A Letter to Young Black Men

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

Back in 2016, I was depressed. 

Let me say that again, loud and clear. I was depressed

I know that might sound crazy coming from a guy like me. I mean, I’m the Franchise. I’m the City. My life is a miracle, man. What do I got to stress about? I made it out the hood. I made millions of dollars in the league. Back in the day, we popped more bottles than Big Meech and them!!! If you came through Houston, you were guaranteed to have a good time. Especially once Hakeem retired, the shackles were off. Dream wasn’t around to talk sense into me anymore, and I had to carry the torch for the city. 

Man, we used to drop $20,000 in the club just for show. Passing out bottles of Veuve Clicquot like Santa Claus. I’m just being real. I never even saw a bill at the end of the night. I wouldn't even know how much we spent ’til my accountant hit me up about the black card statement at the end of the month. Smoke coming out his ears. “Steve!!!!!!!!!! Come on, man!!!!!!!”

All you saw was zeroes. Commas. Whole bunch of commas. 

Nobody did it like the Houston Rockets. Nobody did it bigger than Steve Francis. And I’d do it all again. 

A lot of guys can make it to the league. 

A lot of guys can be All-Stars. 

A lot of guys can get money. 

But how many guys can be City? 

So that’s who’s talking to you right now, just to be clear. Not some therapist. Not your teacher. Not some dude who grew up in the suburbs. 

This is City talking to you. So you know what I’m saying is real

About six years ago, I started struggling with my mental health. At the time, I was dealing with so much stress and anxiety that all I wanted to do was just drink to shut my brain off. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to think. I just wanted to sit back with the Juice and Goose, in my own world. 

I just wanted to be numb. That’s the best way I can describe it. Pretty soon, I was drinking like every day. My career was over, and I didn’t know what was coming next, and I was just lost, man.

Steve Francis | NBA | Letter to Young Black Men | The Players' Tribune
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

Some of you are probably shaking your head right now. And I get it. I get it!!! When I was growing up, you didn’t talk about your emotions. Come on, man. In the hood, that was like snitching. You just don’t do it. You keep it to yourself and you keep it moving. But that’s why I’m sharing my story. Because I know how many kids out there are growing up just like I did, and they don’t have anybody to talk to about this stuff. 

Listen, when I was growing up in D.C. in the ’80s, I saw things that would blow the average person’s mind. My very first memory is getting strip-searched by the guards at Lorton penitentiary, where my father was locked up. They would literally check all the kids to see if they were being used to smuggle in contraband. I was like three or four years old. 

“Pull down his pants.” 

Yeah, for real. Imagine that being your first memory. 

When you grow up in that environment, it marks you. D.C. at that time, during the crack epidemic? It was like a war zone. You couldn’t even let your guard down and feel safe in your house. I remember one day — I remember it like it was yesterday, actually — I was in our apartment with my grandma after school, and all of a sudden this dude was banging on our door. Bap-bap-bap-bap!!

My grandmother opens the door, but she won’t let the dude in. So he shoves open the door and comes running into the apartment. My stepfather and this dude had some business to settle, apparently, because they got into a melee right in the hallway. One second I’m watching cartoons, the next second it’s just chaos. And that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was when the police showed up. They run into the building and start shouting, and asking what happened, and then they start beating the hell out of my stepfather and the dude right in front of my whole family. They cuff them both right in front of us and take them off to jail. I’m like 11 years old, watching this happen in my own home, just shocked. 

And then it’s almost like, as the years go by, seeing violence and despair becomes normal to you. Sometimes I think PTSD is the curse of the projects. You learn to just bury all your emotions. You keep it moving. You might laugh about something with your friends, like it’s all a joke, but deep down you’re scared as hell. So you just look for an escape. 

I know how many kids out there are growing up just like I did, and they don’t have anybody to talk to about this stuff.

Steve Francis

Some guys do it with beer. Some guys do it with drugs. For me, it was always basketball. You could catch me outside the deli at any hour of the day with a ball in my hand. Sitting in the parking lot, doing this and that for the drug dealers to make a little money, just dribbling. I used to be a phone boy. You know what that is? That’s the hood operator. I’d answer the pay phone for the drug dealers. 

“Yo, you got this and that?” 

“Yeah, come to the spot in 20 minutes.” 

Every day after school, that was my job. Innocent, skinny-ass little Steve. The perfect cover. You’d see 15 drug dealers standing over on one side of the parking lot — 15 drug dealers standing on the other side of the lot. And then in the middle of all of them you’d see me with my basketball, shooting jumpers into the hole in the top of the phone booth. 

Basketball was my escape. All around me, it could be chaos. But when I had the ball in my hands, I was in my own world. For 22 years,  hooping was my self-medication. That was my ticket out of Maple Avenue. Out of poverty. Out of being in survival mode 24/7. So when I finally made it to the league? When I became a millionaire at 22? Psssssshhhhh. It was like I could finally breathe. I could finally relax and enjoy life. So that’s why I went so hard in the club and enjoyed every moment. That’s why you’d always see me smiling. I was a walking miracle, man. I was bringing everybody with me. It’s all on me. Put it on the black card and let the accountant worry about it!! We the bottle boys!!!

Steve Francis | NBA | Letter to Young Black Men | The Players' Tribune
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

But looking back on it, I was definitely ignoring a lot of pain. Once you get on the NBA roller coaster, there’s no brakes. I never processed a lot of the trauma that I’d experienced when I was growing up. The darkest day of my life was when I buried my mother at 18 years old, right before I went off to junior college. Cancer. She was my best friend in the whole world. When I say her name to this day — I get a little bit emotional, because that scar is still so raw. But at the time, it’s like I didn’t even get to grieve for a minute. It was like just, “Yo, I gotta be the man of the house. I gotta get my GED. I gotta go play JUCO. I gotta handle my business. I gotta get us outta here.” 

I gotta be the man of the house, I gotta be the man of the house, I gotta be the man….

How many times do we say that, every day?

I couldn’t talk to anybody about how bad I was hurting when my mom passed — not even my boys. So I just buried it. And then 10 years later, once my career was winding down, it was like the floodgates opened. I tell people all the time: I experienced four deaths almost simultaneously. In the span of about a year, my NBA career ended, my marriage ended, and my stepfather committed suicide. 

And that’s when my mother’s death fully hit me, all those years later. 

10 years later, once my career was winding down, it was like the floodgates opened.

Steve Francis

I don’t know what depression feels like for every person out there. But for me, it just felt like a spiral of negativity. 

It’s a dark place, man. 

What did DMX say? 

It’s dark and hell is hot. 

You just want to numb the pain. So yeah, I was drinking heavy at that time, trying to erase all those memories. You’ve probably seen the pictures of me in the club. The Internet was on my ass, man. They were Photoshoppin’ your boy. The only thing that really hurt me was the people saying that I was on crack. My children had to see that. I mean, come on, man.  I was going through a lot at the time, and a lot of people in our community have been destroyed by drugs, and I didn’t think those comments were right. Yes, I was drunk off my ass in some of those pictures, for sure. But I wasn’t on drugs. I just want to say that, for the record, and for my children. 

It was one simple conversation that really put me on the path to getting some help. I was talking to my friend Chamique Holdsclaw one day, and for whatever reason I was able to open up to her, because I knew she’d understand me. 

At that point, I just said to myself, “Yo, you know what? I’m so tired, man. I can’t keep doing this.” 

And you know what? Getting help was really easy. It’s not some big thing. I literally just looked up a number on Google, and I started talking to a counselor. It was that simple. 

If you would’ve told me at 17 years old when I was out on the corner that I’d be talking about my mental health, I would’ve laughed at you. But it was the best move I’ve ever made. Just being able to talk with someone about all the things I’ve been through instead of self-medicating and trying to bury everything … it changed my life. 

Steve Francis | NBA | Letter to Young Black Men | The Players' Tribune
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

Look, I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not a saint, man. I’m not trying to preach to you. But I’m really proud to say that I haven’t had a drink in about two years, and I’m doing really good. I feel like I have a purpose again. And a big part of that purpose is just to tell my story. And look, to this day, it’s something that feels a little bit weird to talk about. (That little voice is saying, Yo, stop snitching, Steve!!! These people don’t care about your problems, man!!!) We’re hardwired to think that way, you know what I mean? 

But I feel like there’s a lot of kids out there who need to hear this message from somebody like me. 

The truth is, I've dealt with depression. I’ve dealt with anxiety. I’ve tried to solve my problems with the bottle. But thank God, I reached out and got some help. Thank God, I’m straight. Thank God, I’m here for the most important job I got in this world, and that’s to be a dad for my children. (And these lucky-ass kids are neighbors with Roger Clemens and Chris Paul, so I must be doing something right man, damn!!) 

Listen — I popped 10,000 bottles and lived enough for 10 lifetimes. I’m a different man today than I was a few years ago. I’ve found my peace. But at the end of the day.…

I’m still the same Steve Francis. 

I’m still funny as hell. 

I’ll still mess up a black card every now and then. 

I’m still the City. 

I’m just man enough to know when to ask for help. 

If I can do it, then you can, too.