Steve Francis wants you to know that he never smoked crack. But more than that, he wants you to remember his remarkable ascent from a teenager who spent his time selling it, to an NBA player who made an immediate impact in the league.
Or, as Francis put it Thursday in an essay for The Players’ Tribune: “From the corner to the NBA in four f*****g years.”
Francis, now 41 and out of the NBA since the 2007-08 season, detailed a childhood marked by poverty and an early introduction to the drug trade growing up in the Silver Spring-Takoma Park area along the Maryland-D.C. border. He also touched on some of his memories from a nine-year NBA career, one that ended much sooner than he would have liked.
Francis barely played organized basketball in high school but made just enough of an impression on the AAU circuit that he got an offer from a Texas junior college, then parlayed that into one standout season with the Maryland Terrapins before becoming the No. 2 pick in the 1999 draft. Francis kept coming back to that leap in his essay, but he made sure to try to dispel rumors of drug use that developed as his post-NBA life appeared to be spiraling into arrests and other misadventures.
“I had some dark days, no question,” he wrote. “And I know people were asking, ‘What the hell happened to Steve Francis?’ But the hardest part was reading some bulls— on the Internet saying that I was on crack. When I thought about my grandmother reading that, or my kids reading that … that broke my heart. Listen, I sold crack when I was growing up. I’ll own up to that. But never in my life did I ever do crack.
“What happened to Steve Francis? I was drinking heavily, is what happened. And that can be just as bad. In the span of a few years I lost basketball, I lost my whole identity, and I lost my stepfather, who committed suicide.”
To hear his account of growing up in the D.C. area of the 1980s and ’90s, it’s not all that hard to believe that, however much drinking he may have been doing in recent years, Francis was set on avoiding a drug such as crack. He said that while doing his hustling “on the corner, doing what [he] had to do to survive,” he got “robbed at gunpoint a million times” and got his “a– beat a million times,” but what “really scared” him the most wasn’t all the shootings and violence he witnessed.
“The scariest thing was the drugs. The needles, man. The pipes. The PCP. The people slumped over with that look in their eyes,” Francis wrote. “It was everywhere. These were regular people — nurses, teachers, mailmen. The mayor of D.C., Marion Barry.
“It was the zombie apocalypse. That’s the environment we were living in, every day, every minute.”
At 18, he was selling drugs on the corner, just trying to survive.
— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) March 8, 2018
The one upside of becoming a 10-year-old “phone boy,” answering calls on behalf of drug dealers at a pay phone, was that it gave Francis plenty of time to work on his jump shot. He said he actually used the “top of the phone booth” as his hoop, the dimensions of which mandated that “you had to swish it perfect with a real high arc.”
Francis only hinted at the distressing lack of purpose that came with the abrupt end of his NBA career, but he framed his view of it in terms of that improbable path. “I went from selling drugs on the corners in D.C. to the NBA in four years … and now it’s over?” he wrote. “It’s a wrap? At 32?
“I knew it was the end, and that’s some really, really hard s— to swallow. I don’t care who you are.”
Elsewhere in the essay, Francis dropped some intriguing anecdotes for hoops fans.
On getting the best of future NBA all-star Shawn Marion while both were playing in junior college:
“He was playing for Vincennes University at the time, and he was a juco All-American. He was supposed to be the guy. And we went up there to Indiana and I murdered him. I got a quadruple double on his a–. I remember when we both got to the NBA, we were laughing about it during some shoot-around, and he told me that he’s actually got the VHS tape of the game somewhere at his house. The tape exists. For 20 years I’ve been asking Shawn where the hell that tape is, and he’s been ducking me.
“SHAWN, WHERE’S THE TAPE?!”
On almost transferring to Georgetown:
“For me, it was either Maryland or Georgetown, period.
“And it was almost Georgetown. But I’ll never forget the conversation I had with 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.”
On forcing a trade from Vancouver to Houston after he was drafted by the Grizzlies:
“Now, I know people in Vancouver are still p—– off at me for forcing a trade out of there. I damn near cried when I got taken by the Grizzlies at No. 2. I was not about to go up to freezing-a– Canada, so far away from my family, when 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 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.”
On getting schooled by Sam Cassell in his first NBA game with the Rockets, after the veteran Bucks guard made sure to keep him out all night the previous evening:
“Man, he came out that night and dropped 35 points on me. I was so tired in the first quarter I thought I was about to pass out. Remember now, I’m a punk rookie on a team with Charles Barkley and Hakeem the Dream Olajuwon. These dudes are in the huddle looking at me like I’m not s—. Rudy T [Coach Rudy Tomjanovich] is looking at me like, ‘We traded 15 motherf*****s to Vancouver for this?’”
On still being a popular figure in Houston:
“I think it’s because of the energy in the city when me and Yao [Ming] were together. That was my guy. When he came to Houston, we were some Odd Couple motherf*****s, man. …
“He was my favorite teammate ever, hands down. He was such a good player, too. I still think about what could have been for us if Yao hadn’t rushed back from his injuries too soon, and if they’d have just kept us together. It still haunts me.”
On his underwhelming stints in Orlando and New York:
“It’s not even worth talking about those Magic years, and it’s definitely not worth talking about those Knicks years. That part of the story is like the end of ‘Goodfellas,’ when everybody’s getting jammed up and ratting on each other and they’re driving around looking up in the sky for police helicopters. It was a mess, man. I got to both of those teams, and it takes you like five minutes of being in the locker room before you realize: Nope. No wins here.”
Francis also shared a fond story of getting the better of Gary Payton, who he described as “like a volume shooter of s— talking.” After getting Payton, known for his on-ball defensive prowess, “shook” with an effective scoring performance, Francis said that the guard walked back to the locker room yelling at him, “Just wait, you punk rookie b—-! Wait ’til I come down to Houston! I’ll get you, Steve Francis! I’ll get you yet, you rookie b—- mothaf***aaaaaaaaa!”
“I got on that plane back to Houston like, We made it, man,” Francis wrote. “We made it from the corner to this.”
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