Joel Anderson - Associated Press
HOUSTON - The crowd beckoned Tracy McGrady, chanting his name and cheering at a Jumbotron video showing some of his most impressive highlights.
McGrady finally obliged, taking his first steps onto the court at the Toyota Center and smiling widely at the 2,500 fans who came to greet him last
week for his introductory news conference with the Houston Rockets. The spirited welcome almost brought McGrady to tears.
"He asked me," Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson said, "if we paid those people to show up."
No, the Houston Rockets have quite simply become a one of the NBA's marquee teams again in the wake of their blockbuster trade with Orlando. The
Rockets landed two-time scoring champ McGrady, forward Juwan Howard and guards Tyronn Lue and Reece Gaines in the deal, and sent Steve Francis,
Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato to the Magic.
McGrady now joins 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming to form an All-Star combination that could be as exciting as the Los Angeles Lakers' championship duo of
Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Plenty of NBA free agents and fans are now trying to jump aboard the Rockets' bandwagon, captivated by the prospect
of being part of helping Houston undergo a basketball renaissance.
"It's going to be a hotbed for free agency because of the team they have," said Craig McKenzie, agent for Spurs' free-agent point guard Charlie Ward.
"The Rockets are high on our priority list. They seem to be building something really special there."
With the Lakers likely splintering apart since coming up short in the NBA Finals against Detroit, Houston immediately looks like a serious
championship contender in the Western Conference next season. The Sacramento Kings face several free-agency defections and the always-questionable
health of top star Chris Webber. The San Antonio Spurs are still looking for the right mix of players to complement two-time MVP Tim Duncan. And the
Minnesota Timberwolves have an aging backcourt tandem in Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell.
If the Rockets make another smart trade and land a good free agent or two, they could make a huge leap in the West next year.
"The Rockets are a terrific organization and obviously they've got a couple of great pieces," said Mark Bartelstein, agent for Lakers' free-agent
point guard Derek Fisher. "Certainly they're a team that anybody in the league would be looking at seriously."
Free-agent point guards like Fisher, Minnesota's Troy Hudson and Seattle's Brent Barry have all expressed an interest in joining the Rockets, and
Dawson is sifting through the offers and other potential trades to land someone who doesn't mind feeding the ball to Yao and McGrady for the next few
"We've got a lot of opportunities," said Dawson, who's also on the lookout for a backup center or power forward. "Fortunately for us, we're a hot team
right now because of this trade. Probably half the calls I've talked on were made to us. That's good. It's a little bit easier than when you have to
beat the bushes."
Selling season tickets has become much easier, too. At this time last year, the Rockets had sold no season ticket packages - even though the team was
about to unveil its sparkling new arena and Yao was coming off an impressive rookie season. This year, however, the buzz around the trade has resulted
in the sale of almost 650 season tickets.
"The trade has got us an extra big boost," said Tim McDougall, the Rockets' vice president of marketing. "To get people to focus on basketball at all
this time of year, that's pretty good. The phones were ringing all day after the trade."
All of which makes it seem that the Rockets are ready for a return to the halcyon days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. The dynamic - and
marketable - duo of Yao and T-Mac, an arena full of reinvigorated fans and an opportunity to seize the moment in the weakened West make the Rockets an
easy sell to free agents and fans.
"I'm looking for something great happening in the city of Houston," McGrady said, "and, believe me, something great is going to happen."
That's exactly what the Rockets are counting on.