Talk about a preemptive strike. Steve Francis called a news conference for yesterday, essentially to tell the Vancouver Grizzlies to drop dead, that there was no way he would play for them, even if it meant sitting out the season. But the Grizzlies beat Francis to the punch, trading him to Houston, where every player who matters has one foot out the door. So what's Francis going to do in two years when he has three years left on his contract in Houston and the Rockets are knee-deep in lottery land?
Francis has left himself open for a ton of criticism, and there's only one way out of the public relations mess he's created for himself: become a great basketball player.
Refusing to report to the team that drafts you is nothing new. It happens every few years, whether in the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball. Remember another native son, Danny Ferry? Like Francis, Ferry was drafted No. 2 by a perennial doormat, the Los Angeles Clippers. And like Francis, Ferry decided he simply wasn't going to sign with them, and went to play in Italy instead. Ferry's career has been dogged by criticism that is louder than it should be because of the way he snubbed the Clippers.
The case of John Elway turned out a little differently. Elway was ripped to shreds in many quarters because he told the Baltimore Colts not to draft him, then threatened to play baseball and refused to report after the Colts selected him anyway. Elway, from Day 1, was a great player. The Colts turned out to be grossly mismanaged, and Elway went on to a Hall of Fame career.
I wonder if Francis was paying attention when J.D. Drew, who rebuffed the Philadelphia Phillies a couple of years ago and now plays for the St. Louis Cardinals, had batteries hurled at him in Philly the other night. Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers was received just as warmly when he played in Quebec City, a city he disdained.
I feel for Francis because it appears he could have a very real problem. The circumstances of his life haven't wrapped him in stability. He hasn't stayed in one place -- high school, junior college, the University of Maryland -- for more than a minute. As immature as he acted on draft night, pouting when the Grizzlies drafted him, I know the dramas and subplots that can haunt a kid who is far more responsible for family members than most of us know. Some of these kids, Francis probably included, are too proud to tell the world what's happening at home. But believe me, the problems they inherited at a frighteningly young age don't go away because the NBA, NFL or baseball come calling.
I feel sorry for a kid when he feels he can't go to perhaps the most majestic and peaceful city in North America as a multi-millionaire because it's outside his tiny little world of D.C./suburban Maryland. As cities go, Vancouver vs. Houston is no contest. Vancouver would have been the perfect spot for Francis, because it's as far away from D.C. as you can get and still be in the NBA. But you're not hearing that when your boys are telling you Vancouver is too far for them to drive, hang out, crash at your spot, eat and drink and shop off your tab. My bet is Francis, like a lot of urban kids whose vision is limited to what happens on a court or playing field, couldn't even imagine how he would survive in a place as different as Vancouver. David Stern, on draft night, might as well have announced "Beijing" for all Francis knew about Vancouver. Stu Jackson, the Grizzlies' president and GM, is a very smart man who came to understand all of this, which is why he moved to trade Francis.
That said, there's a lot more at work here than Vancouver being far away from home, literally and culturally. Ego certainly played a part. Francis wanted to be drafted No. 1. He wanted to go to Chicago and play for the team his idol, Michael Jordan, played for. You think it's a coincidence Francis wears No. 23? Anything else than being taken No. 1 and going to Chicago was going to be a letdown. Little does Francis know, the last thing in the world he wants to be is within 100 miles of Bulls boss Jerry Krause, in a city where nobody will ever measure up to Jordan.
In Vancouver, Francis would have been part of a nice, young nucleus of players that included Shareef Abdur-Rahim (22 years old), Big Country Reeves (26), Mike Bibby (21) and Felipe Lopez (24). Jackson is is no buffoon like Bob Irsay, who drafted Elway; Jackson has some nice pieces in place and even planned to accommodate Francis's desire and ability to play some at shooting guard. In Vancouver, Francis would have had time to grow as a player and grow up, period.
Now, he gets no honeymoon. He'll have to produce immediately because in Houston the future was last year. It's the end of the line for Barkley and Olajuwon. And Pippen may not be around this season. The Rockets, under league rules, can have Francis for up to five years. He could very soon be to the Rockets what Toni Kukoc is to the Bulls, which is to say a lone ranger.
In Houston, Francis will play with as many as three guys (Barkley, Olajuwon and Pippen) who need the ball and will sure get it before any rookie.
Luckily for Francis, most Texans probably feel about Vancouver much the way he does, which may allow him to recoup some endorsement income, and finally bathe in a little adulation. Most important for Francis is that if he plays professional basketball with the same stubbornness, with the same passion and purpose that he demonstrated in getting himself traded from Vancouver, all of this will be a footnote in a few years.