Steve Francis symbolizes the value of understanding the misunderstood

WAHINGTON - NOVEMBER 10: Steve Francis #3 of the Orlando Magic talks with referee Rodney Mott #71 during the game against the Washington Wizards on November 10, 2004 at the MCI Center in Washington D.C. The Wizards won 106-96. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
WAHINGTON - NOVEMBER 10: Steve Francis #3 of the Orlando Magic talks with referee Rodney Mott #71 during the game against the Washington Wizards on November 10, 2004 at the MCI Center in Washington D.C. The Wizards won 106-96. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) /

A grim upbringing. A rapid rise to fame. An unstable NBA career. For Steve Francis, chaos was once the norm. Now, he focuses solely on rewriting that narrative.

“The storm is going to come. It’s just a matter of pushing through…”

“Absolutely,” I replied, as if I possess even a fraction of personal experience with gale-force winds and furious monsoons the likes of which Steve Francis has weathered. I don’t. How could I? Besides the fact that we are both humans with deep-rooted passions for NBA basketball, Francis and I have very little in common.

Steve Francis was born and raised in damning conditions that forced his hand into doing quite literally anything to survive; I was born and raised in a middling suburb where damning conditions nearly ceased to exist. Steve Francis worked multiple jobs and sold drugs on the streets of Washington DC as a means to end his family’s hardships; I worked on a beach during the summer months as a means to put beer money in my pocket for my upcoming semesters as a college student. Steve Francis grew up with an incarcerated father, lost his mother to cancer at the age of 18, and lost his step-father to suicide; I grew up with and continue to hold strong relationships with both of my parents. Steve Francis became a lauded professional athlete despite his life’s many troubles; I can hardly be considered a professional anything despite my life’s many fortunes.

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If the phrase ‘built different’ wasn’t such an exhausted cliché, that is precisely how I would begin to describe Steve Francis. He epitomizes the very notion. It’s not every day that a man goes from selling work near project housing to becoming a highly touted NBA Draft selection in a matter of four short years. Incredibly enough, when pulling back the curtains on that life-altering moment—one in which Francis was controversially chosen with the second overall pick in 1999—Francis would be the first to tell you that the moment in question wasn’t even the watermark of his topsy-turvy youth.

“Man, my ‘I made it’ moment was when I got to college,” he told me with feverish sincerity fixed in his gravelly tone. “Just getting out of that environment where I could have ended up way worse off than I was, that was a blessing. Being able to walk around a college campus, away from the streets that I saw impact so many lives—lives I really cared about…” Francis, as if to subconsciously reflect on his near-impossible come-up, halted his train of thought with a brief and mindful pause.

“That was when I felt like I made it.”

During an adolescence that most would wish to forget, life never failed to deal Steve Francis a grueling hand. Like many people thrust into similarly challenging circumstances—and regardless of how they played their cards—a young Francis appeared virtually destined to veer down a path in which he gambled with life and lost. By defying those unfavorable odds with his summit of basketball’s peak, however, one would be prone to assume those long-time hindrances would become a thing of the past.

Yet despite how remarkable Steve Francis’s chaotic, multi-faceted journey is to reflect upon, the narrative that follows him is strangely one-sided. Whether that be a product of Francis forcing his way out of Vancouver—a moment Francis mentioned he does not regret in the slightest—or a host of any other past choices he made during his NBA tenure remains entirely subjective. Francis himself is quick to admit that the narrative surrounding his perceived selfishness comes from a combination of things, including how he was taught to play basketball in the first place. Nevertheless, one thing is certain regarding the portrayal of the man we commonly refer to as “The Franchise”:

As opposed to applauding his ongoing efforts within his community and celebrating his improbable rise from the ashes, many choose to conjure up bastardizing headlines and set fire to his past discretions.

“So many guys from the DMV get labeled as selfish, but the DMV produces so many great players, and all of us have a chip [on our shoulder] because we all want to be the best to come from there.”

Having dealt with these slanted judgments for two decades and counting, it appears abundantly clear that Francis is fully mindful of the bantering outside voices. After all, when people are so quick to break you down, it must be difficult to look away from the wreckage.

“[The criticism] just comes with the territory,” Francis laughingly told me. A relatively standard notion from someone continuously lingering under the massive media microscope, sure, but it wasn’t until I dove into his past and present handling of that very narrative that Francis truly began to divulge a more in-depth perspective.

"“To tell you the truth, it wasn’t until I became a dad that I realized I needed to focus on [changing the narrative of my ‘selfishness’]. When I was younger, I definitely knew about [the narrative], but I didn’t really care too much because when you’re young and making good money, you don’t really focus on those things. But when I had kids, man, it was kind of a look-in-the-mirror moment for me.I didn’t want them reading about their dad getting into trouble or them getting picked on because of something their dad did or nothing like that, so being a family man and continuing to help my community became my two biggest priorities.”"

Now a fulfilled father of two who has done well to stay out of the negative spotlight the last few years, tranquility appears to be Francis’s fixed state of mind—so much so that Francis has concentrated much of that harmonious energy into revitalizing the place he calls home. Though charity was always an active pastime on his off-court portfolio (Francis proudly told me he donated $25,000 to his community before he even received his first NBA paycheck), Francis is now putting a larger onus into his communal efforts than ever before.

As of the end of 2020, Francis bought into the Houston Push, a basketball team in the semi-professional TBL (The Basketball League). Aimed at helping local athletes continue their hopeful basketball careers, Francis tells me that the TBL is more of a community than an organization. Players are even required to engage in charitable services within their geographic location to maintain their roster standing—a practice that should be significantly encouraged within all vocations.

Along with the work players participate in off the court, nearly 50 percent of TBL players have received the opportunity to further their careers in leagues beyond the TBL, per the league’s website. Francis described the opportunity as “a chance to give back to [Houston] while also providing great opportunities to [basketball players] who want to see where their talents take them.”

And if Francis’s stake in an organization that enforces communal involvement isn’t enough to sway opinions? Well, perhaps his charity will.

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Through the aptly named Steve Francis Foundation, Francis and his team have provided a tremendous boost to Houston’s struggling inner-city for nearly twenty years. The foundation, Francis tells me, works with organizations like Habitat for Humanity to build stronger neighborhoods that residents are proud to call their own. Not only this, but the Steve Francis foundation also birthed the Brenda Wilson scholarship—a financial grant thoughtfully named after Francis’s deceased mother. The ongoing scholarship is aimed toward high school seniors in the Houston area who “have demonstrated leadership, integrity, community involvement, and academic commitment.” Since its inception, the Brenda Wilson scholarship has granted over half a million dollars to more than 50 college-bound students.

The foundation’s largest order of business, however, came in 2017. Following Hurricane Harvey—the devastating tropical storm that left nearly one-third of Houston underwater—Francis hastily swung his foundation’s primary focus toward relief efforts. Through the work of Francis and his cohorts (including UPS and the Harris County precinct, to name a few), the Steve Francis Foundation donated thousands of necessary supplies like water, food, and clothing to those most significantly impacted by the catastrophe. To this day, the foundation continues to offer assistance to those struggling with the disaster’s long-term effects.

When asked about his initial motives regarding the foundation, Francis answered swiftly and matter-of-factly, as though he had been anticipating the question for hours.

"“The most important thing for me was always to be a role model both for my kids and within my community. I wanted to use whatever platform I was given to give back to the kids that grew up just like I did…Making a great living playing basketball was a blessing, but being able to show kids that they can achieve what I achieved and that they can do whatever they set their mind to is bigger than everything else.”"

It’s impossible not to look back on our conversation and vividly remember an ever-pertinent nugget that Francis offered:

“They can say whatever they want to say, but as long as you personally know who you are, nothing they say should ever bother you too much.”

So say what you want, but in his heart of hearts, Steve Francis knows who he is. He understands the ongoing narrative surrounding his purported selfishness, he recognizes the judgment he faces for the life he lived before becoming an NBA icon, and he is aware that he is mostly discredited by advanced analytics that aim to tear players down rather than build players up. He hears it all.

Well, all but the positives.

Before this, when was the last time you heard about Steve Francis? Was it when he and his partners donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in materials to people who lost everything at the hands of a natural disaster in August of 2017? Or was it when he was cited for driving under the influence just four months prior? If I were to guess, it was the latter.

To this day, regardless of his many contributions, that same silly narrative follows Francis wherever he goes. Does he want people to disrespect his legacy by focusing on the few negatives and overlooking the many positives? Definitely not. But to touch on the above quote, does he really care what we have to say? The answer beautifully remains the same. Remember, to Steve Francis, it’s all just a storm.

“The storm is going to come. It’s just a matter of pushing through…”

“Absolutely,” Mr. Francis.


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