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NEW YORK — Steve Francis isn’t looking to challenge Jeff Van Gundy’s authority or be perceived as a rebel. He also doesn’t want to give the impression he’s second-guessing his strategy.

Then, again.

“In the five years I’ve been with the Rockets I think I’ve earned being the No. 1 option and I want to keep it that way,” he stressed to me a couple weeks ago while in New York to participate in The Wheelchair Classic.

In other words, Francis plans to protect his nickname “Stevie Franchise” which appears to be in direction conflict with Van Gundy’s interests and that of the Rockets.

Any Knick guard (Chris Childs, for in stance) who didn’t feed Patrick Ewing intravenously on a regular basis got strongly reprimanded and/or demoted. Van Gundy fussily expects Yao Ming to get the same preferential treatment.

“Jeff has made it clear to me he wants the offense to be inside out,” Francis said.

That explains Ewing’s hiring as an assistant coach; clearly, his mission will be to teach Yao not to pass it back under any circumstances once he receives it.

“There’s no doubt Yao gives it up too often,” Francis agreed. “At the same time, he hasn’t proven he’s ready to take over a team. Before you can do that you’ve got to prove you can take care of Shaq and Duncan, etc., on a nightly basis. That’s enough of a burden in itself. Given enough time I’m confident he’ll be able to dominate the middle.”

In the meantime, Francis declares, “I’ll do anything to win and make any sacrifice to make the playoffs.”

That is, as long as Van Gundy doesn’t lose sight of who deserves to be fondling the leather goods when game-saving decisions need to be made.

For whatever it’s worth, Dave Checketts and Bruce Ratner are seriously talking about going into business together after meeting several times regarding the prospective purchase of the Nets and their relocation from East Rutherford, N.J., to Brooklyn.

According to an especially scented source, the ex-gaudy Madison Square Garden president and the billionaire real estate developer became fast friends within the last month or two, following an introduction by current co-chairman Lewis Katz.

Computer entrepreneur Charles Wang and real estate tycoon Charles Kushner have also surfaced as potential buyers.

Wang’s dream is to return the Nets to Nassau Coliseum and ultimately house them in a state-of-the-art arena, whereas, Kushner’s aim is to keep them in The (refurbished, of course) Meadowlands.

Meanwhile, in the final analysis, perhaps the most important player of them all — in what amounts to an auction of the NBA repeat runners-up — is David Gerstein, whose say and sway has all but evaporated since the franchise was sold to the Katz group.

From what I’m told, the minority owner (of between three and seven percent) commands a right of first refusal and he fully intends to manipulate it in order to regain lost power and respect.

One of the dumbest deals made by Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBA Players Association, was to insist that four-year veterans be excused from the first few days of training camp this season in return for the union agreeing to two potential extra first-round playoff games.

In fact, vets are strictly forbidden from setting foot on their team’s site, much less working out on the court or in the weight room.

The lone exception to the No Trespass Rule is vets who require rehab may do so on the premises.

Consequently, a guy like Alonzo Mourning had to vacate the Nets’ gym he’s been frequenting for the last month to find another place to play between Sept. 29 and Oct. 2.

Plainly, this arrangement helped nobody and hurts everyone, particularly the product.

Coaches and players need more time together to become a team, not less. And next season it gets worse; vets will miss an additional day.

You can’t convince me the league’s recent rookie seminar wasn’t a complete waste of time.

How many kids ever learn from other people’s experiences?

How many kids ever reject sinister sex or stay clear of drugs and alcohol because someone significant screwed up by making a similar mistake?

As if last June’s draftees aren’t going to put themselves in compromising situations because Kobe got accused of sexual assault.

As if these kids are practicing safe sex just because Magic Johnson is HIV positive.

As if Damon Stoudamire is going to stay remotely straight because Micheal Richardson was drugged out.

As if something sane seeped into Jay Williams’ brain because Bobby Phills died during a drag race with David Wesley several years ago.

Although the Bulls are under no obligation to abide by the four-year contract Williams breached when he crushed his body in a motorcycle accident earlier this summer, sources say they’ve committed to paying him the $3,710,880 he’s on the books for this season.

No decision has been reached regarding next year’s salary of $3,969,720; the fourth, a club option, surely won’t be exercised.

Meanwhile, Williams needs more surgery on a leg he may never walk properly on again, much less propel him to basketball glory.

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