If Francis is on 1-year plan, he, fans should enjoy it now

January 31, 1999

Steve Francis declined to speak to the media Wednesday night after Maryland's 107-87 victory over Florida State. Not exactly a surprise, considering it was his first public appearance since ESPN reported he would go pro. But not exactly the reaction of a kid having the time of his life, either.

Francis should be doing just that as a college junior, but his world is not as simple as your average student's at College Park. It would be a shame if he didn't fully enjoy what likely will be his only season at Maryland. It would be a bigger shame if Terps fans didn't fully enjoy him.

This is it, folks, right here, right now, a 19-2 team with a player as electrifying as any who has ever worn a Maryland uniform. Francis' frustration with the media probably is just that, and not a sign of greater discontent. At the same time, it would be understandable if No. 23 is growing world-weary after only 21 college games.

Francis is the most marked man in the country, a player every defender wants to shut down. He's almost certainly tired from his first season of ACC play, mentally if not physically. And he's playing shooting guard for the good of the team, even though his NBA future is at the point.

Most exasperating of all, he had to deny he was turning pro just minutes after one of Maryland's most dramatic victories of the season, an 81-79 overtime triumph over Clemson last Sunday. In effect, Francis was betrayed by the network that created him with Dick Vitale hype and "SportsCenter" highlights.

ESPN declined to issue a retraction, knowing it probably will be proved right in the end. In truth, the entire "will he or won't he?" debate is silly. Francis will go pro. He should go pro. Anyone who argues to the contrary is ignoring his past, shouting into the wind.

Francis grew up without money in Takoma Park, lost a single mother to cancer as a teen-ager. Including high school and junior college, Maryland is his sixth school in six years. He's finally on the verge of a lifelong dream, and he's going to put it on hold?

Maryland coach Gary Williams can point to Joe Smith as a No. 1 draft pick who might have benefited from playing another year. It wouldn't hurt Francis to spend next season honing his point-guard skills, learning to better recognize defenses, developing greater patience. But it's unreasonable to expect him to delay the start of his earning cycle, and whether they admit it or not, everyone at Maryland knows it.

Right here. Right now. That, more or less, was the deal all along. Williams said in his 21 years as a head coach, he has never seen a newcomer receive as much attention as Francis. Yet Francis has met, even exceeded, expectations. Even with defenses targeting him, even with publicity swarming around him, he has mostly kept his head.

"There have been some distractions, there's no doubt about it," Williams said after the Florida State game. "He has been on the Plays of the Week on ESPN at least four or five times. That's for the whole week, all the sports that week, not just basketball. That's incredible.

"And that is tiring, believe it or not, mentally tiring. He walks across campus and everybody says, `Hey, great dunk last night on ESPN.' You say, `Thank you. Glad you're interested.' But still, you know how many people are watching. You know that constant thing is always there."

People are watching. Opponents are waiting. Francis had the ball at the end of regulation against Clemson, with the score tied and 14 seconds left. Two defenders met him at the top of the key. The clock ticked under five seconds. Francis still was dribbling behind his back. Finally, he flipped the ball to Laron Profit, who missed an off-balance 22-footer at the buzzer. Not an inspired sequence.

Then came the end of overtime -- this time, with Terrell Stokes running the offense. Profit and Obinna Ekezie set a double screen for Terence Morris. Francis was on the left wing, diverting Clemson's attention. Stokes hit a wide-open Morris on the right baseline. Morris drilled a 15-footer to give Maryland the victory.

"If they go that hard on Steve, somebody else is going to be open, whether it's Terence, Obinna inside, whomever," Williams said. "Anytime you're ranked, anytime you're a player who has gotten all that attention, what do other players do? They want to play Steve Francis. They want to stop Steve Francis."

And so it goes for a player who was still largely unknown three months ago, a player who holds Maryland's ticket to the Final Four. Stokes continues to play well, but Williams still needs to find Francis more minutes at the point, especially Wednesday night at Duke. Stokes can't break down the Duke defense. Francis can.

One season, that's all Francis ever promised, that's all Maryland ever expected. The smart thing to do is accept it, enjoy it and get the most out of it. That goes for Williams. That goes for the fans. And, most of all, that goes for Steve Francis.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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