Even though he grew up just miles from the University of Maryland, Steve Francis had a long journey before coming to College Park.
The former Terp and NBA star reflected on his troubled childhood and unlikely basketball career in a personal story in The Players’ Tribune published Thursday.
At 18, he was selling drugs on the corner, just trying to survive.
— The Players’ Tribune (@PlayersTribune) March 8, 2018
Addressing his roots in Washington, D.C., Francis wrote about his family’s struggles and how he went into drug dealing for food money.
“I’d wait outside the Chinese spot and sit on the curb by the pay phone, looking all innocent, and whenever the phone would ring, I’d answer,” Francis wrote. “It was always people looking for drugs, looking for girls, looking for whatever. I’d tell them where to meet the dealers, and that was it.”
His basketball experience started at that payphone, where he dribbled around and shot the ball into the top of the broken phone box. With help from his family and basketball coach, Francis realized the sport was the best opportunity for him to get out of the life that too many of the people he knew got caught up in.
Francis’ lack of experience playing organized basketball led to his enrollment at San Jacinto College in Texas. But that was just the start for him, as the homesick Francis had a bigger dream.
“My dream at that point — and this is going to sound funny to some people — but my dream was to be on a real college campus with my backpack on, walking to class,” Francis wrote. “I would picture myself at Georgetown or Maryland, just on campus, chilling, walking to class.”
Gary Williams took notice of Francis’ dominance in junior college, and for his junior season, Francis transferred to Maryland. Upon his arrival on campus, Francis got his first taste of stardom.
“I’ve done plenty of shit in my life. I’m not perfect,” Francis wrote. “But on the first day of class at Maryland … on that day? On the day I had my books, and my book bag, and people were yelling out to me from across the campus, “Yo, Steve Francis! What’s up, man?” On that day? You couldn’t tell me anything. Top of the world, man.”
While Francis was at Maryland, his stepfather started working at the ticket booth at the Metro Park-and-Ride. Francis recalled how he’d let students in for free and even bring people inside the booth to have fun and talk basketball. And his stepfather supported him on the court, too, coming to every home game and watching from his booth when the Terps were on the road.
“It’s funny because my biological father, he used to rob the Metro stations before he got locked up. And my stepfather, he worked in one,” Francis wrote. “But he was an honest hustler. He became my real father. He was my best friend. He was the loudest guy in the gym.”
The spotlight wasn’t something that Francis was used to, but he thrived in it. In his lone season as a Terp, he averaged 17 points per game and was named a finalist for the Wooden and Naismith Player of the Year awards. He led Maryland to 28 wins — which was a program record at the time — and a second-place finish in the ACC. The Terps ended up going to the Sweet 16 and had a top-10 ranking in the final national polls.
“At 18, I’m selling baggies on the corner in Takoma Park, getting robbed at gunpoint. At 22, I’m getting drafted into the National Basketball Association, shaking David Stern’s hand,” Francis recalled.
Francis went on to talk about his encounters with the NBA legends he always looked up to, including his time with Hakeem Olajuwon, and later, Yao Ming on the Rockets.
Great story on @SteveFranchise3! I remember hearing b-ball legend stories about him around D.C.area, then going to watch him put in work @ Maryland and having a chance to get to know him early on. 💪🏾💯 https://t.co/bIYySPUe24
— Rod Strickland (@rod_strickland) March 8, 2018
From a corner in Takoma Park to the spotlight in Houston, Francis’ life turned around quickly.
After the article was published, former players took to Twitter with nothing but praise for Francis. Although his time in a Maryland uniform was short, the D.C. native had a lasting memory on many for his amazing story.