Francis seeks stability in life, game
The player once called 'Stevie Franchise' has matured
By JONATHAN FEIGEN
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Steve Francis was back at Westside Tennis Club, sweating his way around the old Rockets practice court he had for so long called home.
He checked out the photos of Westside regulars, laughing at how young Nick Van Exel looked back then. That morning, he had studied a DVD of his first playoff game, the 2004 last-second loss to the Lakers. He wore Rockets workout shorts.
He was home, or at least comfortable in this familiar place and in his own skin. But he was different, too.
This was where Francis was once "Franchise." He was a young star back then, three times an All-Star, glowing with possibilities. He had lived the life, enjoyed the adulation and made mountains of money. He rolled happily through those first steps of his NBA career.
But now, perhaps because he had stepped back into the setting of his former life, how much he had changed seemed most obvious.
With his career at its nadir, he seemed most content. In the place it once all seemed to come easily, Francis seemed to finally understand that it will be difficult. Where he had been the model of youthful potential and exuberance — with occasional irresponsibility — he seemed to finally have matured.
"My daughter just turned 1," Francis said. "I'm getting ready for my wedding coming up (on Sunday). I'm 29 now. I think it helps to have that type of stability. I think it helps ... knowing I'm going to go home every night to see my family. And in basketball, it helps me stay focused."
Working with Lucas
Age might be a close relative to maturity, but they are not twins. Along with optimism, offseasons bring good intentions not always realized when players return to work. But as he sat and chatted easily — something he never had the patience for a few years ago — it did not sound to be just talk.
"He's different, different, different," said John Lucas, who has been working with Francis this summer. "He's changed. I've seen the maturity click in. I've seen a different passion for basketball. He's not a young colt learning his way anymore. These next four years will be the prime years of his basketball career."
Francis has moved from the promise of a sensational, young star guard with the Rockets to a brief honeymoon and breakup with the Orlando Magic and finally to the cesspool of the New York Knicks' spectacularly dreadful season.
The Rockets had locked him up to the largest contract allowed, unwilling to take a chance on letting him get away. With the Knicks, he has been held as a $14 million (next season) example of a horribly bloated, underachieving roster. He has gone from All-Star to only occasional starter.
"It went so fast, the first eight years," Francis said. "I've been through so much adversity in my life, it's another test to get back to the top."
To get there, Francis has put his faith in a pair of former point guards, spending much of the summer with Lucas at Westside and trusting that new Knicks coach Isiah Thomas would make the pieces in his overstuffed backcourt fit.
"Steve is as gifted an athlete as LeBron (James) or Kobe (Bryant), any of them," Lucas said. "Every year he doesn't make the All-Star Game is an embarrassment. We're trying to get him to slow down and see the game. I've really challenged him in front of his peers. He never answered back. He did the work. Normally, it would have been, 'I don't have to hear this (stuff) from Luke.' Now, he's just worked hard to put it all together."
Sharing with Marbury
In 24 games with the Knicks last season, Francis averaged just 10.8 points and 3.5 assists. But even before he was traded to his New York timeshare with Stephon Marbury, his averages of 16.2 points and 5.7 assists with the Magic had been the worst of his career.
Having been given one season to turn around the Knicks, Thomas is in many ways betting his coaching career on making the mix of Marbury and Francis work.
"I have to make sure I put him in a position in which he can be successful," Thomas said. "The way the game is played today, it is a guard's game. Guards have a tremendous advantage if they can put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. I don't think any player is a lot better at that than Steve. We have two of them."
But Francis' success will largely be Francis' responsibility. If he struggles, the Knicks are loaded with players to take his minutes.
"My whole goal is to get him back to the point he was as an All-Star," Thomas said. "He was one of the top 10 players in this league. I don't see any reason he can't get back there. What I spoke to him about is, 'Get your off-the-court game in line. Be a better person, a better teammate. Your talent and skills will speak for themselves.'
"As a young player ... everything is going so fast. You're maturing. He has found balance in his life and on the court. When your life is not balanced you have those emotional outbursts or reasons to think things aren't going well for you. Steve now, at his age, has the opportunity to have great success."
Francis believes he could be what he was. If he left New York, he said he could be a high-scoring, highlight-reel All-Star. But he has done that.
"I could go some other place and be in the place I was here (in Houston)," Francis said. "We weren't winning, but I was scoring 25 points a game. But if I could be in a situation like I'm in now, with everybody doubting the players, the coach, that would drive me even more. If you can get those fans behind you and you're helping your team win, I'm content with that. At this point in my career, I've got to get some W's. I've got to start winning games."
Francis said he does not regret his early, wayward years in the NBA, but neither does he blame the Rockets or Magic for the way his career has turned.
He had been critical of Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy in the months after the trade, but would now only say he loved his time in Houston and considered his one playoff appearance the highlight of his career.
The Magic were critical of Francis after his departure, with praise of his backcourt successors seeming to be barely veiled criticisms of his play. But Francis, who never had shied from an argument, said he noticed the criticism, but would not exchange fire.
Holding his tongue
"I have nothing but nice things to say about those guys," Francis said. "There has to be a scapegoat for everything. Back in the day, I would have said something back, but that won't get me anywhere. That won't help me win games.
"I'm just mad I haven't won enough games. That's my greatest disappointment, to not be consistently in the playoffs like these other guys. I'm happy, but I'm not content. I want to get better, win more games, get my team in the playoffs more."
Whether that is maturity that comes with age, humility that comes from relative failure or simply a line that comes with experience, Francis at least sounded changed.
"He didn't want to go to Vancouver and got his way," Lucas said. "He came to the Rockets and had everything he wanted early. When he got traded, it was the first time he had a form of rejection. He has taken the last two years to come out of that. But being traded was the worst and best thing for him. He's different. Now, we just have to see how the season goes."