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Trudge your way through the triple digit Houston heat, past the perfectly manicured grass courts. Weave in and out of 12 year old tennis prodigies in the lobby toting gym bags bigger than they are. Wave to the retirement village wives in pleated skirts wielding $400 rackets, drowning in the AC on velvet couches. Head down the hall, past the Pete Sampras portraits and hang a left.

Now, push open the door to the gym and walk into hoops heaven. During the season, the tony Westside Tennis Club serves as the Rockets’ practice facility. But in the summer, it’s where you’ll find the best pro pickup hoops anywhere. The catch: You’re not invited. You can’t set foot in these closed door workouts unless you’ve got “NBA” on your rum?

Shaq was here this summer, getting in some work before the doctors went to work on his big toe. Marcus Camby did a test run on his repaired hip and ran into a half dozen of his former Knick teammates. Antonio McDyess, the man Camby was swapped for, played like he never had knee surgery. Tim Duncan, Elton Brand and Damon Stoudamire all checked into games, and Sam Cassell, Penny Hardaway, Nick Van Exel and Rashard Lewis are regulars. Need to find a Rocket? Look here first.

“This is where you can stay sharp and have fun,” says Steve Francis.

It’s the last week of August, five weeks before training camps open, and Rockets forward Eddie Griffin is shooting 18 foot jumpers into a rebound machine. Lewis, decked out in his Sonics practice gear, dribbles the width of the court, banking in short jumpers on the side baskets. Francis is busy looking pretty in shimmering hoops gear while practicing free throws.

Soon enough, it’s game time, and the action is all out. Robert Horry pushes the ball just over midcourt before zipping a cross court chest pass to Lewis. Francis breaks for the ball like a DB, picking it off with nothing but hardwood between him and showtime. But Lewis gives chase, catches up to Steve and drapes his 6’10” body over the airborne Francis. With no shot, Francis calmly drops a no look pass over his shoulder into the hands of trailing teammate Darvin Ham. A drop step later, Ham two hand tomahawks the rim into submission. Ball game. Next.

Francis and Ham high five it down the court while a disgusted Horry takes a seat and fumes about his miscue. The lesson? Bring your A game here or you’ll sit. Rings or no rings.

The rules are simple. Game to seven, you win you stay on, call your own fouls except for rooks, who have no say and Mario Elie settles all disputes. Elie, who retired after the 2000 01 season with three title rings to his credit, still looks like he can D up on Kobe. But Elie wants to be a head coach, and this is his training ground.

Elie took over last summer for John Lucas, one of the founding fathers of the Westside run. Lucas, who coached the Sixers when he began running games here in the mid ’90s, is the former president of the Tennis Club and still very much a fixture. Now the Cavaliers coach, always upbeat and smiling, he pretty much sets the tone.

On this late summer day, Lucas enters the gym wearing white Air Jordans and a gray sweat suit from Francis’ We R One clothing line. Coach Luke, as he’s known here, chats up coaches, players and strangers with his friendly, raspy voice. One minute he’s recounting his playing days “Remember when my Bucks took the Celtics to a Game 7 in ’87? Those were the days.” Then he’s asking you what you think of D Miles at the point. “You know Darius roomed with my son at Nike camp,” he says.

Coach Luke makes sure players have been working on their ballhandling and checks on everyone’s workout schedules. “You know where I can get a point guard?” he asks no one in particular before being interrupted by his ever ringing cell phone. He picks up. “How many points did my son score?” he asks. “Man, he loves to shoot.” Another call comes in: It’s a Cavaliers scout reporting in from the pickup scene in Philly.

Francis comes up from behind and puts a bear hug on Lucas. Two days earlier, he signed a six year, $85 million extension. “Look at those pockets, they’re weighing him down,” says Rockets teammate Mo Taylor. Pistons free agent Damon Jones puts his hands near Steve’s pockets like he’s warming them at a fire. “Too much heat,” he jokes as Francis tries to hide an embarrassed grin.

Lucas again pulls his cell phone from his pocket and a few crumpled bills fall out. “Put that wrinkly ass wad away,” cracks Francis.

“Let me ask you something,” says Lucas. “I was the No. 1 pick. What were you?”

Francis stutters, the players crack up and Lucas walks away happy. “That’s what I thought.”

“Let’s go!” booms Elie. the next day. Elie hands five players cheap, yellow, mesh tank tops you might have worn for third grade dodgeball. Five others go shirts, and the day’s first game begins.

“There’s a hierarchy around here,” says Rockets assistant Jim Boylen, one of many Houston staffers who help out. Assistant coach Melvin Hunt meets players at 8 every morning to run the track at a local high school, and Rockets trainers are also on hand.

Shirts get the ball first (Elie’s call), and Taylor immediately goes to work on Othella Harrington down on the block. Taylor missed all of last season with a torn right Achilles and ballooned to 320 pounds. He’s lost 40 pounds, but with 20 more to go, his footwork is a little slow. Still, he hits the game’s first two buckets.

Players run sets similar to the ones they run with their own teams. Everyone plays with his head up, and double teams come fast and furious. Guards crash the boards while big men start the break. Avery Johnson, wearing a yellow jersey, often stops play to coach the younger players on the nuances of illegal defense and passing into the post. “When you double the post you gotta commit,” he tells Moochie Norris. “You can’t just go halfway.”

Taylor and Harrington are drenched in sweat and trading shoulders and elbows each trip. Lewis spots Taylor cutting and feeds him in the lane for a finger roll, tying the game at six. “He’ll be dunking that soon,” Boylen says.

Moochie can’t find an open man and is stuck dribbling away out top. Elie starts to count, “14, 13, 12 . ” He’s down to two when Horry busts off a high post screen to the top of the key, gets a pass from Mooch and drills a game winning three an exact replay of the shot that beat Sacramento in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. His teammates mob him as the losers walk off the floor with their heads bowed.

After the games, Lucas runs Francis through a series of shooting and ballhandling drills, complete with orange cones. Yes, the same John Lucas who cost the Cavs a $150,000 fine and got a two game suspension from the NBA for working out LeBron James in May. “That’s just Coach Luke,” says Francis. “He likes seeing people get better. He’ll help anybody with their game.”

Houston has long been the spot for pros looking for a summer run. Plenty of players make their homes here, attracted by the warm weather, low profile vibe and lack of state income taxes. Shaq keeps a house here. So do McDyess, Lewis and Horry. During the ’80s and early ’90s, stars like Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler played pickup at the Fonde Recreation Center in downtown Houston. But then, a character named Jim McIngvale bought Westside in ’95 and made it known he wanted pro basketball to be part of the action. McIngvale is an original. A self described “huckster,” he came to Houston two decades ago with $5,000 in his pocket, set up a small furniture store, launched an ad blitz, and made himself a millionaire. Mattress Mac, as he’s known to TV viewers throughout the Houston area, now has a 100,000 square foot showroom called Gallery Furniture, which displays sofas, love seats and dining room sets, along with Shaq’s custom made Reeboks, Elvis’ 1956 Mark II Lincoln Continental and jewelry that belonged to Princess Di.

He turned Westside into a gem, too. The facilities are top shelf, even by NBA standards. There’s a regulation NBA floor with game clocks and 24 second clocks. There are 46 tennis courts, including 10 indoors and all four grand slam surfaces the red clay of Roland Garros, the grass of Wimbledon, the Rebound Ace court of Australia and the hardcourt of Arthur Ashe Stadium. There’s a state of the art weight room with keypad entry codes and a 25 yard heated swimming pool. The Rockets took up residence in ’96 Rudy T has an office upstairs and the Comets came in one year later. And NBA players have been making it their summer stop for a half dozen years. “We get the best players here,” says Lucas, “which means the best competition.”

Players still talk about the extended run in ’98, when the lockout brought such a large crowd that guys would sit an hour if they lost. Some players passed the time with the occasional $1,000 game of horse. Then there’s the time Hakeem was so shocked by his inability to move a young Shaq that he spent the rest of the summer in the weight room. Stephon unveiled his rainbow jumper here, rarely pulling up closer than 30. This is where Rasheed Wallace can scream all he wants after alley oops from Cassell and never get T’d up.

Elie remembers watching Lewis grow up here. Rashard was a hotshot kid from Houston’s Alief Elsik High School who had declared for the draft, expecting to be picked in the first round by the hometown team. He slipped to the second round, and was seen crying on national TV. He showed up at Westside during the lockout, and the pros had no sympathy. “We beat him up pretty bad,” says Elie. “But he never once complained.”

That was four years ago. Now Lewis is a budding star who displays breathtaking athleticism and a sweet midrange game at Westside. Quiet and unassuming, you’d never know he was in the middle of a contract struggle with the Sonics. He’s dying to play with the Rockets, who can only offer him the midlevel exception ($4.5 million). He’d like to play for the Mavs, who also have no cap space. And he can’t convince the Sonics to improve their $60 million offer to stay in Seattle or work a sign and trade. But contract talk is off limits at Westside. When a local television reporter starts asking Lewis about the status of his negotiations, a handful of players run him out of the gym.

There’s no question who’s the best player at Westside this week: Free of the migraines that plagued him last season, Steve Francis is in

midseason form. That’s good because much is expected of the Rockets this year. They added 7’5″ Yao Ming and Slovenian forward Bostjan Nachbar (who might provide more immediate impact than Yao) in the draft. Taylor will be back, and Griffin showed some star material late last season.
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