Steve Francis

January 1, 2003 by  
Filed under Edit

Putting the “Francis” in Franchise

Steve Francis ready to step up and lead Rockets in new season

by Keith Calkins

With the Houston Rockets firmly entrenched in the current NBA season, there is little doubt that point guard sensation Steve Francis is back in form, having rebounded from a disappointing, injury-riddled 2001-02 season and shaken loose the rust of an inactive, rehab-centered summer. Simply put, all is again right with the “Franchise.” “I think my teammates are conscious that I was injured last year. Some of the new guys don’t really know, so they’ve been banging me up a lot. But it’s good to get back out here in the team atmosphere and hear the coaches’ voices again,” Francis said as the team prepared to move into the season. “This team is trying to get better and better every practice, every day.” And Francis’ financial health could not be more robust. A bank-busting contract extension worth roughly $85 million goes into effect next season and should keep him a franchise cornerstone through the rest of the decade. “I think I’m going to have to learn the city of Houston pretty well now,” he says. “The Galleria is really the only area I know. I’ll have to get out, adventure, and see what it’s really like.” Meanwhile, Francis’ real-life adventures pattern an against-all-odds story of adolescent trials and tribulations – a broken ankle, a broken heart when a mother succumbed to cancer, a frequent eyewitness to the broken dreams in the D.C. dead-end zone of Takoma Park, Maryland. So Francis is not the least bit bothered by burdens of great expectations. “I think I can handle it,” he says of living up to the Rockets’ investment. “If you run from pressure, that’s the sign of a coward, and I don’t think I am a coward.” Steve De’Shawn Francis has never been one to run but has constantly found himself on the move, a one-time basketball nomad who first landed on the Houston outskirts in 1996, a ghost with a legend spreading through the underground like wildfire. Injuries and eligibility issues in high school cost Francis a career and a diploma. Hip-hop was not so much a musical style for Francis but, rather, three transfers in four years and only one game started before the funds ran dry and forced him out of Connecticut prep Milford Academy. A chance sighting at an AAU hoopathon in Florida landed him a shot at San Jacinto Junior College in Pasadena. Armed with a GED and a 43-inch vertical game, his opportunity with the Ravens put him on the map. Homesick, he returned to the East Coast and the national junior college title game with Allegany (Mary.) Community College. Francis followed with a single-season explosion at Maryland. And when the post-draft negotiations turned nasty and grizzly with Vancouver, Rocket management pulled a heist of a trade, minus only the wampum, that returned Francis to Texas and now cements him to this community. “I know I’m going to be playing here for a while,” says Francis. “And I’ve never been able to say that before. Obviously, I am one of the focal points of the franchise. I have to remember that I am the icon of the team, and getting out in the community and being more visible for my team is definitely something I look forward to doing.” But Francis warns not to look for visible signs of change in the person or the persona. “I don’t want people to treat me any different because I make X amount of dollars,” he says. “In fact, I haven?t really thought about how much money it actually is. I just live for the right now – whatever happens today. As I get older, I’ll appreciate it more.” Francis found little to appreciate from his third NBA season. Even a first-time all-star slot, career highs for points (21.6) and rebounds (7.0) and a team high in assists (6.4) were not near enough to negate a December foot injury, an inner ear disorder later diagnosed as Meneier’s disease and late-season shoulder surgery. The culmination cost Francis 25 games and sent the Rockets spiraling into a 54-loss abyss, the worst showing in nearly 20 years. Banned from the summer courts while rehabbing, Francis escaped with a mini-tour of Europe – his first taste of London, Paris and Munich – helping flush the aftertaste of a wasted season. After the 12-day knockaround, Francis made an appointment for a sit-down with childhood idol Michael Jordan, seeking hints from the hoop highness on how to lift the Rockets from their recent malaise. “Some of the things he told me are the stages of leadership that I have already taken so far,” Francis says. “That was very encouraging, coming from the No. 1 man. “He said you don’t have to be a leader who’s real vocal, the guy who yells a lot. But lead by example, and that’s what I’ve always tried to do. Being a guard, never afraid to get inside and mix it up and rebound. Seeing that, my teammates should want to do the same. Michael indicated that I am right on path to being a leader of this team.” Launching the Rockets to a post-season path is Francis’ first priority. Backed by the ballyhooed addition of 7-foot, 5-inch Yao Ming, and again with a healthy cast of veterans and young guns, Francis is confident about premiering his overdue playoff debut. “My job is to keep this team united,” says Francis. “If it’s not your night to lead the team in scoring, you’ll have to do something else to help this team win. You can?t be that upset about it. Watching a lot of games last year from the sideline I saw that kind of attitude, and it really hurt our team.” Francis has inflicted plenty of hurt on NBA opposition, clock working the orange to an average of 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in each of his first three seasons. Only three others in league history can match the claim – Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Grant Hill. Francis’ off-the-court company is not quite as prestigious. “I like to relax a lot,” he says. “That means time talking with my sister (12-year-old Tiffany) and my grandmother back home and just chilling with my friends Cutino and Mouchie (teammates Mobley and Norris), just to get some peace of mind.” Away from the nightly shuffle of stuffing the stat sheet, Francis routinely keeps the downtime simple – a medium-rare night at Ruth’s Chris, a CD date with Ashanti. The only maniac tee-time devotion is with Tiger on Playstation. “I think Houston is a great place for me,” Francis says. “People are nice and approachable compared to back home in D.C., where everyone is going a hundred miles an hour. This city gives me a sense of relaxation. One day, when I have a family, I can see raising my kids in Houston.” One vanity splurge for Francis – the headrests of his white Mercedes-Benz that sport the embroidered “Franchise,” a moniker he has carried since the days and nights balling at the Takoma Boys and Girls Club. But the truest testament from his youth is the cross with his mother’s name, “Brenda,” tattooed on his right arm. Above the cross, two words: “In memory.” “Growing up, through it all, I always believed this could happen to me,” he says. “And I always knew in addition to the court skills, I needed to build character and find out who I really was. Even now in the NBA, injuring the foot and playing with the disease, all those things are in the way, and you have to get around them to be a good player and a good person.” Take Francis back in time, to the first night on the Pasadena juco outback. Provide then a crystal-ball peek that predicts a later return to Houston, fame and game, complete with endorsement deals and custom-shoe campaigns. Francis shakes his head in disbelief. “Never in a million years,” he says of such a forecast. “Never in a million years.”

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