Rooting for a hometown hero

On eve of NBA draft, Takoma Park's eyes are on Steve Francis

June 29, 1999|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

TAKOMA PARK -- Steve Francis grew up in this leafy suburban enclave of high-rise apartments and graceful Victorian homes. He played pickup basketball games in the modern community center and in the cellar of the city's 70-year-old stone firehouse.

Now, on the eve of the National Basketball Association draft in which Francis might be taken as the No. 1 pick, Takoma Park residents of all ages say they are rooting for their favorite son -- providing he remembers his roots.

"I'm proud of him, as long as he's a good role model and makes these kids care about their lives and values," said Rebecca Brown, 57, town librarian.

"He's cool," said Andre Lewis, 15, shooting baskets on Francis' favorite playground. "We should paint a mural of him on one of these backboards.

"Will he forget where he's from? Nah. Steve's no sellout."

As a high first-round draft choice, the former University of Maryland guard would become a multimillionaire overnight, snaring what under the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement would be a three-year contract worth about $9 million. An endorsement deal typically offered to top picks could bring Francis an additional $1 million.

A second-team All-American, he led the Terrapins in scoring and steals (17 points and 2.8 steals a game), propelling them to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament.

"I would love to be the No. 1 pick in the draft," said the 6-foot-3 Francis. "That's something that just about every player that's ever been drafted dreams of. But if it's not destiny for me to be No. 1, then I'll just have to live with that."

A packed gym caught Francis' act recently in a benefit game at Montgomery Blair High, in nearby Silver Spring. The crowd had come to see the former Terp in one of his last appearances in a Maryland gym. Since Francis, 21, chose to forgo his senior season, he won't be playing at Cole Field House in nearby College Park.

On this night, the flamboyant Francis didn't disappoint. The crowd howled as he slammed home a windmill dunk, and hooted when he bounced the ball off an opponent's head, Globetrotter-style.

Afterward, Francis obliged fans by signing autographs for 30 minutes, putting his name on everything from balls to dollar bills, from shoes to a Star Wars T-shirt. He posed for pictures with two giggling teen-age girls. He bounced a toddler on his lap.

"Takoma Park embraces him, from the seniors right down to the youngest kids," said Rick Pernell, community programs coordinator for the city. "His is the kind of story everyone likes to hear -- rags-to-riches and beat-the-odds."

Francis grew up poor in this city of about 18,000 in Montgomery County, on the outskirts of Washington. His father deserted the family when Francis was 6; his mother died of cancer 10 years later. Despondent, Francis dropped out of school. He later earned his General Educational Development diploma and attended two community colleges before transferring to Maryland for his junior year.

"Being in D.C., Steve could have had a life of crime or been shot in the street, but he wasn't, because of family and community support," said Pernell, 30, a friend.

"There's a saying, `It takes a village to raise a child.' Steve hasn't the right to forget where he came from, and not give back. Every time he comes to the community center, kids ask, `Steve, how did you learn to dribble?' or `My mom is real sick, how did you deal with that?'

"They look to him for strength and insight. It's his responsibility, and it's good that he is stepping up to the plate."

The librarian, however, sees Francis' decision to skip his senior year to enter the NBA draft as a mixed blessing.

"He didn't finish college, did he?" said Brown. Had Francis earned his bachelor's degree, she said, "he would have been a better role model."

Since Francis became the Terps' marquee player last season, his likeness has appeared in many of his old neighborhood haunts. His photograph looms over customers at the Maple Avenue Deli. Francis autographed it. "Thanks for helping me grow," he wrote.

Across the street, at the Park Ritchie Barber Shop, there is a framed picture of Francis on the wall above his favorite chair. Here, for 10 years, barber John Arnett trimmed his hair, a quick skin fade for a restless youngster.

"Steve sat still -- when we talked about sports," Arnett said. "You could tell he wanted to get outside to play. He was a peppy kid who carried a basketball around, but he was so little that you'd never know he was a candidate for the pros."

Francis used his height -- or lack thereof -- to wrangle cheap haircuts, the barber said. Back then, a trim cost $5 for children under 12.

"Steve always swore he was underage," Arnett said. "I'd say, `Man, you was 11 last year,' and he'd say not.

"He must have rode that one for three or four years. It was OK; we knew his mom didn't have much money."

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