- 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.

“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.

His reason for leaving?

“Just watching them play and then not playing like 40 minutes a game. No disrespect to the players in Beijing, but I was just looking at the game like, ‘If y’all want to win, why not put me in?’ “

After an All-America campaign in his only season at Maryland, Francis was chosen with the second pick in the 1999 NBA draft. He averaged 18.1 points and 6.0 assists a game over the course of his nine-year career, appearing in three All-Star Games, two Slam Dunk contests and sharing Rookie of the Year honors with Elton Brand in 2000.

“The Franchise” played for eight different coaches, traveling from Houston to Orlando to New York to Portland and from there to the waiver wire. He wound up back in Houston, where he made only 10 appearances before season-ending knee surgery in 2008.

“I had tendinitis my whole career,” he explained. “Jumping and dunking like I dunked for 10-12 years at my height … it’s eventually going to take a toll on you, and I knew that.”

Between contracts and buyouts, Francis earned $103.5 million during his time in the league. Even when he was sidelined in 2008, Sports Illustrated pegged him as the 22nd highest-earning athlete in the United States. Without playing a single minute, he made $20.3 million — more than Carmelo Anthony (No. 25), Tom Brady (No. 28) and Albert Pujols (No. 34).

Francis was arrested for public drunkenness at Los Angeles International Airport last October. Then on July 23, TMZ.com reported that he has been accused of sexually harassing one of the artists signed to his record label. The singer, 20-year-old Shauna Simien, alleged that the two were discussing details of her contract when Francis “groped” her between her legs. Simien said that she filed a police report in May 2010 but that no charges have been filed, according to the report.

“It is what it is. You know, I can’t really do too much about it,” Francis told TMZ.com last week. “I’m with my wife so, if she don’t believe it, whatever anybody else said is he said, she said.”

From basketball to the boardroom

“Lifeguarding,” Francis tweeted in July along with a picture of his children, Brooklyn, 5, and Doppie, 3, swimming in a backyard pool. Playing time was only part of the reason he decided to leave China; having to raise two kids in a foreign country was another.

“Of course, my daughter, I love her the most,” he said, “but my son, I look at him like me.”

Francis grew up in a low-income household with his mother, Brenda Wilson, and three siblings. His biological father left the family when Francis was just 6. Then at 18, his mother lost a bout with cancer, forcing Steve and his 5-year-old sister to move in with their grandmother. He dropped out of high school, stopped playing basketball and, as Langley put it, “lost his way.”

“I was in a daze, man, forever,” Francis said. “I don’t even know if I still ever woke up from it. Experiencing that … it was hard.”

Today, Francis spends his time juggling a number of business opportunities, but his foundation is at the top of the list. Founded in 1999, it funds a number of community outreach programs and fundraisers in Washington and Houston. Its cornerstone is the Brenda Wilson Scholarship, which has distributed more than $350,000 in college scholarships in the past eight years.

“You know, sometimes you hear from some of these people who go on to be successful, and they kind of forget where they came from; that was never Steve’s philosophy,” Langley said. “He has always come back home to Takoma Park, and he has always been supportive of the community.”

Langley oversees another aspect of Francis‘ foundation: an AAU basketball team based in Takoma Park called the DC Warriors. He remembers watching a 14-year-old Francis sell hundreds of dollars worth of raffle tickets to be able to afford team jerseys. Now, Langley and the next generation of Takoma Park basketball players have nothing to worry about. Francis continues to fund the DC Warriors, providing free camps for kids and supplying them with basketball shoes, travel bags and a 12-passenger van to travel to tournaments.

“I didn’t ask for him to do it; he had one of his friends show up with the van and park it in front of my house,” Langley said. “Of course, that’s the kind of person he’s always been. Very honest, very loyal, never forgetting his roots.”

Francis also centers his business ventures in the D.C. area he still calls home. He always has been a fan of hip-hop and decided to seriously pursue that passion in 2000 by starting a record label, now called Mazerati Music. He took a more active role in the label after his basketball career began to slow down and now dedicates much of his time to promoting Washington hip-hop.

“Even though he’s based in Houston, Steve’s whole thing is really to break some major artists in D.C.,” Francis‘ business manager Nate Peake said. “His home base will always be Washington, D.C., and he’ll never forget that. He’s never gotten away from that.”

Peake also grew up in Takoma Park and has watched Francis transition from player to businessman. Together, they run Peake Management Group, a sports management firm that primarily promotes boxing. Francis became involved with the company as a player and helped promote the Mike Tyson-Kevin McBride fight at Verizon Center in 2005.

“He listens, [and] he really does his research on things before he gets into it,” Peake said. “He’s a true professional.”

Francis also is a principal owner or investor in a construction company, a catering service, a clothing-line producer and a lawn-mowing service. He plans on opening a restaurant with fellow Maryland star Walt Williams in College Park. Between phone calls and meetings, he still has to find time to spend with his wife, Shelby, and their kids.

When ranking business, basketball and family, his priorities are simple: family, family, family.

“Yeah, my wife doesn’t like it all the time,” he said of his schedule. “She said as long as a roof is over our heads, she’s cool.”

“That D.C. mentality”

Francis said he would welcome returning to the NBA. He’s playing three days a week at his personal court in Houston while frequently jogging and biking to build up cardio. He hopes to resume pickup games in September.

“I think I’m doing good now because unfortunately it’s a lockout, and I have time to not rush myself to be at the top level like I did before I went to China,” Francis said. “I have time over the summer to really improve myself and try to set up a workout with a team.”

In his chase for the spotlight, he’s traded dunks for record deals; his appearance in China only reinforces this mentality. But whether 1,400 miles away in Houston or 12,000 miles away in Beijing, Francis hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

“I learned how to be a man before I even got to the NBA by growing up in Washington,” he said. “Seeing my family struggles here and my friends’ families struggle and seeing all the violence and stuff that was going on, that really helped me play so aggressively. It’s having that D.C. mentality, like I can’t be stopped.”

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

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