HOUSTON - The Rockets re-signed 42-year-old center Dikembe Mutombo for the remainder of the season yesterday, adding an emotional leader and a backup to Yao Ming.

Mutombo, who supplants 39-year-old Sam Cassell as the league's oldest active player, appeared in 39 games for Houston last season, logging most of his minutes after Yao broke his left foot in February. Mutombo averaged three points, five rebounds and 1.2 blocks. He became a free agent after the season and contemplated retirement before deciding to come back for an 18th season.

Nearly every player on the Houston roster has missed games because of injury this season, and Yao has sat out at least 25 games because of injuries over the past three seasons.

Mutombo started 25 games last season, mostly after Yao broke his foot, and averaged 16 minutes. The Rockets traded Steve Francis to Memphis on Christmas Eve, creating salary space to add Mutombo, the NBA's second career shot blocker behind Hakeem Olajuwon.

The 7-2 Mutombo is expected to join the team for tonight's game with Milwaukee, but it's not known when he'll start playing again.

Mutombo has played for six NBA teams, Denver, Atlanta, the 76ers, New Jersey, New York and Houston. His teams have made the playoffs in 13 of his 17 seasons in the league. *