Rockets' Francis ready to show off star power

Pro basketball: Ex-Terp Steve Francis, playing in his first All-Star Game tonight, is set to show he belongs among the NBA's elite.

Pro Basketball

February 10, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - He has all the trappings of NBA stardom: a contract that pays him more than $3 million a year now and could be quadrupled by next summer, an adoring public that voted him a Western Conference starter in today's All-Star Game, power lunches with sneaker company executives and waiting limousines.

Such is life these days for Steve Francis, who after years of nomadic obscurity vaulted from his one season at the University of Maryland into becoming one of professional basketball's most entertaining and hardest-working players.

"He's the best point guard in the NBA," Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Lucas, a former Terrapins standout himself, said last week.

Francis' third season with the Houston Rockets would seem to have been his most difficult: the migraine headaches that have bothered him since training camp and forced him to miss four games, the torn fascia tissue in his left foot that kept him sidelined for a month, a DUI charge that is still pending and, above all, the team's 16-33 record.

Somehow, Francis, who will turn 25 on Feb. 21, has managed to look through his troubles with the help of an inner peace that might not have been there a year ago.

"As much as people think it would be even more stressful, I think for me it's been more of a relaxing season," Francis said last week in Cleveland, sitting courtside at Gund Arena after a morning shoot-around. "I took away all the things that could possibly make me more stressed out, as far as worrying about too many things at one time, knowing I can't do everything by myself."

It has meant sharing the leadership role on a young and injury-depleted team with shooting guard and close friend Cuttino Mobley. It has meant fewer trips home to Takoma Park, hoping to make his family and friends more self-reliant without distancing them. It has meant taking a more active role in his business decisions.

But it has not meant Francis playing with any less of the ferocity with which he seems to attack each game and opponent, or any less of the joy that radiates from his well-sculpted, 6-foot-3, 202-pound body. Asked if enjoys the game as much now as he did as a rookie, Francis has a question of his own.

"When was the last time you saw me play?" he said. "What was the difference between then and the first time you ever saw me play? The joy is not gone. It's never gone anywhere."

The only player in the NBA this season to lead his team in scoring (22.6), rebounding (7.7) and assists (6.6), Francis has moved steadily up the NBA status ladder. The All-Star Game today at the First Union Center is his first, and could become Francis' official coming-out party.

"I've been looking forward to this ever since I came into the league," said Francis, who was taken by the Vancouver Grizzlies as the second player in the 1999 draft and, after saying he wouldn't play for the team that now resides in Memphis, forced a trade to the Rockets that summer. "It's something I thought about since I was around 14 years old."

Back then, he was just hanging out with his older brother, Terry, and others who roamed the neighborhoods of Washington looking for any game they could find. It was during one of those endless summer afternoons that Moochie Norris, then going into his senior year at D.C.'s Cardozo High, discovered the kid everyone called "Wink."

"Their team only had four players, and they were begging us to let the little guy play," recalled Norris, now a teammate with the Rockets who backs up Francis at point guard. "When we got on the court, he was exciting from the get-go. We were on the same team for one game and he was trying to get me to throw him a lob. I put one up there and he dunked it. I just stopped and stared at the rim."

A decade later, Norris still finds himself staring at some of the things Francis can do. So do others around the NBA. When Washington Wizards guard Richard Hamilton was struggling earlier this season, Doug Collins played Hamilton a tape - of Francis. "I wanted to show him how hard he could play to be successful," Collins said.

Fearless, bordering on reckless. It might be one thing to drive repeatedly on the New Jersey Nets during a triple-double performance against Jason Kidd, but it's another to take it to the Los Angeles Lakers and Shaquille O'Neal. That's what Francis did in an early-season game in Houston, in which he collected 26 points, 12 rebounds and tons of respect.

"Steve may be the best athlete in the league," said fellow All-Star Steve Nash, the point guard for the Dallas Mavericks. "He's got a lot of jump. He's so agile. He's strong. He can really affect a game with his athleticism. But he's also a good shooter, he makes plays for his teammates, he's a great rebounder. When you put that together, it's an amazing package."

Said Lucas: "I told Steve last summer that he hasn't even scratched the surface as to how good he can become."

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