HOUSTON (AP) _ The Houston Rockets, saying a new basketball arena is crucial, went to court Monday to pay their lease so they can commit to a new proposed downtown stadium.

Rocket Ball, the limited partnership that owns the Rockets, wants to pay Arena Operating Co., which manages the city-owned Summit, all that is owed under the lease, which runs through November 2003.

``Rocket Ball has been discussing with the City of Houston plans to build a new convention center arena downtown, in which the Rockets would commit to play for a minimum of 20 years,'' according to the lawsuit filed in state district court.

``The city, however, is unwilling to enter into any binding agreement unless Rocket Ball can demonstrate that the Rockets would be able to begin playing their home games in the new arena when it is completed in three years,'' the document stated.

Arena Operating Co., which is owned by Houston Aeros owner Chuck Watson, claims the Rockets can be forced to play all their home games at The Summit through November 2003, according to the suit.

It seeks a ruling from a judge that the Rockets cannot be forced to stay at The Summit.

The suit states that such a ruling would allow the Rockets to determine how much they would owe Arena Operating Co. for not playing through 2003, as well as commit to the proposed $175 million downtown arena.

The Rockets, NBA champions in 1994 and 1995, said negotiations with Arena Operating officials during the last year to try to get out of the lease had been unsuccessful.

``Every offer we made, each of which was based on the principles of fairness, compromise and cooperation, was rejected,'' the Rockets said in a statement announcing the suit.

David Jones, an attorney for Arena Operating Co., said he could not comment because he had not seen the lawsuit. He referred questions about the failed negotiations to Aeros general manager Steve Patterson.

Patterson said he had no immediate comment.

But Arena Operating Co. released a statement late Monday saying, ``We're disappointed that (Rockets owner Les) Alexander, who walked away from the negotiating table in July, has chosen to go to court rather than negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement that best suits the needs of all Houstonians.''

The Aeros, an International Hockey League team, currently play in The Summit. Watson has applied for an NHL franchise for Houston, and would place his team in a new arena, which would be either downtown or near the Summit.

Alexander also has applied for an NHL franchise for Houston. The suit did not reveal the amount it would cost to buy out the lease and Rocket Ball's attorney, Michael Goldberg, declined to release any figures.

``That's not really part of the suit,'' he said.

Published reports, though, have said that Watson would want more than $30 million for the Rockets to leave The Summit.

That figure would reportedly cover lawsuits Watson would face from other Summit tenants, particularly vendors, if the team leaves.

Alexander has said he wants a new arena that can bring in more money to pay escalating player costs.

``The Houston Rockets will not be able to continue to compete at a championship level in the NBA if they are required to play at The Summit through 2003,'' according to the Rockets' statement.

Rockets spokesman Tim Frank said neither the team nor Alexander would have any further comment.

Houston Mayor Bob Lanier said he did not want the lease terminated at The Summit until city officials had a signed agreement for the Rockets to move to the proposed arena.

``We don't want to see the lease terminated first and then try to reach an agreement,'' Lanier said. ``The taxpayers have already bought that lease through the year 2003.''