VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As night approaches, the view from Vanier Park in West Vancouver is majestic.
Glance to the left across the English Bay, and in the distance you see the glow of the setting sun seemingly bouncing atop the snow-capped North Shore mountains. Off to the right, where the Burrard Bridge crosses False Creek, there's a view of a magnificent downtown skyline that is as impressive as any city.
"How can you not appreciate this?" says Quentin Antoine, 24, who takes in this view every time he comes to shoot hoops at Vanier, whose outdoor courts are some 50 yards off the beach. "This is a beautiful city."
Judging from the reaction of Steve Francis on June 30 when he was selected by the Vancouver Grizzlies with the second pick of the NBA draft, this city in British Columbia might as well have been in Siberia. Having seen Elton Brand go to the Chicago Bulls as the No. 1 pick, Francis sulked when his name was called, took a long, slow stroll to the podium at the MCI Center and afterward told the media that maybe he might wake up happy the next day.
Let's say that Francis is not a popular man in this city, whose citizens took his actions as a slap in the face. That might make for an interesting encounter tomorrow when Francis -- three weeks to the day after being drafted -- will officially meet a media contingent still in search of reasons for his antics.
Has Francis, who made a secret trip here two weeks ago for a brief meeting with general manager Stu Jackson, had a change of heart? That is unclear, since the junior guard out of Maryland has been silent and his agent, Jeff Fried, has chosen not to return calls.
What's clear here is that the Grizzlies badly want Francis, and are looking forward to adding him to a young nucleus of guard Mike Bibby and forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim in their quest to become one of the NBA's better young teams.
"I'm not worried about whether it will work out, because I know it will," coach Brian Hill said yesterday from Los Angeles, where the Grizzlies are fielding a team in a summer league. "When we get down to the business of playing basketball, then I think all of these little things will be put aside and he'll play the best basketball he possibly can.
"The important thing right now is for Steve to come up and address the media and address some of the accusations made and for people to hear his side of it," said Hill, who will fly up to Vancouver for the news conference. "And then people will make their judgments from there."
Going from the reactions of fans in a city in which basketball is a fast-growing sport, many of the judgments made about Francis are hardly positive.
"Going into the draft, I wanted Francis to come play for us because he's exciting and that's what we need," said 19-year-old Frank Perovic, a self-described lifelong basketball fan. "And then when he gets drafted, puts his head down, and takes a long time to get to the commissioner.
"We wanted him, and then he does that," Perovic said from his seat alongside the Vanier Park courts. "It was a disrespect to the city, and a disrespect to the fans."
Vancouver at a glance
Things Steve Francis (and others) might not know about Vancouver: It boasts a metropolitan population of 1.8 million.
It has the second-biggest Chinatown in North America (San Francisco has the largest), with many Asians immigrating here from Hong Kong.
The Port of Vancouver is the largest Pacific port in the Americas, with about 30 ships passing through daily.
Weather-wise, outside of the rain, the city is comfortable, with the coldest month -- January -- averaging lows that are above freezing (33 degrees).
The crime rate is low, the people are friendly and many of the waterfront high-rise residential towers offer splendid views of the area's natural scenery.
"I came here 24 years ago from Seattle to visit a friend and I never left," said Patrick Martin, a men's clothing salesman at Eaton's department store. "I find it one of the most livable cities I've ever been in. It's safe, it's modern. With merging of water and mountains, aesthetically it's a jewel."
Noah Crum, assistant general manager and legal counsel for the Grizzlies, agrees.
"We feel the city is a huge selling point," said Crum, who, prior to his four years with the Grizzlies, worked as an associate counsel with the league office.
"But to a lot of young players, it's another country. And it's especially hard for a young player leaving college and stepping out on their own for the first time."
While Francis was the most obvious player in his apparent initial disdain for the city, he's not the first. When Bibby was drafted in the first round by Vancouver in 1998, he didn't appear thrilled.
"This is something that we've faced before," said Jackson, Vancouver's general manager. "It's just something that we have to deal with."
Once in place, players seem to come around to enjoying the city that offers fine restaurants and excellent shopping. Crum said that veterans Gerald Wilkins, Greg Anthony and Byron Scott enjoyed their stays in Vancouver. And that Antonio Daniels, the team's first-round pick in 1997 who was traded to San Antonio after one year, returns with his friends to visit in the summer.
The biggest endorsement of the city has to come from Abdur-Rahim, one of the top young talents in the game who could have bolted after his third year. Instead Abdur-Rahim extended his contract after his second season, which will keep him in Vancouver through the 2004-05 season.
In a country known for its devotion to hockey, Abdur-Rahim is Vancouver's No. 1 athlete, not Mark Messier.
"Abdur-Rahim is the only mega-star we have," said Rick Daliwahl, a reporter with the all-news CKWX radio station in Vancouver. "And Steve has a chance to be the same once he realizes he's going to play the game he loves and become a millionaire.
"When I saw what he did on draft night, I thought here's a kid dreaming of playing for the Lakers or the Knicks and he winds up playing in Vancouver," Daliwahl added.
"And I feel for him, because that's like a Canadian kid dreaming all his life of playing hockey and then finds out he has to go to Tampa Bay."
CFL sings city's praises
Or it's like an American kid spending his entire life dreaming of playing in the NFL, and then having to find his career fulfilled north of the Canadian border. That's what it's like for the 17 imports who are allowed to play on each Canadian Football League team, with most of those imports coming from the United States.
"When I first came to Vancouver, I had a lot of apprehension because I'm an East Coast boy and I had never experienced Canada before playing in the CFL," said Robert Drummond, running back with the British Columbia Lions who also played briefly with the defunct Baltimore Stallions.
"At some point, you realize that this is just a job. As he gets older, he'll understand that. Hey, before I got here I never realized how beautiful and how great of a culture that Canada has."
Said former Los Angeles Raiders quarterback Todd Marinovich, who is trying to resurrect his career with the Lions after not dressing for a game since 1992:
"I haven't been to a place with more friendlier people, and I couldn't be happier. Until you step foot and live in an area, you can't pass judgment."
And the Grizzlies are hoping Francis realizes his original judgments were wrong. The team wants him to get to know the city and see that it is a quality place for him to continue his basketball career. Perhaps his visit tomorrow is a step in the right direction.
"I don't think there's anything to read into [the visit] until we see what he has to say," said Hill, when asked whether the visit is a sign of Francis changing his mind. "We're trying to get a feel from him what was running through his mind on draft night.
"I still believe [draft night] was a mistake, something that just happened," Hill added. "But once we get down to playing basketball, I think things will work out."
Pub Date: 7/20/99