This Terrapin has hard shell College basketball: A man of many moves past adversity, Steve Francis comes to a jump stop at College Park before making his NBA shot.

October 14, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- There's about a foot of forgiveness on the basketball court at Piney Branch Elementary. Take the ball to the hole, get a taste of the wall just beyond the baseline.

It's one of the gyms in Takoma Park where Steve Francis tagged along with his older brothers. They were in their early teens themselves, out to challenge the older guys, and little Steve was sent a message that he didn't belong.

"Steve used to get run into that wall every day," Terry Francis said of his younger brother. "At first, he used to cry and leave the gym mad. He thought everyone was out to get him."

Steve Francis kept smacking into walls -- walls of injury, bureaucracy, family loss and his own academic indifference. They blocked the view in his hoop dream, but he kept getting up and climbing over them, to the delight of everyone attached to the basketball team at the University of Maryland.

This is his sixth campus in as many autumns, and if Francis is as good as the hype that has accompanied him, next season could find him in the NBA. He's a do-it-all junior guard whose athleticism and instincts have played everywhere except ESPN. To appreciate how far Francis could take himself and the Terps, you have to understand where he's been.

"You talk about a guy who went to the school of hard knocks," said Dale Lamberth, his coach at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, "there were times when I thought the case was closed on Steve. You've heard the stories, 'I could have gone this place, I could have gone there,' but the guy is still at the rec center.

"There were times when I thought he was just going to be a superstar in the ghetto."

Shaky start

College practice begins this week, and expectations are spiraling at Maryland, where coach Gary Williams has an intriguing blend of seniors, sophomores and first-year players. Their high school resumes range from Parade All-American for Terence Morris to project for Obinna Ekezie to puny for Francis.

He was the first player to help two unbeaten programs into the junior college national tournament, but Francis was a nobody in high school.

He took school lightly as a freshman, and was ineligible to play basketball. As a sophomore, he made the Blair varsity, and got one start. Francis transferred to John F. Kennedy High for his junior year, which was derailed by a broken left ankle. He moved back to Blair for his senior year, but the transfer rules in Montgomery County prohibited him from playing.

The absence of high school basketball seemed trivial in March 1995, when his mother, Brenda Wilson, died of cancer after a rapid decline.

"There wasn't much any of us could do or say," Terry Francis said. "I was in shock myself. Steve was devastated. A lot of the guys he played with growing up were having good senior years, but he couldn't escape into the game. He basically stopped going to school."

Francis buried himself in his video games and the family's apartment. He eventually got his equivalency certificate, but the next academic year was cut short, too, as financial problems limited him to one semester at Milford Academy, a prep school in Connecticut.

He was steered there by Anthony Langley, a police sergeant in Washington who's also the president of the Takoma Park Boys and Girls Club. Here's everything you need to know about Langley: Before Francis' senior year, Langley sent him not to one of the all-star camps that serve as recruiting meat markets, but to a teaching camp, Five Star.

Small kid, big game

Maryland could have the makings of a point guard controversy, since senior Terrell Stokes struggled early last season and that's where Francis played the past two seasons. He stresses, however, that his game isn't limited to running an offense.

"Tony Langley taught me how to play all five positions when I was 9 years old," Francis said. "He taught me everything I know on the court, my work ethic."

Langley didn't exactly get an empty vessel.

"Steve Francis always wanted to be the best, at whatever he did," Langley said. "He still holds the Takoma Park Boys and Girls Club record for raffle tickets sold in one day. He sold more than 400 tickets, a dollar a pop. Steve was never the best player on our teams, but what made him stand out was his intelligence."

The Takoma Park Rams once overcame a last-minute deficit when Francis defended the inbounds pass, asked a gullible opponent to "check" the ball and converted the gift turnover. In a summer league game in 1994, Blair's winning basket came when Francis inbounded to a teammate who had hidden behind an official.

If Francis had smarts and spirit, he didn't have size. He's 6 feet 3 and 194 pounds now, but his ability to go to the basket was developed when he was 5-3 -- and 4-3.

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