The Houston Rockets' weight room is quieter now--well, let's be honest, just about everything is quieter without Charles Barkley around. But in particular, it's the weight room where Steve Francis notices the silence. The rookie point guard used to lift with Barkley every morning, and that's when Barkley told tales of his 16 years in the NBA, told Francis how things were and how they were going to be.
At least that's what he was doing when he wasn't calling Francis "bird body."
"You don't understand," Barkley told people. "Steve needs to lift. He's got that scrawny little upper body. But don't you worry. We'll make a man out of him."
That, of course, was before Wednesday night. That was when Barkley got hurt against the Philadelphia 76ers, suffering a torn tendon in his left knee and ending his storied NBA career. Barkley had planned to retire at the end of this season anyway, but in the meantime he was giving Francis, a 21-year-old from the University of Maryland, a crash course in how to thrive in the NBA. He had planned to make Francis not only a man, but The Man, capable of leading a team.
Now, Steve Francis is alone.
With slightly more than a month of NBA experience, he suddenly is the leading scorer and on-court director of a team that only last season had three of the league's most skilled veterans: Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon and Barkley. Pippen was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers in October. Olajuwon has missed almost three weeks because of a hernia and is expected to miss at least another month. Now Barkley is gone too.
Before the Rockets' game against the Boston Celtics on Friday, when Barkley's only role was being honored during a halftime ceremony, Barkley was somber, noting "it's hard that I'm leaving them for good tonight." Francis tried to be philosophical.
"I just have to try to take what Charles told me and apply it, try to just do the best I can," he said. "We all know it's going to be hard, but I pretty much got the message he was trying to give me before he got hurt. He was there every day explaining certain things to me about being aggressive, being on time, never settling on being anything less than your best. And trust me, he pounded it into me."
Baptism by Fire
Giving Francis much the same treatment Moses Malone gave him when he was a rookie with the 76ers in 1984-85, Barkley had been tutoring Francis with a style that crossed careful teaching with fraternity hazing. If Francis was late to their weightlifting sessions, he was fined $500. If he didn't carry a ball to the team bus, as Barkley had asked him to, that was another $500. If he didn't wear a suit on the bench when he was hurt--"showing up, looking like a bum," in Barkley's words--that was another $500. (The money was to be held in a fund for a team party at the end of the season, and at the rate Barkley was fining Francis, it was going to be some blow-out.)
Barkley ordered room service to Francis's room at all hours of the night, made Francis carry his bags and even gave him a slap in the head when he thought Francis was being particularly bull-headed. As one might imagine, this initially did not go over so well with Francis. There was some yelling, mostly by Barkley. But after a while, Francis noticed that with the lectures, the fines and the pranks, Barkley also was delivering some sound advice, and the more Francis was willing to listen, the more Barkley was willing to give.
"Everything he's been through, I've already been through it, and that's what I was trying to tell him," Barkley said. "I told him, 'I'm not just an old man, I used to be a really great player.'
"He did not take it well at first--he thought I was just an old guy trying to order him around. Now he understands that I'm this old guy who's been where he's going, and I was trying to help him. I wasn't trying to browbeat him, not trying to order him around. It's that he has a choice. You see, there are two roads: There's the slow road, where you can learn on your own, or there are people who have already traveled that road you can learn from, and then you're on the fast road."
On His Own, Again
Now that Barkley is gone, Francis must find his own road. This is nothing new for the Silver Spring native, who is playing for his seventh team in seven years, just something that brings a little sigh, a slight shake of the head. Injuries, poor grades and family hardships led him through several high schools and two junior colleges before he got to Maryland for the 1998-99 season. Along the way he lost his mother, Brenda, to cancer, along with most of his innocence.
He heard all sorts of people tell him he was no good, and he heard all sorts of reasons he was never going to make it. But just before Francis started playing for San Jacinto (Junior) College in Texas in 1996, he started to get his act together. A former high school dropout, he earned his GED. Carrying a newspaper article about his mother in his wallet, he played hard once he got to Texas, and he led San Jacinto to a 36-1 record and the NJCAA tournament final.
When he decided he was just too lonely to stay in Texas, he transferred to Allegany (Junior) College in Cumberland, Md. After Allegany also went undefeated during the regular season and Francis was named a first-team NJCAA all-American, he was on his way to Maryland as one of the most eagerly anticipated newcomers in the program's history. As a junior, he led the Terrapins with 17 points per game, primarily playing shooting guard rather than his natural position, and Maryland set a school record with 28 wins. Finally, it seemed everything was going to be great. Except that it wasn't.
In the NCAA tournament, the Terrapins fell short of expectations by losing in the round of 16. Francis then announced he was forgoing his final season of eligibility to enter the NBA draft. He cruised through his workouts for NBA scouts and believed he had a good chance of being taken No. 1 in the draft by the Chicago Bulls. Except that he wasn't.
On June 30, the Vancouver Grizzlies proudly selected Steve De'Shawn Francis of Takoma Park with the second pick in the NBA draft. Francis responded to this honor by burying his head in his hands. He grimaced. When he was given a Grizzlies hat in customary draft fashion, he was overheard to say "As soon as I can take it off, I will." He told the media the selection was "like taking a premature puppy out of the litter from his mom."
Francis now says his reaction was a mix of shock and sadness at not being the No. 1 pick and at being sent to play so far from home--after all, just living in Texas during his junior college days had been almost unbearable. He also was concerned that he again would be forced to play shooting guard, because Vancouver already had a point guard, 1998 No. 2 overall pick Mike Bibby. But though those were Francis's reasons, he had allowed himself the wrong reaction at the wrong time, and he quickly was classified as a spoiled, petulant example of everything wrong with the NBA.
"What was so strange was that there's precedent for that--Danny Ferry not going to the L.A. Clippers, John Elway with the Colts--so Steve's not the first guy to say he didn't want to go where he was drafted, but people really acted like it had never happened before," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "I think it was just Steve's reaction the night of the draft that set all of this in motion. If it had all happened behind the scenes, it would have been different."
In the United States, Francis was lambasted. In Canada, it was worse; one Vancouver newspaper columnist called Francis a "stupid, ignorant dork." Others questioned Francis's motives, wondering whether the Grizzlies' 8-42 record last season had more to do with Francis's reaction than the fact that he would be playing so far from Maryland. All the bad press and bad feelings were difficult for Francis, but they were especially difficult for his grandmother, Mabel Wilson, who helped raise him and knew how badly he was hurting.
"She knew that I wasn't that type of person, and it killed her to read all that," Francis said. "Draft day was the worst day of my life. It was supposed to be a new era for me, the beginning of something big, something I've always wanted to do, but then people really misconstrued the way I reacted.
"I wanted to be picked number one and I was disappointed I was going so far away from home, that's all. It's amazing, when I was at Maryland, I was Superman, and then all of the sudden, I was getting stabbed in the back even by people in my home town."
Staying in Touch
Francis lobbied for a trade all summer, and on Aug. 27, he got a doozy: a three-team, 10-player deal that sent his rights to Houston. Francis signed with the Rockets on Sept. 1 for $9.6 million over three years, making him the team's highest-paid rookie ever. Houston got an option on a fourth year at $4.3 million; Francis got what he hoped was a fresh start.
To battle the homesickness that had plagued him the last time he lived in Texas, Francis bought a nice four-bedroom house--there's one Jacuzzi in the backyard and another in the bedroom--and he brought his older brother, Terry, and his rottweiler, Alexis, to live with him. Wilson visits at least once a month, and when she can't make it for important family events, she improvises. For example, Francis could not come home for Thanksgiving because of the Rockets' schedule, so Wilson sent a dinner to the boys via overnight mail, complete with macaroni and cheese, greens, stuffing, dressing and ham.
In return, Francis has sent all sorts of gifts and money back to Takoma Park, especially school supplies for his younger sister, Tiffany, and his young cousins. His first priority when he got some money after college was to buy Tiffany a computer with Internet access; she now has that, along with enrollment at a good after-school program.
"She has everything that I didn't have--she's got it all," Francis said. "I'm not going to be one of those people who says you have to only do school, but I had to make sure she had the things she needs."
Tiffany's isn't the only schooling Francis is concerned about; while getting his ankle taped before a recent game, he recounted his plans to return to Maryland this summer to take some classes. Francis's friends like to tease him about his school shuffling--"yeah, three more credits and he'll be a freshman," trainer Keith Jones said after hearing about Francis's summer plans--but Francis says he is dedicated to getting his degree.
For now, his plans revolve around basketball, getting used to playing the point again and getting used to the NBA. He didn't make many friends his first week in the league when he talked trash up and down the court, especially because he wasn't playing very well at the time, although now he is learning the right and wrong times to open his mouth. If it were up to Barkley, Francis wouldn't talk at all--"He has to let the trash-talking go, because he hasn't done anything to back it up yet," Barkley said--but even Barkley has to admit that the kid has looked pretty good on the court lately.
Averaging 17.2 points, 6.5 assists and 5 rebounds in 35.3 minutes entering last night's game, Francis is showing much of the spark that made him so exciting to watch in college, despite a sprained ankle that kept him out for three games earlier this month. With the double-teams that Barkley used to draw now gone, Francis will have to do even more, although he doesn't seem to mind, comparing himself Thursday to "the starter; the ignition that starts the car." Then, he said, "everybody runs."
No one knows whether Francis can hold up for an entire season under the kind of pressure that comes from learning in a very bright spotlight, but if his experiences in Vancouver on Nov. 29 were any indication, he should do fine. The Rockets played the Grizzlies at GM Place that night, and there were signs such as, "Secretly, your Grandma can't stand you either;" "Francis is impotent;" and "Breathe if you hate Steve Francis." There were also harsh words from Grizzlies players, including Antoine Carr's comments that Francis "is a young man who really needs to take a look at himself. . . . He's not Jordan, he's not Allen Iverson. He's just another player who hasn't proved himself in this league yet."
The fans booed him, and then they threw things at him.
"I was weaving around quarters, tomatoes, tennis balls and one lemon," Francis said, smiling. "But that Vancouver reception was the best I ever had in my life--I loved it. Honestly, I think it helped me out a lot. I knew that whatever I did that game, people would remember. And I did okay [24 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds, no turnovers before fouling out of the Rockets' 118-110 overtime victory]. If I had played bad, you would have heard about it for weeks."
Instead, people are hearing about a young phenom starting to come into his own, even if it's a little sooner than he anticipated.
"Barkley saw the talent in him, saw him struggle a little in the first week and knew that at that point, he could either go up or level off, so he decided to step in and help the young one on," Francis's brother, Terry, said. "Now it's Steve's turn. It used to be that when all else fails, you gave it to Barkley. Now, when all else fails, you give it to the rookie."