Steve Francis played two games of high school basketball, but became a one-year college wonder, the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft and a three-time All-Star. He was an NBA meteor, brightly blazing through the league but burning out far quicker than someone with his level of talent should have.
Francis opened up about his remarkable personal journey Thursday in a first-person story for The Players’ Tribune. He explained how a kid who spent more time growing up selling drugs than playing organized basketball became one of the NBA’s brightest stars — and a cautionary tale. His first job was as a “phone boy,” which meant answering a public pay phone and telling whoever was on the other end where they could buy drugs, solicit prostitutes and more.
He was 10 years old at the time.
Francis tried out for a varsity basketball team, but didn’t want to play on the JV team so he gave it up. He said he went to six different high schools, and played a total of two high school games. He did play a lot on the AAU circuit and in pick-up games. But mostly, at 18 years old he was a high-school dropout and a drug dealer.
“It was messed up. I’m not glorifying it,” Francis wrote. “I got robbed at gunpoint a million times. I got my ass beat a million times. I saw drive-bys. But honestly, if you ask me what really scared me the most, it wasn’t the guns. Shootings were almost … natural. I mean, what do you think is gonna happen when you’re in the streets? The scariest thing was the drugs. The needles, man. The pipes. The PCP. The people slumped over with that look in their eyes. 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.”
His mom died from cancer when he was 18, and his grandmother convinced him to get his GED and attend junior college in Texas. After that, he became a college star at Maryland, not far from where he grew up in Takoma Park, Md. He had several great offers, but only wanted to attend Maryland or Georgetown. It turns out only one of those was an option.
“It was almost Georgetown,” Francis said. “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.”
After forcing a trade to the Rockets (something he still thinks was the right move) and enjoying his time in Houston with Hakeem Olajuwon and then Yao Ming, Francis’ career began to unravel when he was traded to the Magic for Tracy McGrady and then to the Knicks for Trevor Ariza.
Francis didn’t mince his words about the unhappiness he felt with both teams.
“It was a mess, man,” Francis said. “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.
“You can tell in a minute. It’s a culture.”
And just like that, The Franchise was basically out of basketball after a brief return to Houston and an even shorter stay in China. He strongly refuted the idea that he was ever addicted to crack.
“I had some dark days, no question,” Francis said. “And I know people were asking, ‘What the hell happened to Steve Francis?’ But the hardest part was reading some bulls–t 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.
“I just let go, man.”