- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What happened to Steve Francis? It depends on who you ask.

Francis‘ publicist will be the first to tell you about his charity, The Steve Francis Foundation. She’ll direct you to his website and offer to send you details on his upcoming basketball camp, the foundation’s scholarship program and the constant presence Francis has in the community.

Talk to his business manager, and he’ll tell you that at 34, Francis is a businessman. He’ll talk about their roots in Takoma Park, their work promoting boxing matches and Francis‘ longtime passion for music that led him to create a record label.

Ask his family, and they’ll tell you about moving to China after Francis signed a contract with the Beijing Ducks last December. They’ll explain the disappointment and excitement that came with his decision to leave after only two weeks, and how he is now trying to return to the NBA.

Francis will say that he is all of those things, and more. Deep down, he’s still the scrawny kid walking up to the Takoma Park Boys and Girls Club that he was nearly three decades ago. He’s still the 5-year-old who wanted to be the next Randall Cunningham or Tony Dorsett but was convinced to give basketball a try.

Memorabilia belonging to former NBA basketball player Steve Francis, July 28, 2011 in Houston at his home. (Eric Kayne/Special to The Washington Times)
Memorabilia belonging to former NBA basketball player Steve Francis, July 28, 2011 ... more >

“I didn’t have any tennis shoes at the time, so I’m just out there on the basketball court messing around,” Francis said from Houston, “and guys are laughing because I don’t have shoes.”

He was introduced to Anthony Langley, a basketball coach and mentor at the club who still helps out there. Langley saw that Francis‘ heavy shoes were weighing him down and drove him to a nearby Foot Locker after practice to pick up a pair of basketball shoes.

“I saw that he was obviously very intelligent, very competitive, wanted to win everything that he attempted,” Langley said. “Of course, nobody could’ve foreseen that he would be an NBA player.”

Francis disagreed. He became a regular at the basement basketball court of an old stone firehouse off Philadelphia Avenue, playing pickup games day and night. It was on that hardwood floor nestled in a little wooden gym that Francis developed what he calls his “D.C. mentality,” an aggressiveness and determination that vaulted him to nine seasons in the NBA.

“Even though I wasn’t the tallest guy,” he said, “I always thought I could be an NBA basketball player.”

Above all else, he’s still Steve from the neighborhood.

A Chinese rock star

It was mid-December in Beijing, and Shougang Gymnasium was filled to capacity. Sore and weary-eyed from his flight eight hours earlier, Francis sat on the bench with untied shoelaces and a bag of ice taped to his ankle. Beijing Ducks coach Min Lulei said that he would rest his new star for at least two days. With 17 seconds left, the 6,000 people in the stands changed his mind.

“The fans started chanting my name, throwing fruit, throwing sodas,” Francis said. “The coach came up to me and said, ‘I got to put you in.’ “

With his shoelaces still untied and the bag of ice still wrapped around his ankle, Francis was given a standing ovation as he dribbled out the final seconds. It was a bizarre beginning to the former NBA veteran’s brief stint with the Ducks. Francis was treated like a rock star after his time in Houston playing alongside Yao Ming, but according to Chinese news outlet TOM Sports, he pocketed $800,000 and played less than 14 minutes before returning to the U.S.

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