For someone who never looked more alive than he did with the ball in his hands, it has been disheartening in recent years to see what’s become of Steve Francis after his life in pro basketball ended.
In 2011, the one-and-done Maryland men’s basketball star showed up at Maryland Madness, his face seemingly aged two decades in the three years since his last NBA appearance. Video of a 2016 drunken-driving arrest showed him yelling expletives at police. A month after that DWI, he turned himself in on an outstanding arrest warrant for burglary.
“What happened to Steve Francis?” he wrote in a first-person account Thursday for The Players’ Tribune. It wasn’t crack cocaine that caused his spiral, he says. It was heavy drinking, prompted by the end of his NBA career, an identity crisis and the loss of his stepfather, who died by suicide.
But the most interesting details in his 5,000-plus-word narrative are, perhaps unsurprisingly, about what came before. Here are some of the best.
A Takoma Park native who bounced around from high school to high school, Francis got a chance at stardom only after San Jacinto College, a junior college in Texas with “30,000 white people and your boy Steve,” offered him a spot on its team. After another year of junior college in Maryland, he was down to the Terps and Georgetown.
“And it was almost Georgetown,” Francis writes. “But I’ll never forget the conversation I had with [Hoyas coach] John Thompson. He said, ‘Steve, we like you. We do. But I just had Allen Iverson. I can’t have you right after Allen. I just can’t have it, Steve. I’ll have a heart attack.’
“I respected it. He was right. He saw all those hangers-on who were around Allen all the time at Georgetown, and he knew they’d just be waiting for me to come through. So my junior year, when I was already 21 years old, I transferred to Maryland.
“I was a Terp.”
2. He sold crack but never smoked it
Francis says he started working as a “phone boy” at age 10 in the Washington area, waiting near a pay phone with “50 drugs dealers standing outside on one corner, and 50 drug dealers standing on another corner.” When the phone would ring, he’d answer and direct the person on the other line to their desire — drugs, girls, whatever else.
Francis’ home life was in shambles. His father was in a federal penitentiary, and Francis says he had 18 people living in his family’s three-bedroom apartment. His small stature and bad grades were prohibitive; his high school basketball career was two games long.
“So I stayed on the corner, doing what I had to do to survive,” he writes. “It was messed up. I’m not glorifying it. I got robbed at gunpoint a million times. I got my ass beat a million times. I saw drive-bys. But honestly, if you ask me what really scared me the most, it wasn’t the guns. Shootings were almost … natural. I mean, what do you think is gonna happen when you’re in the streets? The scariest thing was the drugs. The needles, man. The pipes. The PCP. The people slumped over with that look in their eyes. It was everywhere. These were regular people — nurses, teachers, mailmen. The mayor of D.C., Marion Barry.”
3. He has no regrets about his draft demands
After one season at Maryland, Francis was taken No. 2 overall in the 1999 NBA draft by the Vancouver Grizzlies. But “I was not about to go up to freezing-ass Canada,” he writes, so he forced a three-team, 11-player deal to the Houston Rockets.
All these years later, he’s not sorry about much of what transpired.
“Now, I know people in Vancouver are still pissed off at me for forcing a trade out of there,” he says. “I damn near cried when I got taken by the Grizzlies at No. 2. … They were about to move the franchise anyway. I’m sorry but … actually, I’m really not even sorry. Everybody sees the business of basketball now. That team was gone. [The Grizzlies lasted two more seasons in Vancouver before moving to Memphis.] The only thing I’m sorry about is that I went up there and gave probably the rudest press conference in NBA history before they traded me.”
4. Yao Ming was a pretty great teammate
Francis was an instant success in Houston, sharing Rookie of the Year honors in 1999-2000 and averaging over 19 points each of the next two seasons. But the team remained largely unimportant until 2002, when the Rockets took Yao Ming No. 1 overall and Francis had a new favorite teammate.
“That was my guy,” he writes. “When he came to Houston, we were some Odd Couple, ... man. A dude from China and a dude from D.C., and it wasn’t even the language that was the problem. That was just a part of it. I’m partially deaf in my left ear, and Yao is partially deaf in his right ear, and we’re trying to speak to one another in basic English.”
Francis says Yao would ask teammates whether the incessant media attention bothered them. Cameras and reporters followed Yao “everywhere he went on the road,” Francis said, and Yao remained kind and respectful through it all.
“That’s the kind of person he was,” he writes. “He was my favorite teammate ever, hands down. He was such a good player, too. I still think about what could have been if Yao hadn’t rushed back from his injuries too soon, and if they’d have just kept us together. It still haunts me. We’d have gone on some runs. Everybody in Houston knows it.”