As he gazes around the Rockets' locker room after a preseason
game, rookie guard-forward Rodrick Rhodes can't believe his good
fortune. Not only is he a first-round draft pick, but he also
gets to rub elbows with living legends. "When Charles Barkley,
Hakeem Olajuwon or Clyde Drexler says, 'Good job, rookie,'
that's the best feeling in the world," says Rhodes. "It may not
mean anything to them, but it means a lot to me. I mean, I've
been watching those guys play since I was seven!"

Rhodes, who is 24, exaggerates; he was eight before any of the
current Rockets were playing in the pros. But it's hard not to
share his wonder. Houston has five players who will be 35 or
older before the season is out. "Yes, we are all a year older,"
says Barkley, 34, "but there's nothing we can do about that, is

Not really. Still, the Rockets should give the Jazz, which has
its share of oldsters, a run for the Midwest Division title.
Houston may be long of tooth, but it's also long on talent.
That's important, because last year forward Barkley, guard
Drexler and center Olajuwon missed 48 games due to injury. "At
some point you'd like to think the law of averages will even out
and we'll see our health improve a little," says coach Rudy

In their favor the Rockets have a lot of young legs this
year--more, in fact, than they can use. Late into the preseason
they were staging a four-man battle at point guard. Rhodes and
second-year men Emanual Davis and Matt Maloney (the incumbent
starter) got the three roster spots, while Randy Livingston was
cut loose, with Tomjanovich's regrets. In a show of depth, on
Oct. 11 the Rockets beat the Mavericks' best 104-103. Houston
was playing without Olajuwon, Drexler, ace swingman Mario Elie
and, for most of the game, the out-of-shape Barkley, who was so
winded after eight minutes that he barely was able to utter
sufficient expletives to get himself ejected. All in all, it was
a tough preseason for Sir Charles, who was chastised by the
league following an incident in Orlando in which he tossed
through a restaurant window a patron who allegedly was harassing
him. Barkley briefly considered retirement but relented and came
off the bench during last Friday's season opener, scoring six
points and grabbing eight boards in a 94-86 win over the Cavaliers.

Barkley picked the wrong year to show up at camp 10 to 20 pounds
overweight. Unlike Houston teams of the past, this one plans to
run. "We're as good as anybody in the half-court game," says
Tomjanovich. "What we would like to do is get more easy baskets
with fast breaks and offensive rebounds. Transition is a little
more difficult with an older team. But all those guys can run,
and they have high-energy guys backing them up."

Tomjanovich is also looking for more penetration, and that's
where Rhodes comes in. One of the top high school players in
1992, Rhodes finished his college career at Southern Cal last
year after fizzling earlier at Kentucky. Most experts predicted
he would be a late second-round pick at best, but Tomjanovich
snatched him up with his first selection, the 24th pick. "We
wanted to add another dimension," says Tomjanovich. "He's a
penetrator and creator on the floor, he has a feel for where
people are and for delivering the ball. He can get to the basket
just about whenever he wants to. He looks like he could be a
factor for us."

No one on the Rockets will say that this is a do-or-die year.
Not even Barkley, who caused a flap at the end of last season
when he said on TV that unnamed teammates weren't playing with
the same "sense of urgency" that he was. (He was referring to
some of those who, unlike him, already had a championship ring.)
Now Barkley says that winning a title is not his driving force.
"I don't put as much emphasis on that as people want me to," he
says. "I want to win the championship, don't get me wrong, but I
don't think I'm going to go crazy if I don't."

This is a good thing, because the company he is keeping now
includes some very impressionable youngsters.


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH OLAJUWON and houston's other oldsters should still rocket past opponents [Hakeem Olajuwan in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Charles Barkley]