These are Theo Ratliff's terms of endearment. He made 215 appearances with the 76ers from 1997-98 to 2000-01 and referred to it as "a dirty business" when he was traded to the Atlanta Hawks, in part because he had a fractured wrist but mostly because the Sixers thought they needed Dikembe Mutombo to deal with the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal in the NBA Finals.

He left angrily, reluctantly. Seven years later, at 35, the 6-10 shot-blocking center/power forward is back, eagerly, happily. As an unrestricted free agent after finishing last season with the Detroit Pistons, he rejoined the Sixers on Tuesday, signing a 1-year contract for the veterans' minimum for players with at least 10 seasons of experience.

It's a good deal for the Sixers, who needed a big man to fill in for Jason Smith, who is facing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. It's also a good deal because a portion of the $1,262,275 salary comes from a leaguewide pool.

It's a good deal for Ratliff, because, as he said in a telephone conference call with reporters yesterday, "Obviously, this is a place that I held near and dear to my heart."

"I wasn't very happy to leave under the circumstances that I left," he said. "Wherever I've been throughout the world, and even overseas, I've had people comment about the Philly days. They are always saying, 'You should have never left that team,' and different things in that nature. I told my wife, 'Why not go back, why not come back to Philly,' because I had great years there. We met there, got married there and started our life there."

Ratliff played for six teams in the previous 13 seasons, including two stints with the Pistons. In a second time with the Sixers, he sees himself "being that senior guy, that guy that can do a little something on the court, to be able to provide extra help off the bench." He hopes to run with the younger guys, and help mentor starting center Samuel Dalembert.

"I just love playing the game," he said. "That's one of the things that some of the veterans always told me: Don't leave before you're ready to leave. Leave on your own terms. Don't leave before you're ready to leave, because once you leave, you're done. It's not going to be around anymore.

"I still feel like I have enough capabilities to be out on the floor, to be able to help a team that is fighting to try to get to playoffs and make some noise. I still get that urge; it rejuvenated when I got back to Detroit, being in that situation, being around a great organization."

He sees a similar opportunity with the Sixers, citing the addition of Elton Brand, the re-signing of Andre Iguodala and the presence of Andre Miller.

"I think that's going to be one of the big three combinations this year in the league," Ratliff said. "And a lot of people probably won't think that, but when you see the numbers that those guys are going to put up this year, it's going to be really big for them." *