Nearly four decades have passed since that winter night in Jackson, Ohio, when Bevo Francis jumped and soared and shot his way into basketball history. But Wayne Wiseman can still close his eyes today, return to that hardwood floor and see the scene that would forever define for him the two years he spent watching the man spin magic into memory.
"I can still see it in my mind," Wiseman says. "He went up to take the shot, and I remember thinking, It doesn't have a chance...."
Ah, but this was Bevo Francis during another of his out-of-body nights, when every ball he tossed into the air had a chance. It was Feb. 2, 1954, and tiny Rio Grande (Ohio) College—a school of 92 students, just 38 of them men, eleven of whom filled the roster of the school's basketball team—was racing through the final minutes of a blowout over Hillsdale (Mich.) College. Even before that February evening, the gangly, 6'9" Francis, a sophomore at Rio Grande (pronounced, then and always, RYE-oh grand), had established himself as the most celebrated college gunner of his day, master of a turnaround jump shot that he could hit from all points of the compass. He was a deadly foul shooter as well, and beginning in the 1952-53 season, his freshman year, Francis scored points at a rate so extraordinary that he became honey to the media bees, evolving quickly from a kind of outsized public curiosity into a national sports darling.
In a college game still suffering the stings of the 1951 game-fixing scandals, here was a shy, long-boned, earnest young man of 21, the son of a poor Ohio clay miner, whose appearances in ever larger and richer venues—he would take his team to play in Madison Square Garden and in Boston Garden—commanded enough money to help keep his financially moribund college alive. If the hype was huge, it was not empty.
October 27, 1992
"He was one of the greatest shooters that ever lived," says Marty Blake, now the NBA's director of scouting, who saw Bevo play on several occasions. "It was a gift. He could not only shoot but shoot with range. And he was an excellent passer, too."
His passing skills, however, were not to be seen on this night against Hillsdale, in the Jackson High School gym. This was a night for shooting.
In his freshman year at Rio Grande, over a 39-0 season, Francis had shattered nearly every national individual scoring record extant—from most field goals (708) and free throws (538) to the highest scoring average per game (50.1). Of course, bigger NCAA schools raised an unholy stink about those marks, claiming they should not count because Rio Grande's schedule was shot through with junior colleges and military bases. The NCAA agreed after the season, ruling: "Intercollegiate record claims must be based on schedules made up largely of four-year, degree-awarding institutions." So Bevo's freshman records disappeared from the books, among them the most remarkable of all, the single-game scoring record that he set against Ashland Junior College on Jan. 9, 1953: 116 points on 47 field goals and 22 free throws.
Newt Oliver, Rio Grande's pugnacious and outspoken coach, had been stewing over the ruling for months. And now, against the four-year, degree-granting Hillsdale, Oliver at last saw Bevo's chance to seize the day, and the airwaves and headlines with it. At halftime Francis had 43 points, and he was shooting with the eerie, unconscious rhythm of a man who could not miss. The Rio Grande offense was an uncomplicated food chain leading straight to Francis—"Feed Bevo!" Oliver would exhort his men—and in the locker room the coach again implored his players to dish the ball to the man. "With Bevo scoring, we're one of the elite," Oliver told them. "We go to the big arenas! Without Bevo scoring, we go back to playing Podunk basketball. Slip into oblivion. We can make headlines all over the country tonight! They robbed us of the record bust year. We'll run it over 116.1 want that record back tonight!"
Oliver turned to Francis. "Bevo, you're as hot as fire! You shoot that ball every chance you get. I don't want any passing off. I want you to put that ball in the air!"
For the last half of the basketball game, Francis took the feeds and made the shots. He scored 31 points in the third quarter, giving him 74; by the fourth quarter he was quadruple-teamed by Hillsdale defenders. "I was always moving," Francis recalls. "I'd go to the top of the key. If I didn't get the ball, I'd go back down the lane and swing out on one of the corners."
By the closing minutes of the game, Francis had more than 100 points, and at one point Wiseman, a guard, held the ball at the top of the key. He was looking at Bevo in the middle. There were four men on Francis, and to Wiseman he looked like Gulliver surrounded by a phalanx of Lilliputians, his hands up and waiting for the pass.
Suddenly Bevo broke for the right corner, the four defenders chasing him. Wiseman flipped him the ball. Francis grabbed it on the run, about three feet inside the baseline, stopped and leaped in the air, his back still to the basket. Of all the shots Bevo took that night, it was this one that lodged in Wiseman's mind and has stayed there for nearly 40 years. "I'll never forget it," Wiseman says. "He jumped and turned in the air and shot. I didn't think it had a chance. Not a chance. Hit nothing but cord! And they fouled him, and he made the free throw. It was one of those nights."
Rio Grande won the game 134-91, and Francis ended up with 113 points—38 field goals and 37 of 42 free throws—a single-game scoring record that stands today.
Toward high noon one day last August, behind the sliding steel door of a barn set low among the ancient hills of eastern Ohio, the only sounds are the bees humming drowsily in the sun and the rubber soles sliding on the concrete floor and the bouncing of the ball as the gray-haired man moves slowly left, to the top of a make-believe key. Facing the basket, raising his hands above his head to set, feeling with his fingertips the dimpled rubber of the ball, Bevo Francis pushes it gently, sending the ball upward in a soft, summery arc....
"I shot baskets every day," Francis says. "Hour by hour. There wasn't much else to do after the chores were done...."
"I plowed behind horses and mules. I put up hay. Put up crops. Built fence. Milked cows. There were chickens to feed and bogs to be taken care of. Then I'd go down to the Methodist Church. They had a basket by the parking lot...."
"Everybody had a basketball hoop, but we played at the church because it was the only basket lit by a streetlight. Sometimes we'd get a full moon and play at home. Or we'd go to Pete Cope's barn. We'd play till we got tired and didn't want to play anymore. Then we'd fall asleep on the stacks of loose hay...."
"You had to do something to entertain yourself. Hammondsville had 150 people. Not much happening in a town with a gas station, a post office and general store. You looked forward to shooting baskets—every time you had a chance."
Clarence Franklin (Bevo) Francis, who turned 60 on Sept. 4, lives in the same seven-room, redbrick ranch house in Highlandtown, Ohio, that he bought with his wife, Jean, for $9,500 in 1954—the year the Harlem (Globetrotters signed him out of college, for $12,000 a year, to play with the Boston Whirlwinds, one of the white teams that barnstormed with the Globies. The Francis home is across the street from the firehouse and two doors down from the Orange Hall and just 20 miles down Route 39 from the plant in Carrollton where Bevo works these days on an assembly line, wearing earplugs and steel-toed boots while boxing rolls of plastic wrap for $10.10 an hour.
He putters at the workbench in his garage; he feeds and waters his six hunting dogs—four for rabbits and two for coons. He is as trim these days as he is tall. "I keep pretty fit hunting with the dogs," says Bevo. He surveys his dog kennels, his vegetable garden. "I'm very comfortable here," he says.
Bevo Francis has not played serious hoops in years, yet it is more than memories that keeps him tethered to the game. On summer nights he sometimes strolls to the outdoor court across from the Grange and watches his ball-hawking granddaughter, Sarah Francis, 5'4" and 14 years old, running and gunning with boys much bigger than she is. On this night, standing off to one side, he watches as she takes an outlet pass, races madly down the sideline, sweeps to the basket, then dishes it off, behind her back, to an open man in the middle.
"She can take on any one of these boys one-on-one and beat 'em," Bevo says. Moments later, leading a fast break up the middle, Sarah stops suddenly, rises straight and drills a 15-foot jumper. The old man grins. "She started when she was little. She could hardly hold the ball. I worked with her on different moves. Taught her how to dribble between her legs. She went to basketball camp last year and came back with all the trophies. The reason she's so good is she plays with the big boys."
Sarah is not so sure. "I think it's, like, hereditary," she says.
Bevo Francis was not much older than Sarah when the world began to turn for him. He was a teenage boy living in Wellsville, six miles east of Highlandtown; by then everyone called him Little Bevo, after the nickname his father had picked up during Prohibition. Bevo was the name of a near beer bottled by Anheuser-Busch. "My dad drank it all the time," he says. "They called him Bevo, me Little Beve. I finally outgrew that."
He had grown to 6'9" by his junior year, 1951-52, at Wellsville High. That season he had 776 points in 25 high school games, 31 a game; he scored a state-record 57 against Alliance (Ohio) High School one night, and the fans mobbed him at the free throw line before the game was even over.
As a child, as Little Beve, he had suffered bouts with anemia and consequently had missed two years of school. By the time he was a senior, he was 20 and too old to play for Wellsville. No matter: His Wellsville coach, Newt Oliver, had loftier plans.
Oliver, while a basketball player at Rio Grande, had led the country in scoring in 1948 with 725 points. His master's thesis included 75 pages on the art of shooting free throws. Bevo needed no help there, but by then, to be sure, Oliver needed Bevo. With Rio Grande in desperate financial shape, Oliver had taken the $3,500-a-year job as head basketball coach; had coaxed a rich alumnus, a car dealer, to come up with $3,000 for basketball scholarships; and had gone right after Bevo, who was still 1½ credits shy of graduating from high school. That did not deter Oliver.
A coach by trade, a promoter and salesman by inclination, he figured that the jump shot of Bevo Francis was the key to Rio Grande's salvation—the ticket to selling tickets everywhere. "I knew that people wouldn't pay to see five players score 15 points each," Oliver says now. "But I knew they'd flock in to see one player score 50."
One evening late in the summer of'52, Oliver found Francis at his mother-in-law's house—Bevo had married his high school sweetheart Jean Chrislip earlier that year—and said to him, "Well, are you ready to go?"
"I'm not goin'," Bevo said.
"We don't have the money," Bevo said.
"I'm not going down there without you," cried Oliver. "You're the reason I took that job!"
Francis, the simple homebody, was no match for the persuasive promoter. He ultimately gave in, and thus began the rarest, wackiest, damnedest two years in college basketball history—a kind of circus wagon winding amiably across America on a long road show, with Bevo performing on call and Oliver bagging peanuts and playing the calliope.
The Rio Grande campus lies in southeastern Ohio, in the village of Rio Grande, a dozen miles northwest of Gallipolis, in Raccoon Township. As a married man, Francis had been given a scholarship consisting of tuition, books, $75 a month for groceries, $35 a month for a furnished apartment—whose bathroom the Francises shared with Oliver and his wife, Maxine—and a campus job, which paid 50 cents an hour. Actually Francis attended two schools at once. "I enrolled him at Rio Grande High School at the same time I enrolled him at Rio Grande College," says Oliver. "He needed those 1½ high school credits to graduate."
The new coach had big dreams. On the first day of practice Oliver told his gathered squad, "One year from now we'll be booked into Madison Square Garden." To which Wiseman replied, "The only garden we'll ever be in is with a hoe."
Oliver's promises did indeed seem ludicrous. The home court of the Rio Grande Redmen was a drafty little bandbox named Community Hall but called the Hog Pen by students. It had room for 250 souls. "No seats in it," recalls Francis. "Tile floor laid over concrete. A bucket on each end. Cold in the winter. And there weren't any showers."
Between games Maxine and Jean washed the team's uniforms in the apartment bathtub, and Newt often paid for the gas to fuel the two team station wagons for road games. But Oliver did dip into the school's meager funds and extracted $25 to join the NCAA's statistical service, thereby assuring that the team's stats—Bevo's stats, that is—appeared in the weekly summaries.
However weak the Redmen's schedule, which Oliver had inherited, only the most myopic reader of the NCAA stat sheet could ignore the fancy numbers that Francis started hanging up—58 points against Sue Bennett College in Kentucky, 69 against Wilberforce, 72 against California State, 76 against Lees College. There was a faint buzzing of interest as his totals began rolling in, and on occasion a distant sports desk would call the school to ask, "What's a Bevo Francis?"
And then, on a January night in 1953, the world changed for Bevo and Newt and Rio Grande when the wires started clacking out the news from Community Hall. The walls of the Hog Pen had echoed that evening with the exhortations of Oliver, who kept bellowing from the bench, "Foul 'em! Foul 'em!" He wanted the clock stopped at every opportunity to get possession of the ball, so that Bevo, who was potting 10 and 12 jumpers at a stretch without missing, could climb the national bell tower and swing on the clapper for little Rio Grande. Has there ever been a performance more sublime than Bevo's in the final quarter against Ashland? He scored 55 points in its 10 minutes. "Everything he threw up went in," recalls Rio Grande forward Roy Moses, a retired teacher. "And these weren't layups."
Just that quickly Bevo and the Redmen had stepped through the looking glass. In the public mind Rio Grande was no longer some desiccated, windswept campus somewhere on the outskirts of El Paso, but rather this quaint crook in the road in tree-mantled Ohio. Suddenly national magazine photographers were prowling the grounds, and film crews were setting up cameras, and reporters were reconnoitering the buildings. The phones rang at all hours. Oliver, of course, was in heaven; but each night, Bevo and Jean put their infant son, Frank, to sleep and shuddered, waiting for the jangle of the next call.
"You didn't have a life of your own," Bevo says. "It was nothing for people to call at two or three in the morning. I'd get up, and Jean would make me breakfast—I had a seven o'clock class—and I'd get home and there would be reporters and photographers waiting there, and Jean would have to make me breakfast again so they could take pictures. Or they'd wake up Frank and say, 'Get the kid up. We need a picture of you and the kid.' It seemed like every time we moved they took our picture."
Francis became that newest American species, the morning TV celebrity, when the Today show, starring Dave Garroway, flew Newt and Bevo to New York to meet America. Bevo then made his evening television debut when he was introduced on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Back in Ohio, long lines formed for Rio Grande games. The team had outgrown the Hog Pen, and all but one of the Redmen's remaining home games had been shifted to bigger arenas on the road. Opponents, now challenged by Francis's exploits and fearing humiliation at his hands, did everything possible to stop him, folding him deliberately the moment he touched the ball, bringing boos cascading from the stands.
The plotting against him reached its most farcical when Rio Grande played Cedarville in Troy, Ohio. Cedarville stalled from the outset, refusing to shoot the ball, and soon the record crowd of 7,451 spectators, drawn to see Bevo perform, began roaring, stomping their feet and pelting the floor with coins and crumpled paper cups. Play was halted; in the interlude a group of Redmen players sat on the bench playing cards while Francis did a radio interview and then signed autographs for fans. But Oliver feared a riot was in the making, as well as a small economic disaster. The gate was nearly $10,000—Rio Grande's share was $6,500—and the crowd was threatening to leave and demand its money back. Oliver fumed at the Cedarville team to cease this sham. It took the intervention of the Cedarville athletic director to convince his coach to play the game at full tempo. Rio Grande won 66-29, and Bevo had 38 points.
For Francis's teammates it was a dizzying season. "We didn't realize what was happening," Moses says. "But we loved to play basketball, so we were just having a great time." And by season's end they had steered thousands of dollars into the school's coffers, keeping the doddering old place on its feet.
But when the NCAA stripped Francis of his records, the sweet season turned sour, and Oliver was incensed. After finding that the coach at Yale had been among the chief instigators of the NCAA's action, he shot off a letter to New Haven and challenged the Yale team to a game. Rebuffed by the Elis, the irrepressible Oliver took his quest elsewhere. He scheduled 28 games for the following season, all on the road, and some, as promised, in exalted places.
In their second game of the season, in December 1953, Francis and his teammates found themselves in Madison Square Garden. Against a relatively weak Adelphi College team, the Redmen lost 83-76, with Bevo getting 32; afterward Oliver's road show took a pounding in the New York press. Wrote columnist Jimmy Breslin, "Their humiliating scores against nonentities is a travesty on the entire structure of intercollegiate athletics."
With that, the Redmen fled to Philadelphia, where they went hammer and tongs with Villanova, the first major school they had ever played; Francis sent the game into overtime with a long jumper from the side. Rio Grande lost, but barely, 93-92; Francis had 39. Then, at the Boston Garden, behind Francis's 41, the Redmen beat Providence College 89-87, and the team went home to Ohio in triumph. A week later Oliver whisked them off on a southern tour. After trouncing Miami 98-88, with Francis scoring 48, Rio Grande took a beating at Raleigh against North Carolina State, which held Bevo to 34 points. But the Redmen finished the trip by defeating Wake Forest 67-65. Oliver had made his point. From New England to Florida, Rio Grande had showed it belonged.
"The second year," says Francis, "they believed us."
And when Bevo walked off the court at Hillsdale with 113 points in his pocket, he and his team had made history.
It all ended as abruptly as it began. Six games from the end of the season, against Ashland Junior College, Francis sprained his ankle, and that hobbled him the rest of the way. The Redmen had brought fame, money and new life to Rio Grande, but their national celebrity had ultimately created a backlash on the campus. Some administrators and faculty had come to resent the gaudy circus wagon that had invaded their grove of sapience. "I would walk down the sidewalks," says Francis, "and faculty members would see me and turn their heads. I don't know what it was. Maybe they were jealous."
He dropped out of Rio Grande at the end of the spring semester, never to return as a student, and the slights he felt left a galling residue. "I didn't go back for 10 years," he says.
Oliver was chased away too, even though he had helped raise his alma mater from its deathbed. "I'm still bitter about it," he says. "Little people in a little institution. They cut us down in our prime. If we had gone four years, no telling what we would have done."
Instead, Bevo and Newt joined the Globetrotters' act together, Francis as a featured player on the Whirlwinds and Oliver as a coach and later the promotion man of the Globies. Together they lasted 2½ seasons before going their separate ways. Oliver became the owner of a Springfield, Ohio, drive-in restaurant, where he made a fortune selling 25,000 gallons of root beer a year; he later moved on to tree farming and to two elected terms as Clark County commissioner. It all fits as neatly, to be sure, as the white Lincoln Town Car now parked in his driveway in Springfield. He speaks of the Bevo years as if he had lived them just last week.
"We pulled off something nobody ever did before," he says. "It will never be repeated. How could that ever happen again? I had a major college basketball team in a school with 92 students beating Providence and Wake Forest! And we saved the school! We were idolized across the United States. We did the Today show, The Ed Sullivan Show! It's still like a dream to me."
Not to Francis, though, who got over it long ago. He turned down a contract offer from the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA in 1956, untempted by a life that would take him too far from his wife and his family, his dogs and his hills.
He might have played for a living, but instead he has worked. He has made dishes in a pottery plant, he has driven a cement truck. He worked in a steel mill, loading trucks, for 19½ years, until the the plant closed in '82, throwing 6,000 people out of work. "I missed the pension and medical benefits by six months," he says. "I was out of work for three years and three months. We lived on savings. But I built that garage over there."
That fits too—as neatly as he folds himself into his red Chevy pickup and makes off toward Sarah's court. Come November, down at the University at Rio Grande, now an institution of 2,137 students, they will be holding the 10th annual Bevo Francis Classic basketball tournament. "They're gonna do a big thing at the tournament this year," he says. "It's 40 years ago that it all started to happen. What's most pleasing to me is to see how the place grew. It's a delight for me to see that."
On Sarah's court he takes a bounce pass, dribbles twice to the left side, reaching up as he nears the rack, and curls in a lefty layup off the board. Then he dribbles back to the top of the key and turns, softly sending the ball skyward.