By Mike Wise
Sunday, March 28, 2010; D01
In the heat of a West Tampa spring, a long-limbed girl of 16 glided around the Jefferson High asphalt track. Such grace and elan in her stride, she churned fast around the curve of her best event, the 220-yard dash.
Mary Francis Robinson played basketball, too, mostly because her girlfriends went out for the team. She also was pretty, which the goofy adolescent boys waiting for their turn in the gym noticed.
One of the boys, a junior, heard the girl everyone called "Francis" had a crush on him.
So one night he rolled up to her house in his '69 baby-blue Mercury Cougar, which was just about the coolest ride a guy at Jefferson could drive some 30 years ago.
And that was that.
Within 18 months, she had a baby boy. She could have been a college athlete, like the boy she fell for, who ended up getting a scholarship to play baseball for his uncle a few hours away. She could have been a teacher. She could have been a lot of things.
But Francis was head strong, stubborn as a motor-oil stain, determined to do it her way. She dropped out and decided to raise the child by herself. Hearing the Jefferson band play the alma mater, she cried the day her classmates graduated without her down the street from the cramped apartment where she lived with her toddler.
Unsure whether she and the boy's father would work things out, she took up with another man. And this one unfortunately sold tiny white balls of hardened chemicals, which people began lighting inside baby-food jars in the mid-1980s and inhaling -- until the rock cocaine rushed through them, piercing their senses like 1,000 dental drills at once. He gave Francis another child at 19 years old but he stole from her all the hope she had gliding around that track in high school. One night, about a month before her second boy was born, the man was gunned down. He bled to death in her arms.
After a while, Francis just stopped caring. "I lost the strong side of me," she said.
The mother of the man who died in her arms was so traumatized by her son's death she moved her family from Tampa to Miami. She asked Francis to come.
There were drugs, alcohol, aliases, arrests and more aliases after that. And children. Francis knew she wasn't much of a maternal figure. She still inexplicably had four more boys and two girls.
Every one of her eight kids, all of whom Francis said she loved, ended up being raised by one of the four men who fathered them or one of the men's family members.
Between rehab, relapses and trying to get off the streets, she could barely parent herself.
Years later, guilt, shame and regret consumed Francis for first abandoning her oldest boy, then almost 4 years old. In the same apartment where his father picked him up 21 years earlier -- he was told to come get his child "because Francis can't take care of her children anymore" -- she came downstairs in a lime green blouse and a jean skirt.
"The life I been livin', I ain't happy with it," she said at the time. "I'm trying to maintain on the outside. I joke to make people laugh. But little do they know I'm hurting inside."
Later, outside a restaurant, she broke down in convulsive sobs, said she can't believe she "scarred" her child. "Not just him, but myself, too," Francis said. "I scarred myself."
"I just want him to know I love him regardless. Regardless. I know it's not right for me to ask, but if he can ever find it in his heart to forgive me . . ."
She said she had been sober from drugs for a while in the summer of 2006, but admitted she still enjoyed her beer now and then.
Less than four years later, this past December, her liver began to fail. While holding down a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken on 119th Street NW and Seventh Avenue in Miami, where her second son remembers she was always cooking in the back, Francis was in and out of the hospital.
Her liver gave out this month. She was taken off life support on March 10 and passed away a few days later at the age of 46.
She saw her oldest son just once after he left with his father. She went to his workplace in Miami in 2002, calling his name in front of other people and later meeting him beside a bus. She collapsed in his arms and through tears told him she was sorry for abandoning him as a child and gave him her phone number. He listened, unsure at the time that it was in fact his mother, kissed her on the cheek and got on the bus -- to another town, another NBA arena.
"One of the reason she wasn't tryin' to get in touch with Gilbert was she didn't want the media to tell the story of his mama on the streets, doin' drugs," said William "Blue" Robinson, the half-brother of Gilbert Arenas and one of seven siblings Arenas has never met as an adult. "Gilbert needs to know: She didn't have none of her kids with her. I hope he don't feel like he was the only one who was gave up. We all got gave up."
Arenas, who had talked of reconnecting with his estranged mother after he retired but "wasn't ready to open that door right now," didn't learn of her death until a few days afterward, less than two weeks before being sentenced in D.C. Superior Court for bringing guns into Verizon Center. He called and made arrangements to pay for her funeral.
Said Gilbert Arenas Sr., Gilbert's father and the teenager who recognized that long-limbed, pretty girl at Jefferson High 30 years ago: "She was a beautiful young lady, nice young lady, always had a smile on her face. I often wonder if I could have done things differently. When she was involved with somebody else, I just thought, 'If that's what you want, okay, I'll step back.' I guess you could do that with a lot of things in life."
Blue said that his mother got off the streets at the end of her life, that he remembers her laugh more than the pain of seeing his mother struggle with her demons, including the death of Blue's father, whom he never met, by gunshot.
"The last time I spoke with her, I remember she was worried about Gilbert," Blue said. "She said, 'What is it with you boys and these guns?' "