Francis has company in Brat Pack

August 28, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Steve Francis is not a bad kid.

Immature, yes. Misguided, yes. But it's not as if Francis is the first draft pick in history to leverage his way to another team.

See John Elway. See Danny Ferry, Eric Lindros and J.D. Drew.

Pretty fair company, even if each was depicted as a spoiled brat, and portrayed as everything that was wrong with professional sports.

Francis, 21, will hear the same rap, and he brought it upon himself. But if he was a decent enough kid at Maryland, then why shouldn't he be the same in the NBA?

The Houston Rockets aren't worried -- they acquired Francis from the Vancouver Grizzlies last night in a three-team, 11-player trade, the largest in NBA history.

"We think in Steve Francis we're probably going to get the most exciting player in the draft," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said.

"All the coaches he's been involved with just love him as a kid. He's unselfish, but he's talented. I think he's a very big piece looking toward our future."

Of course, no one wants to hear that right now. Francis will draw the same scorn in Vancouver that Elway did in Baltimore. Fans across the NBA will find it difficult to relate to his petulant stand.

Still, few will remember this turbulent interlude if Francis becomes a star, like Elway and Lindros before him, and possibly Drew in the years ahead.

Maryland coach Gary Williams requested understanding for his former star.

"How can you be unhappy making $9 million over three years? Obviously, that's a legitimate question," Williams said yesterday. "At the same time, it's a business. You can be fans, but you have to remember that it's a business at that level.

"Steve and his people felt it wasn't in his best interests to play at Vancouver. That shouldn't detract from what people thought of Steve when he played here. I know it does. But you have to separate it. It's two different things, being a college player and a professinal player."

Frankly, it's amazing that Francis even made it this far. He isn't a middle-class product like Elway or Ferry. He's a kid who grew up with no father, lost his mother to cancer in 1995 and attended six schools the past six years.

His fierce competitiveness, explosive style and No. 23 occasionally evoke comparisons to Michael Jordan, but their backgrounds could not be more different.

Jordan grew up with two strong parents, played three years for Dean Smith at North Carolina, then evolved into the world's most famous athlete under the guidance of agent David Falk.

Francis lacks the same support. His grandmother appears to be his strongest influence. He spent only one year under Williams at Maryland. His agent, Jeff Fried, represents no other NBA players.

Is it any wonder that he appears lost at times?

Vancouver general manager Stu Jackson said this week that Francis had "deep-seated personal issues." Perhaps, but every one of those "issues" was apparent before the draft -- and Francis' distaste for Vancouver should not have come as a surprise.

He didn't want to play so far from home. He didn't want to defer to Mike Bibby in the backcourt. He didn't want to join a team that has won 56 games in four seasons, including the strike-shortened 1998-99 campaign.

"We would have had to continually sell him on the idea of staying here," Jackson said last night. "There's a multitude of adversity young players face. To withstand that adversity, you really need to have it together We didn't want to add something potentially negative to the mix."

Clearly, the Rockets offer Francis a better fit. Tomjanovich is a two-time NBA champion. Veteran stars like Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon and especially Charles Barkley will keep a brash rookie in line.

Francis is intelligent and engaging, but he occasionally showed a darker side at Maryland. He walked off the court without shaking hands after several losses, squared off quickly after hard fouls, showed up officials with his body language.

Worst of all, he reportedly talked trash during Maryland's embarrassing Sweet 16 loss to St. John's, bragging to his opponents about how much money he would soon earn.

"I wish he wouldn't have done those things," Williams said. "But that's the way a lot of kids come into college now. And he had only one year.

"You go to any city and watch the summer leagues, that's the way the game is played. I don't agree with it. I'm from a different generation. But to say that characterizes only Steve would be wrong.

"You saw it in our league last year. There were Duke players who did that. Almost every team had someone who did stuff. I'd rather not have it. At the same time, it doesn't make Steve a bad guy."

No, Francis was mostly a good guy at Maryland, and that's partly why NBA scouts fell in love with him. He followed Williams' instructions. He played within a team concept. He appeared anything but a problem child.

Few would argue now that Francis is the anti-Iverson -- there is too much to suggest otherwise. Then again, what is his worst crime? The same crime committed by Elway. And Ferry. And Lindros. And Drew.

Francis didn't create the star system; he merely exploited it. But now comes the true test for a player who has never won at any level. Does he aspire to greatness? Is he capable of maturing?

Those are the questions on which Francis ultimately will be judged.

He is so young. He has come so far.

Let's see how he turns out.

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