- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Steve Francis didn't set out to be a pioneer. He didn't plan to buck the system while realizing his lifelong dream.
It just turned out that way after Vancouver made the costly mistake of choosing the former Maryland star with the second overall pick in the NBA Draft last June.
"I am pretty sure Vancouver will think next time," said Francis, who forced a trade from the Grizzlies to the Houston Rockets last August. "But at the same time, I don't want to be considered a person that made a statement. I just want to be considered a person that exercised my rights in the NBA."
The first and lasting images of the high-flying guard on draft night at MCI Center were his pouting face and bitter disappointment. He was called an "ingrate," "immature" and a "problem child" for his reaction after Vancouver, a team he said beforehand he didn't want to play for, selected him. How could a 21-year-old guaranteed to receive nearly a $10 million contract balk just because he didn't get what he wanted?
"What he did wasn't novel," said former sports agent Len Elmore, an ESPN commentator and Maryland alumnus. "I don't see it becoming a widespread thing. It has happened in other sports, particularly football, where John Elway forced his way out of Baltimore. Guys see dollar signs [from endorsement contracts], and playing in a bigger market has an impact."
Francis refused to come to Vancouver before the draft but visited all of the other teams that were considering him. Somehow Vancouver did not get the message.
"I feel sorry for whomever Vancouver picks this year," said Francis, who grew up in Takoma Park. "I am going to call whoever it is. I have to get their telephone number."
While it may not have a far-reaching effect, Francis' maneuver altered the landscape between the NBA's have and have-nots. Cities with little commercial appeal, especially in Canada, and teams that are perennial losers struggle to lure top free agents. Now those teams must do extra homework to make sure draft picks won't throw a fit.
Vancouver remains a proverbial basketball wasteland, but Francis no longer is known simply for his draft-day scowl. His stellar play in 1999-2000 earned him co-rookie of the year honors with Chicago's Elton Brand, the top pick in the draft.
While his talents and emotional style of play at point guard have become appreciated around the NBA, Francis has been and always will be branded a villain in Canada. Upon his first trip to Vancouver with the Rockets, the hostile crowd pelted him with coins and fruit. The result was one of the best games of his young career and a Houston victory.
"Even in Toronto, everyone was against me," said Francis, who will travel to Japan with a team of NBA stars, including Shaquille O'Neal and Gary Payton, next month. "The first time I was in Vancouver, there was more media there than I had ever seen at a game. They all wanted me to act like a jerk. I don't know what they expected me to do."
Francis has no regrets for the way he handled events last summer.
"Winning, losing, happy or sad, I am going to let people know how I feel," he said. "I wouldn't be myself if I didn't. But as furious as I was at not being the top pick and as mad as I was by being drafted by Vancouver, I don't think it could have turned out better for me this year."
Francis has become a cornerstone of a Rockets team in transition. Charles Barkley retired last season, and injuries have slowed the aging Hakeem Olajuwon. However, Francis pointed out Vancouver fired coach Brian Hill and general manager Stu Jackson to illustrate why he was vehemently opposed to playing for such a bleak franchise.
He admitted he would have gone begrudgingly to Canada rather than playing overseas had a deal not been struck.
However, the Rockets have had turmoil of their own, with reports the team may leave Houston for St. Louis, New Orleans or another city unless a new arena is built. Francis said he will fulfill his three-year contract (the team has an option for a fourth year) and then decide whether he will stay. Either way, he should get a sizable raise from his three-year, $9.6 million contract.
For now, he is enjoying his status as one of the league's rising stars. With his charisma and the excitement he generates, Francis has begun to win over those who initially labeled him "selfish" and "greedy."
But not in Canada, which isn't likely to become a desired destination for other rising NBA stars any time soon.
"I always wanted to play in the NBA," said Francis, who is splitting time between Washington and Houston this summer. "I also wanted to play in the NBA in the United States. When a kid is growing up thinking about playing in the NBA, they are not thinking about playing in a foreign country."

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