During camps there is a break between morning and afternoon sessions as well as afternoon and evening sessions. During these so-called “free times” the campers would organize pickup games in Cole Field House. They would also do this before Roll Call in the morning and after camp concluded in the evening (There was always a couple of hours to kill before curfew at 11:00 P.M.) These games would normally involve the older campers, and usually some of the camp coaches would participate, usually younger guys who were players at colleges along the east coast. Sometimes pro players would stop in for the late games. I remember Chris Webber and Manute Bol along with several others stopping in.
I think it was during one of the games (early in the week) between the morning and afternoon sessions when I happened to see a young kid sitting in the bleachers crying. He looked to be around 12 or 13, and he was just a little guy. I asked what the problem was, figuring he was missing his family or something. He told me the older guys wouldn’t let him play in their game. Since the guys playing were anywhere from 17 to 23, I wasn’t surprised. Long story short, the kid really wanted to play and thought he could compete with those guys. Knowing what I know now, he was probably right. The only other thing I remember about that week was a couple other times when I saw a coach kneeling down, talking to that same kid who was upset, usually about losing a camp game or not playing as well as he thought he should have. I also remember the kid could play. Hiis name? Steve Francis.
I would later find out that Francis had been raised by his mother in Takoma Park, MD, extremely poor and fatherless. When he lost his mom to cancer in 1995, he lost the desire to play basketball and had basically given up the sport for 2-years.
It was 1998 when Steve came back to Maryland. He was entering his junior year and had been the first player to take two unbeaten teams (San Jacinto College and Allegany College of Maryland) into the National Junior College Tournament. In his only year at Maryland he led the Terps to a #2 National ranking and did enough spectacular things on the court to end up being drafted #2 overall by the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 1999 NBA Draft. After a much-publicized battle with Vancouver, Francis was traded to Houston. He shared Rookie of the Year honors that season with Elton Brand and came in 2nd place to Vince Carter in the Slam Dunk Contest. During the 2002-2003 season Steve played with Yao Ming and both were starters in the NBA All-Star game.
After that year, things started to go downhill for the guy they called "Stevie Franchise." He couldn’t get along with Jeff Van Gundy, and his stats slowly started to decline. Over the next few years Steve went from the Orlando Magic (in a huge trade involving Tracy McGrady) to the New York Knicks, back to Houston, and on to the Grizzlies before being waived today.
It’s sad. I wish Steve Francis would wake up and turn it around. He’s not a bad guy. He’s the same guy, while still college kid at Maryland, who took the time to sign and return a picture my son had sent to him. Later, at a time when he was at his most productive and popular in the NBA, I watched as he stayed after speaking at Maryland Camp to sign autographs until the last kid was accommodated.
Anybody who has ever watched him play in his prime knows he could have been one of the greatest to ever play the game. And no, that’s not an exaggeration.
You know, I don’t what happened to Steve Francis. He’s still only 32-years old and has plenty of time to get it together. He’s made a ton of money, so maybe he’s just grown contented. Maybe he doesn't need the game like he did on that day back in 1990. I just wish he cared today like he did back then, when all he wanted in life was to get in that game and do what he loved best - play basketball.