I remember the exact moment when I realized NBA legends weren’t SHIT.
My man Sam Cassell took me out the night before my very first NBA game. We were playing the Bucks down in Houston and he knew I was about to take his ass to the cleaners. But Sam is from Baltimore, and I’m from D.C., so this dude was trying to Jedi mind-trick me into thinking he’s doing me a favor keeping me out until six in the morning, giving me all this brotherly advice. We weren’t even partying, man! That was all part of his scam. We were out at some club, drinking ice tea or whatever, and he’s telling me all about what I gotta do to survive in the NBA.
After a while, I’m like, “Bro, I think maybe I need to go.”
He hits me with the, “Nah, what you need to do is sit there and listen to me tell you how to deal with these groupies.”
This motherf****r has me hypnotized. Then around 5 a.m., the whole vibe changes. Now he’s telling me how he’s gonna whip my ass the next night. I’m like, Yo, wait a minute …
“I’m telling you, Steve. I’m gonna bust your sleepy ass. Rest up.”
We walk out of this club and the sun is up. I gotta be at the arena in like five hours. I’m not even drunk. I’m not nothing! I just got Sam’s bullshit ringing in my ears and I’m feeling like I’ve been up for three days.
Man, he came out that night and dropped 35 points on me. I was so tired in the first quarter I thought I was about to pass out. Remember now, I’m a punk rookie on a team with Charles Barkley and Hakeem the Dream Olajuwon. These dudes are in the huddle looking at me like I’m not shit. Rudy T is looking at me like, “We traded 15 motherf*****s to Vancouver for this?”
I went like 4 for 13, and we lost. I see Sam after the game, and he’s like, “Don’t forget, we friends off the court, but on the court.…”
I’m like, “You slick mothaf****a.”
Lesson learned, though. Now I know the game, right?
Couple of weeks later, we’re playing the Sonics. I idolized Gary Payton growing up. So we’re on the plane to Seattle, and Rudy T sat me next to Hakeem on purpose. He knew what he was doing. He wanted me to learn.
We’re about to take off, and I’m sitting there with my big headphones on, listening to Jay-Z.
Hakeem is sitting there reading the Quran. Not saying a word.
Then he gives me a look. You know how Dream is. He’ll just look at you — super wise, super calm. Every word that comes out of the man’s mouth is like it’s coming straight from God Almighty.
I’m like, “What’s up, Dream?”
Dream says, “Steve.”
I’m like, “Yeah, Dream?”
“Steve, you walk around dressed like a bus driver.”
“Come on, Dream.”
“What are these construction shoes you have on?”
“These are Timberlands, man. Come on.”
“Steve, let me help you. Come to my tailor with me, and we’ll get you 10 suits. Custom-made. Cashmere.”
“Come on, Dream.”
“Come with me, Steve. Come to my tailor.”
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
Cold as ice. Just like that. Dream was ahead of his time. NBA dudes are walking around now dressed like he used to dress. But I wasn’t trying to hear it. You gotta understand something about my story, and it’s really gonna seem impossible to anybody under the age of 20. Because pretty much all these NBA dudes now came up the same way. Prep school. AAU. Free shoes. Free meals. One-and-done. And that’s a good thing. Good for them, man.
Four years before I was on that plane with Hakeem telling me we’re going shopping for cashmere suits together — four years before I was about to go play against Gary Payton — I was on the corner of Maple Ave in Takoma Park, Maryland, selling drugs outside the Chinese joint.
My mother had passed away. My father was in a federal penitentiary. We had 18 people living in one apartment. I had dropped out of high school. No scholarships. No GED. No nothing.
This is ’95! I’m watching Allen Iverson killing it for Georgetown just up the road from me, and I’m standing on the corner all day building my little drug empire, just trying not to get robbed, and then at night I’m playing pickup ball in the basement of a firehouse.
Not a lot of people know my real story. Sometimes I even ask myself, “Man, how the hell did you make it onto that airplane with Dream?”
I’m gonna tell you. But first, I can’t forget about Gary Payton. Listen, man … I’ve been around an unbelievable amount of shit talkers in my life. I’ve been around some dudes better than GP. Way more creative, way more sinister. But this dude … this dude was like a volume shooter of shit talking. He would not shut the hell up from the minute we got on the court. And like I said, I idolized him. So there was no other option — I had to kill his ass.
And I killed his ass.
Sporting News/Getty Images
Look up the stats. I KILLED his ass.
He shot like 30%. And I know some little nerd is gonna be all up on my Twitter page like, “Nah, Steve, ACTUALLY I dug up the box score on Google and he ACTUALLY shot 39%.”
Come on, man, I ACTUALLY killed his ass.
I had 27 points on 20 shots, I know that for a fact. I think Seattle even beat us that night, but I had Gary so shook that he couldn’t believe it. You know what it was like? You know whenever Scooby-Doo and his crew finally catch the bad guy at the end of every show, and as the cops are taking his ass away in handcuffs he’s yelling out to the gang, talking shit?
GP was walking back to the locker room like, “Just wait, you punk rookie bitch! Wait ’til I come down to Houston! I’ll get you, Steve Francis! I’ll get you yet, you rookie bitch mothaf***aaaaaaaaa!”
I got on that plane back to Houston like, We made it, man.
We made it from the corner to this.
I’m not trying to glorify dealing drugs. Ain’t no glory in it. But you gotta understand where I come from, and when. I grew up in D.C. in the ’80s during the crack epidemic. Don’t ever call it the crack era. It was an epidemic. Crack devastated our entire community. It was like a plague, man. I watched it. I lived it. I sold it.
My very first memory in life is visiting my father in the federal pen on Cookout Day, and having a police officer take me and my mother into a little holding room. They strip-searched both of us. I was like three years old. Didn’t matter.
“Pull his pants down.”
That’s how people used to sneak drugs into the prisons. That’s how desperate it got. My pops was in there for 20 years for bank robbery — back when you still used to be able to rob banks. That old-school, ’80s-era, Heat, ski-mask-stick-up hustle. He was a known guy in D.C. So were my older brothers. That was just my reality. But I was small as hell, and when my mother and father split up, her message to my brothers was always, “Not Steve. Never Steve. He’s gotta be different.”
But the thing is, back then, D.C. was a 65-square-mile box of drugs, girls, guns, fights and people just trying to make it out any way possible. My mother was a nurse. My stepfather was a garbage collector. We had 18 people living in a three-bedroom apartment, and food stamps weren’t cutting it. So when I was a little kid, I was out on the corners with my friends, trying to hang with all the older guys, trying to make some pocket money so I could buy some Now and Laters or something.
When I was 10 years old, I got my first job as a phone boy.
Y’all know what a phone boy is?
It was easy. I’d wait outside the Chinese spot and sit on the curb by the pay phone, looking all innocent, and whenever the phone would ring, I’d answer. It was always people looking for drugs, looking for girls, looking for whatever. I’d tell them where to meet the dealers, and that was it. All day, all night. It would be 50 drugs dealers standing outside on one corner, and 50 drug dealers standing on another corner. And then Lil Steve, posted up by the pay phone.
Steve Francis (2)
There wasn’t anything to do, so to pass the time I used to shoot a basketball into the top of the phone booth. We ripped off the roof, and there was just enough room for a ball to squeeze through, but it was a square, so you had to swish it perfect with a real high arc, and even if you did, it used to rattle in against the sides of the booth.
I’d be out there all night … crossover, crossover, step-back jumper, dddddddrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-rat-tat-tat-tat.
I shot a million jumpers on that phone booth. A lot of days, I was ducking the buses, ducking my teachers, and definitely, definitely ducking my older brothers and my momma. I was hiding everything from them, but I was still doing good in school (when I showed up). So I was just “Little Steve With the Basketball” to almost everybody in the neighborhood. And I was little. I’d ask my grandmother to measure me with a pencil every single day. We’d mark it on the wall, and I just wasn’t getting taller. I’m 12, 13 … still not growing.
I show up to basketball tryouts on the first day of high school, thinking I’m the man, and they cut my ass. They wanted me to play JV because I was so short. That crushed me. I walked off the court and I never played high school ball again, except for two games.
Two games, in my entire high school career. Can you believe that? I played a little bit for an AAU team, and I played pickup, and that was it. I guess I probably should’ve just kept my head down and worked hard, but you gotta understand how complicated everything is when you’re growing up in poverty. We were constantly moving. I went to six different high schools. I had no stability. I felt like I was growing up inside a popcorn machine.
It’s funny, I remember telling people, “I’m going to marry Janet Jackson one day.” Janet Jackson was the flyest girl in the world to me. But I’m 15 years old, on food stamps, small as hell, growing up around crack addicts, and I can’t even play high school ball. How am I gonna get out of here and see what’s up with Janet?
So I stayed on the corner, doing what I had to do to survive. It was messed up. I’m not glorifying it. 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.
When I was 18, my mother died of cancer, and it was a wrap for me. I was done. Any hope I had … forget it. I quit playing basketball completely. Quit my AAU team. Quit playing at the park. I dropped out of school, and my drug dealing went to a whole other level. In my mind, I was gonna build my little empire, until I got shot or I got jammed up, and that was it.
I mean, I’m not on any college’s radar. My mother’s gone. So what’s the point of anything?
The only thing that saved me was something my AAU coach, Tony Langley, said to me. He was a retired cop, and he had that retired-cop wisdom. He used to say, “I’m telling you how it’s gonna go, Steve. Ten years from now, you’re gonna see the same guys, on these same corners, doing the same shit. And they’re gonna be wearing the newest Filas, or the newest Jordans, looking fresh. But you’re gonna look at them, and they’re gonna be another year older, and then another year older, still doing the same shit, still getting robbed, every single day. You can do something different.”
That rang in my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had one way out, but it wasn’t exactly Duke, let’s put it that way. It was San Jacinto College … in Texas. One of their coaches had seen me play at some AAU tournament, and they said they had a roster spot for me. I mean, junior college? And what do I know about Texas?
San Jacinto Junior College
But my grandma convinced me that it’s what my mother wanted for me, and I just gave in. I got my GED, and my grandma gave me $400 and a plane ticket to Houston. The San Jacinto coaches picked me up at the same airport where the coaches from Houston had picked up Dream when he came over from Nigeria. And honestly, I was probably just as shell-shocked as he was. It was 30,000 white people and your boy Steve. Total culture shock. But I finally had some stability. I had a bed. I had a roster spot. And with that in the bag, I’m telling you, I went out there and killed it.
Ask Shawn Marion. Go ahead and ask him. He was playing for Vincennes University at the time, and he was a juco All-American. He was supposed to be the guy. And we went up there to Indiana and I murdered him. I got a quadruple double on his ass. I remember when we both got to the NBA, we were laughing about it during some shootaround, and he told me that he’s actually got the VHS tape of the game somewhere at his house. The tape exists. For 20 years I’ve been asking Shawn where the hell that tape is, and he’s been ducking me.
SHAWN, WHERE’S THE TAPE?!
SHOW THE WORLD THE TAPE, SHAWN.
I was just destroying people. But still, it was community college. My dream at that point — and this is going to sound funny to some people — but my dream was to be on a real college campus with my backpack on, walking to class. I would picture myself at Georgetown or Maryland, just on campus, chilling, walking to class. It was that simple. That was what I dreamed about.
A year later, I had Gary Williams and John Thompson calling about me. Oklahoma and Clemson were coming hard after me, too, but I’d grown up watching Len Bias and Patrick Ewing. For me, it was either Maryland or Georgetown, period.
And it was almost Georgetown. 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.
I was a Terp.
Collegiate Images/Getty Images
Look, you can say whatever you want about me. I’ve done plenty of shit in my life. I’m not perfect. But on the first day of class at Maryland … on that day? On the day I had my books, and my book bag, and people were yelling out to me from across the campus, “Yo, Steve Francis! What’s up, man?”
On that day? You couldn’t tell me anything. Top of the world, man. My mother would have cried her eyes out seeing that.
My stepfather actually got a job on campus as the guy working the ticket booth inside the Metro Center Park & Ride. One day I’m coming back from practice, and I go over to see him, and some frat-boy dudes are walking out like, “Yo! Steve Francis! Dude, your dad is the man!”
I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
“Yeah, dude. He let us in for free. He’s so cool. He’s saying he’s your dad.”
I walk into the Park & Ride, and my stepdad’s got a whole tailgate thing going. He’s holding court in there. He’s got his little TV inside the booth, he’s got his potato chips, and all these people are standing around drinking beers, talking basketball with him. Man, he’s even got my little sister in there chilling with him, and her toy poodle, Precious. It was a whole scene. He sees me walking up with my Terps hoodie on, and I’ve never seen somebody so proud. He says to everybody, “That’s my son. That’s my boy. University of Maryland. Shit.”
He came to see me play in every home game. And if we were on the road and he was working? He’d be watching on the TV in his booth. It’s funny because my biological father, he used to rob the Metro stations before he got locked up. And my stepfather, he worked in one. But he was an honest hustler. He became my real father. He was my best friend. He was the loudest guy in the gym.
You couldn’t hold me down at that point. I took off. At the end of that season, I was a Naismith finalist, and everybody was saying I was going top five in the NBA draft.
Just think about this.…
At 18, I’m selling baggies on the corner in Takoma Park, getting robbed at gunpoint.
At 22, I’m getting drafted into the National Basketball Association, shaking David Stern’s hand.
Guess where the draft was held that year? Washington, D.C.
How the hell do you explain that?
I remember this one moment, after the draft, I was sitting at the kitchen table at my stepdad’s house, looking at $80,000 in cash. Just sitting there. For playing ball. It didn’t make sense. My little sister was 10 years old. The first thing I did was buy her a computer, one of those big Compaq Presario joints, and all I heard that whole summer was Britney Spears blasting out of that motherf****r day and night. The second thing I did was buy my grandmother a house. About a week or so later, I started getting all these random phone calls from creditors. They’re telling me I owe them money.
So I asked my brothers, “What the hell are all these calls about?”
They said, “Well, you know, back in the day, when we didn’t have any money, mom used to sign for stuff in our names. That’s the only way we could get credit.”
Man, I’m telling you, I had these people calling me up like, “Steven D. Francis. Well, well, well. We finally know who the f*** you are, buddy.”
America, man. They’re never gonna forget. They’ll find you. I was paying off credit card bills from when I was eight years old. That’s how far I came from.
Now, I know people in Vancouver are still pissed off at me for forcing a trade out of there. I damn near cried when I got taken by the Grizzlies at No. 2. I was not about to go up to freezing-ass Canada, so far away from my family, when they were about to move the franchise anyway. I’m sorry but … actually, I’m really not even sorry. Everybody sees the business of basketball now. That team was gone. The only thing I’m sorry about is that I went up there and gave probably the rudest press conference in NBA history before they traded me.
A.I.’s whole “Practice?!” thing had nothing on what I did up there.
Come on, man. Canada? Me? Up there? It just wouldn’t have worked. Houston was the perfect spot for me. People probably won’t believe this, but Hakeem was one of the biggest influences on my game when I was a kid. I used to watch his footwork, and I’d imitate him. My crossover? That’s not MJ. That’s not Iverson. That’s Hakeem. Look at my footwork and you’ll see Dream.
And it was funny as hell, because when I got to the Rockets, Dream wasn’t having it.
“Your dribbling ….”
“What about it, Dream?”
“You’re dribbling too much, Steve.”
“Dream, come …”
The Voice of God. The fact that I played with him for two years is still crazy to me. I’m sitting next to him on the plane, and I’ve got my big headphones on, Jay-Z blasting.
“Your music. What is this noise?”
“Come on, Dream.”
“Turn it off, Steve. I am trying to concentrate on the word of God.”
“Dream. Shit. Alright.”
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
What are you supposed to say to that? I probably should’ve listened to him more, but I was a punk. I was on top of the world. After the 2000 Dunk Contest, and after Hakeem and Charles left, I felt like Houston really embraced me. I still live in Houston to this day, and I can walk around this city and no matter what, people got my back. Even when I was going through some dark times the past few years, and I got locked up, everybody in Houston still had my back. How many guys who only played in a city for five years, and only made the playoffs once, get that much love?
I think it’s because of the energy in the city when me and Yao were together. That was my guy. When he came to Houston, we were some Odd Couple motherf*****s, man. A dude from China and a dude from D.C., and it wasn’t even the language that was the problem. That was just a part of it. I’m partially deaf in my left ear, and Yao is partially deaf in his right ear, and we’re trying to speak to one another in basic English.
He’s turning his head, Huh?
I’m turning my head, What? Huh?
It was ridiculous. But that was my man. He was the kindest, most respectful, smartest teammate I ever had. This dude had to do 15 interviews before shootaround, and then 15 interviews after shootaround. Cameras following him everywhere he went on the road … it was crazy. And he would ask us, “Are you guys O.K. with the cameras? Does it bother you?”
That’s the kind of person he was. He was my favorite teammate ever, hands down. He was such a good player, too. I still think about what could have been if Yao hadn’t rushed back from his injuries too soon, and if they’d have just kept us together. It still haunts me. We’d have gone on some runs. Everybody in Houston knows it.
But what did they do? They traded my ass to Orlando for Tracy McGrady.
That crushed me. It’s not even worth talking about those Magic years, and it’s definitely not worth talking about those Knicks years. That part of the story is like the end of Goodfellas, when everybody’s getting jammed up and ratting on each other and they’re driving around looking up in the sky for police helicopters. It was a mess, man. 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.
When I went back to Houston in 2007, I was so happy to be home. But honestly, that’s when everything really started to go downhill. Man, Rick Adelman … look, I swear I was working my ass off in practice. Ask Yao. He’ll tell you. But Adelman was playing Luther Head and Aaron Brooks and Rafer Alston over me. No disrespect to those guys, but come on, man. I was getting DNPs, and I’d be sitting on the bench, and the crowd would still be chanting my name. I’d come home at night and sit out on my porch for hours, just in complete silence. No drinking. No music. No nothing. I’d sit out there until one o’clock in the morning, just thinking.
I went from selling drugs on the corners in D.C. to the NBA in four years … and now it’s over? It’s a wrap? At 32? I knew it was the end, and that’s some really, really hard shit to swallow. I don’t care who you are.
I went to play in Beijing for a minute, and then I tried getting back into the NBA for a while, but … nothing. It took me damn near four years to really accept that I wasn’t gonna play ball anymore. That it was really over.
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune
I had some dark days, no question. And I know people were asking, “What the hell happened to Steve Francis?” But the hardest part was reading some bullshit 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.
I just let go.
From the time my mother passed away when I was 18, to the time I left the NBA, I never let my guard down. Not one single minute. I was like a soldier at war. I never exhaled. When the end came, it was almost like I was signing off, like, Well … that was a good run.
Look, you can think whatever the hell you want to think about Steve Francis. You can think that, when I was in my prime, I was the most electric player to ever do it. Or you can think I wasn’t shit. It really doesn’t matter to me. But I was thinking about something the other day … about where I’m from, and how damn crazy it is that I ever played one minute in the NBA … and this is the only thing I want people to remember.
Takoma Park, Maryland, 1997.
I had come back home from San Jacinto for a couple days. To be honest, I was homesick as hell down there in Texas. I was crying every day, telling the coaches I wanted to quit and go home. Back to my family, back to the block, back to selling drugs, back to the same bullshit, every day, forever. It’s what I knew.
So I go home on a break, and everybody’s like, “Oh, you think you’re the man now? Alright, college boy. We’ll see how good you are.”
They put me up against Greg Jones, the No. 1 guy in D.C. at the time. It was a dope-boy game. That means 50 guys on one side of the court with AK-47s, and 50 guys on the the other side of the court with AK-47s.
They had $10,000 on the game. One-on-one. Best of three.
You can’t say no.
We played the first game, and I killed his ass.
The second game starts, and I could’ve killed his ass again. For a minute, I was thinking about it. I could’ve been the man in D.C. I could’ve been a street legend. I could’ve beat him, and made some money, and stayed on the block, where I felt comfortable.
I could’ve stayed in the box.
But I wanted more. I wanted something different. I wanted to marry Janet Jackson. So I let him win the second game. And then I took the ball and I threw it over the backboard and walked off the court. I got on a plane back to my community college in Texas, and I killed Shawn Marion’s ass instead.
From the corner to the NBA in four f*****g years.
I gotta admit, though … I never got at Janet. Ain’t that a shame? But you know what? Four years after that dope-boy game, I was on the cover of ESPN The Magazine with the next best thing.
Little Steve With the Basketball smiling right next to Destiny’s Child.
You couldn’t write a story that crazy.