming. I still can't come to grips
with it. I think to me it's another step that can not only help
myself, but help this franchise go to the next level."

Francis said a key part of his decision was his belief that
Houston is a team "ready to win now." He also talked about his
evolution as a player and how his recent struggles have made him
more humble.

"I'm not really looking to do the flashy stuff like I used
to," he said. "That was just to get on SportsCenter. Now I want
to get on SportsCenter by winning games."

This new "mature Steve Francis" he thinks will translate into
more success for those playing around him.

His return to the team will almost certainly mean the end in
Houston for at least one of other four point guards on the roster:
Rafer Alston, a starter for the past two years, John Lucas III,
rookie Aaron Brooks and newly signed Mike James.

Morey said he and new coach Rick Adelman hadn't determined
Francis' role or whether his arrival will force them to unload