Francis glad for detour home after taking bumpy trade route

July 03, 2004|By Mike Preston

WASHINGTON -- Steve Francis recently built a house in Houston and is searching for a new residence in Orlando. But he calls Takoma Park his home, and says his heart belongs in nearby Washington.

The three-time NBA All-Star point guard, recently traded from the Houston Rockets to the Orlando Magic, was back in downtown Washington yesterday, running his annual summer basketball clinic.

Francis, dressed in new Magic gear, taught fundamentals to 100 inner-city youngsters. He gave them lessons on dribbling, free throws and jump shots. He gave them hugs, a speech and nearly 200 T-shirts.

After an emotional whirlwind tour of the past week, during which he had to say goodbye to old friends and teammates in Houston, and hello to new ownership in Orlando, Fla., Francis was glad to return to his old stomping grounds, where he seems to be at peace with himself again.

"Growing up in this area, you very seldom get players who are from here come into the community and do stuff," said Francis, a former University of Maryland All-American. "This is something I've grown to love. That's why God put me here, to be a role model, especially for those kids who have it tough and maybe don't have as many opportunities. Every year we always manage to get out into the community here and do something. This feels good. It's great to reflect."

But just as much as he wanted to talk about home, Francis was just as eager to talk about his new job as the Magic's new franchise player. The disappointment and frustration have worn off from nearly a week ago, when he learned he was one of the main figures in a seven-player swap as the Rockets sent Francis, guard Cuttino Mobley and forward Kelvin Cato to Orlando for NBA scoring leader Tracy McGrady, guards Reece Gaines and Tyronn Lue and forward Juwan Howard.

At first, Francis balked about going to the team with the worst record in the NBA last season. But then he got the red-carpet treatment and the green light from Magic general manager John Weisbrod.

Francis could almost become a big as Mickey Mouse in Orlando.

"It's good because you don't get that too often," the fifth-year veteran said of the special treatment. "You don't get owners of the team coming to meet you. You don't get GMs calling you every day. It makes you feel comfortable."

"They reassured me they were willing to build the team around me, they're willing to give me the opportunity to win or lose the game," Francis said. "In Houston last year, that wasn't the case."

Francis suffered from "Superstar-itis," the same disease that has afflicted Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. They never met a jump shot they didn't like, and want the ball in crunch time. In Los Angeles, Bryant doesn't want to share the ball with center Shaquille O'Neal.

In Houston, Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy wanted the ball to touch center Yao Ming's hands first, and everybody else's second.

"As much as I love Houston, I'm happy for the trade," Francis said. "For me, it's a better opportunity to display my skills as far as the things I've worked on growing up, in college and my first five years in the NBA. This is a really good opportunity."

Francis wasn't as kind when talking about Van Gundy. Apparently, Francis thought Van Gundy made promises he didn't keep.

"Honestly, I felt we were cool. To me, it was a coach-player relationship," Francis said. "I thought we were cool in the direction we were going. Maybe he didn't feel that way. I'm not mad at him one bit. I just know I wouldn't tell somebody to their face that I was going to do something, and then don't do it. That's in the past, though, and I'm looking forward to Orlando."

He should. The Magic will be in what may be the weakest division in the NBA with the Washington Wizards, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. Unlike in most trades, Francis will be joined by two former teammates in Mobley and Cato. He'll also play with high school forward Dwight Howard, the first pick overall in last week's draft, and Saint Joseph's guard Jameer Nelson, the NCAA Division I Player of the Year last season.

Francis will try to play a role that the Magic didn't feel McGrady ever fulfilled. McGrady, 25, was long on points (he averaged 28.0 last season, and 32.1 the year before), but short on leadership. That's what Francis was told.

"That's another thing they stressed to me," said Francis, who has averaged 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.4 assists during his pro career. "They felt they didn't have last year, even though McGrady was there, a true leader. It's going to be tough. It's not easy to win one game in the NBA. But the names of those teams [Wizards, Hawks, Heat], throughout my career, my teams put whippings on those teams.

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