- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2000

Steve Francis was having a good time. He stood backward at center court and flung hopeless shots over his head at the basket. He drove to the hoop, executed full turns and sank left-handed reverse layups. He even tried mighty hooks from 3-point range, which is something no point guard would dream of doing in a game.

Francis was having an awesome time and doing it on his home turf at Silver Spring (Md.) International Middle School. If not for the reporters and TV cameras, this could have been a few years ago, when the school was called Montgomery Blair High and he was an obscure reserve point guard on its basketball team.

Since then, of course, Francis has become a very big deal as an All-American point guard at Maryland and last season's NBA co-Rookie of the Year with the Houston Rockets. He makes enormous money as, if not quite the next Michael Jordan, at least a legitimate pretender to the throne. But one thing hasn't changed. He still loves to play basketball, even a pseudo sort like the kind that unfolded yesterday in the "First Annual World Trick Shooting Contest."

You and I played this game all kids do but then it was called "H-O-R-S-E" or, if dinner was almost on the table, "P-I-G." The idea is to try the wildest shot you can think of. If it goes in, your opponent has to make the same shot. If it doesn't, he gets to try the wildest shot he can think of. And so on.

Corporate America being what it is, the rules were a little different yesterday. Francis has a promotional contract with Sandbox (www.sandbox.com), an Internet company whose logo features a pail in a shovel. Therefore players accumulated different letters each time they failed to repeat somebody else's shot: S-A-N-D-B-O-X, or as many as could be applied in a 15-minute time frame.

Francis did not appear to be sweating it. He made a lot of shots and missed more. In addition to several renowned trick shot artists, the Sandbox people threw in a couple of ordinary guys who had qualified over the Internet to play against Francis. He defeated Rick Wnuk, a printing executive from Wisconsin, and Dean Browne, who described himself as a "medical builder" from the Bronx. In the finals, though, Francis actually lost to a former Harlem Wizards player named Tommy "Swoopin' " Starkes when the latter made an underhand basket from the foul line with the players even at S-A-N-D-B-O.

Big deal.

During the afternoon, Francis enjoyed himself thoroughly. He dropkicked the ball to the rafters in pretended anger after one miss, prostrated himself at center court after another and asked attentive spectators from the Takoma Park Recreation Center summer league what kind of shot he should try next. Playing basketball in the ACC or NBA is too stressful to be fun. But for one day, Francis was having a ball at basketball.

"It's fun to get away from competing so hard," he said during a break in the inaction. "I'm not afraid of any competition, but you need to do things like this once in a while."

Despite the NBA's 82-game regular-season grind especially hard for a youthful (23) point guard on an aging team like the Rockets Francis said it never wore him down.

"I thought at first it would, but I never felt the season was too long or too hard," he said. "There was a lot of stuff going on off the court [read: his lack of interest in playing for the Grizzlies, who drafted him first, and the resulting enmity of whatever fans there are in Vancouver], but on the court all you have to do is play. You don't have to worry about what reporters or TV people are asking you. All you have to do is what you can do on the basketball court."

Confidence oozes from every Francis pore faster than sweat, yet there appears to be no danger of being laid low by overconfidence.

"I need to play better defense next season," he said, peeking ahead to training camp. "I need to shoot better at the line; I was 79 percent last season, and a point guard should be in the mid-80s. I need to work on a lot of things, not just one area."

So far, the young man's career has been meteoric following a slow start. He played just one year of prep ball because of academic difficulties, an injury and a transfer from one Montgomery County school to another. But ever since, his basketball life has been a virtual swish shot. On a 34-48 Rockets team that failed to make the playoffs, he averaged 18.0 points and 6.6 assists. With Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen gone and Hakeem Olajuwon going, he's the team's key to a brighter future.

"I used to be astonished at all the good things that were happening to me," Francis conceded. "But now that I'm older and wiser, I knew that very few things could have or can stop me."

Not even a fellow named Tommy Starkes yesterday in Silver Spring. As he congratulated Starkes after their contest, Steve Francis was smiling. He may go on smiling for a long, long time.

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