A Huge Splash Irrepressible point guard Steve Francis has found a home in the NBA, and his confidence is having a ripple effect on the Rockets

August 20, 2000

A blanket of humidity has spread over southeast Texas on this lazy
summer afternoon. Not that the oppressive heat (or much of
anything else) fazes Steve Francis, the Houston Rockets' star
point guard and last season's co-Rookie of the Year. He has just
completed his daily off-season workout and is splashing around in
the crescent-shaped pool that consumes the bulk of his backyard,
affably holding court and, as ever, drawing little distinction
between what he thinks and what he says. When one of the guests
complains about the weather, Francis notes the visitor's pallid
skin tones and responds, "Well, it's obvious you don't get
outside much." The other guest, whose clipped British accent
Francis has been mocking all afternoon, removes his shirt to
reveal a pillowy midsection before hopping into the pool.
Naturally, Francis is all over him. "Man, how much of that
English beer have you been drinking?" he asks.

To spend an afternoon poolside with Francis is to be on the
business end of a disarming, discursive filibuster. On this day
Francis's ruminations range from the cranium size of Washington
Redskins rookie linebacker LaVar Arrington ("It's huuuuge!") to
the impact of race on Kentucky Fried Chicken preferences ("You're
white, so I figured you'd like barbecue more than Original
Recipe") to the best flavor of Slurpee at 7-Eleven ("Go with lime
every time"). "He's been like that all his life, talking until he
gets on your nerves," says Terry Francis, 26, who lives with his
younger brother in the Houston suburb of Sugar Land. "The problem
was, he used to be so small you couldn't hit him. Now he's so
big, you don't want to try."

The pool is the piece de resistance of Francis's house, which he
has just put on the market for $465,000. It's your standard NBA
starter home, flush with five bedrooms each the size of a
Manhattan studio apartment, a Jacuzzi in the master bathroom and
a high-ceilinged kitchen. (The purchase price doesn't include the
framed photograph of WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw of the
Washington Mystics, Francis's, ahem, "good friend," that sits
next to the pool table upstairs.) Francis wants to move closer to
the Rockets' practice facility in west Houston and the Compaq
Center downtown. "Sometimes it takes me an hour to get to work,"
he says. "I bought this too soon. I should have looked around
longer, but I was overeager."

The house is the only rookie mistake that haunts Francis. Picked
second in last year's draft by Vancouver, Francis was demonized
for shunning the Grizzlies and effectively extorting a trade to
Houston. Once he set foot on the court, his logorrhea quickly
earned him the wrath of half the league. In the preseason alone
he went jaw-to-jaw with the Seattle SuperSonics' Gary Payton
(hardly a singular feat, granted), who dismissed him as a
"punk-ass rookie bitch." Detroit Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse
opined, "Somewhere down the line, someone's going to wire
[Francis's] jaw shut." Karl Malone simply instructed Francis to
"shut the f--- up." Asked about these encounters, Francis shrugs.
"Oh, I'm pretty much always moving my mouth," he says.

Yet if Francis's incipient rep was that of the NBA's latest
smack-talking prodigy, he juked past it much as he would a
perimeter defender. His incessant talking, it turns out, is less
a mark of an unreconstructed egomaniac than of an irrepressible
personality. He admits that he could have handled the Vancouver
situation more professionally but raises a fair point when he
wonders why team-spurning predecessors such as John Elway and
Danny Ferry weren't pilloried half as badly. What's more, as a
Rocket he has stepped out of line less often than a Rockette,
never so much as arriving late for practice. "I can't tell you
how much I like him," says Rudy Tomjanovich, not one given to
hyperbole. "He was one of the young guys who helped rejuvenate

That the 6'3", 193-pound Francis is a sensational player didn't
hurt his image rehabilitation either. Blessed with a 43-inch
vertical leap and a preposterously quick first step, Francis is
on the short list of NBA stars on the make. Despite having rarely
played the point at Maryland, he averaged 18.0 points and 6.6
assists last season. He also finished fourth among guards in
rebounding (5.3 per game) while pleasing highlights junkies with
a compendium of breathtaking dunks. The midseason wall that so
many rookies find impenetrable--yes, you, Lamar Odom--was no
obstacle for Francis, who played his best ball during the final
two months. "He's one of the few guys for whom the sky really is
the limit," says Moochie Norris, Francis's backup. "Even in
practice he has a level of creativity and competitiveness you
hardly ever see."

If there was any tendency for Francis's head to swell to
Arringtonian proportions last season, teammate Charles Barkley
squelched it. As part of the usual rookie hazing ritual, Barkley
assigned Francis chores like carrying veterans' bags and singing
solo on the team bus. After a few months of cursing Barkley under
his breath, Francis finally confronted the man who was
alternately his mentor and tormentor. Why, Francis demanded to
know, did Barkley pick only on him and not the team's other
greenhorn, power forward Kenny Thomas? Barkley thought for a
moment and then riposted, "Shut up. And bring me some damn
doughnuts." (Having survived pledge year, Francis now gets a
weekly call from Barkley, who makes sure the kid is working hard
in the off-season.)

Francis arrived in Houston content to set up Barkley, Hakeem
Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen, three of the 50 greatest players in
NBA history. "When those guys demand the ball," says Francis,
"you give it up, no questions asked." But Pippen was shipped to
the Portland Trail Blazers before the season commenced, Barkley
suffered a career-ending quadriceps tendon tear, and a hernia and
respiratory trouble limited Olajuwon to 44 games. Shattering the
assumption that rookie point guards invariably struggle--and those
inexperienced as playmakers even more so--Francis not only
inherited the team's reins but also snapped them with authority.
Though they missed the postseason, the revamped Rockets showed
great promise in finishing 34-48.

"I can't describe how bad I felt, being home while guys like
Jason Williams, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, who I fared great
against, were in the playoffs," says Francis, barely pausing to
breathe. "That was all the motivation I needed this summer. I'm
ready to be the leader of the Rockets, and I promise not to force
things. We're going to be ready to beat the Trail Blazers, the
Lakers, the Jazz--all of them."

When Francis reflects on last season, he is also vexed at the
league's arithmetic in the Rookie of the Year voting, in which he
wound up tied with Chicago Bulls power forward Elton Brand. A
deadlock? Francis doesn't want to get on a rant here, but he's
more disdainful of ties than George Karl is. "Man, there's no way
it was 50-50," he says. "I think because [Brand] was the Number 1
pick, they couldn't let him go down like that."

Francis may possess confidence in abundance, but his exuberance
is leavened by compassion, a trait rarely ascribed to
professional athletes. At a home game last season, a vocalist
mangled the national anthem and was razzed by the crowd. Before
the poor sap could scamper away, Francis ran up and gave him a
consoling hug. "Hey, man, at least you were out there trying,"
Francis said. There was also the game, in the home stretch of the
Rookie of the Year race, when Francis was a rebound short of a
triple double but asked to sit down so Tomjanovich could clear
the bench. And there was the day Norris, a CBA vagabond, signed
with Houston for the remainder of the season; Francis was so
happy for his friend that he couldn't stop grinning. "As good as
Steve is, he also has such giving characteristics," says
Tomjanovich. "People just like to be around him."

Francis says his personality was molded by the two women who
raised him, his mother, Brenda, and his grandmother, Mabel
Wilson. Brenda was, as Francis puts it, "my rock," until she died
of cancer in 1995. "All the time I hear her voice saying,
'Stevie, just be yourself,'" says Francis, staring at the tattoo
on his right arm of a crucifix sandwiched by the words IN MEMORY
and BRENDA. As for Mabel, she still wields so much influence over
her grandson that he told his recent guests, "I would offer you a
beer, but my grandma doesn't want me to keep alcohol in the
house." Never mind that Francis turns 24 in February and Mabel
lives 1,300 miles away in Ashton, Md.

As for his unshakable joie de vivre, Francis surmises that it's
been sustained by the unlikely trajectory of his career. In an
era when players with even an ounce of NBA potential hear sweet
nothings from agents and college recruiters, Francis was a 5'9"
sophomore just trying to make the varsity. He traversed the back
roads to the pros, passing through three high schools (two in
suburban Washington), two junior colleges and a year at College
Park. This is, in fact, the first off-season of his basketball
life in which he's preparing to return to the same team. "I never
was pampered," he says. "I was basically unknown until two years
ago, so everything's still new and exciting."

Having tasted stability for the first time, Francis hopes to
remain with the Rockets for the duration of his career. "If they
offered me [a lifetime contract] tomorrow," he says, "I'd take
it." Right now, though, he's more concerned with finding a new
pad. "I still want a pool, but I want an outdoor hot tub too," he
says. "I don't care if the house is on a golf course, but I want
a big backyard. And I like palm trees."

Then, like a maturing point guard in transition, Francis steadies
the tempo and takes a step back. "Listen to me," he says
sheepishly. "As a kid I would have been happy just to have a
basement with no plumbing problems. I get to live like this and
play basketball as my job. What more could I ask for?"

As he floats in his pool and stops to ponder his question, for
the first time all day he is engulfed by the sound of silence.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY Slam dunk Amid the pool and the palm trees at his suburban Houston home, Francis says he's living his fantasy life come true. COLOR PHOTO: BILL BAPTIST/NBA PHOTOS Stevie Wonder Quick to the hole and blessed with a 43-inch vertical leap, Francis dazzled fans and foes and averaged 18.0 points per game.

"Even in practice he has a level of creativity and
competitiveness you hardly ever see," Norris says.