Former Houston Rockets star Steve Francis is as surprised as anyone else that he made it to the NBA, saying that a few short years before being drafted, he was selling crack on a street corner.
In a story for The Players’ Tribune, Francis opened up about his journey. He told a story of taking a plane ride to a game with teammate and future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon when Francis was a rookie.
“Four years before I was on that plane with Hakeem telling me we’re going shopping for cashmere suits together — four years before I was about to go play against Gary Payton — I was on the corner of Maple Ave in Takoma Park, Maryland, selling drugs outside the Chinese joint,” Francis said.
Francis said that he grew up in Washington, D.C., during the crack epidemic of the 1980s. His father was in jail, and his mother had died.
“Crack devastated our entire community,” Francis said. “It was like a plague, man. I watched it. I lived it. I sold it.”
Francis always had basketball, but not in the way that others did. He barely played in high school, but he did play some AAU ball — enough that he was noticed and offered a spot on a community college team in Texas. He parlayed that into a spot with the University of Maryland. And from there he was the second pick in the 1999 NBA draft.
“At 18, I’m selling baggies on the corner in Takoma Park, getting robbed at gunpoint,” Francis said in the article. “At 22, I’m getting drafted into the National Basketball Association, shaking David Stern’s hand.”
Francis, 41, played nine years in the league. He won Rookie of the Year in 1999-2000 and was selected to three All-Star Games. In 2001-02, he averaged 21.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists. He was one of the top players in the league and appeared poised to win NBA titles. But that never came together.
Francis was traded to Orlando for Tracy McGrady in 2004, traded by the Magic to the Knicks for Penny Hardaway in 2006 and dealt by New York to Portland for Zach Randolph. Francis’ NBA career ended with a 10-game stint back in Houston in 2007-08.
After that, Francis fell off the radar, and when he surfaced in recent years, there was speculation about his lifestyle.
“And I know people were asking, ‘What the hell happened to Steve Francis?’ But the hardest part was reading some bulls — on the Internet saying that I was on crack,” Francis said. “When I thought about my grandmother reading that, or my kids reading that … that broke my heart. Listen, I sold crack when I was growing up. I’ll own up to that. But never in my life did I ever do crack.
“What happened to Steve Francis? I was drinking heavily, is what happened. And that can be just as bad. In the span of a few years I lost basketball, I lost my whole identity, and I lost my stepfather, who committed suicide.”
In April 2017, Francis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated, was fined and received a sentence of time served. Francis entered alcohol rehab after his arrest in November 2016.
Without saying that he was all the way back in 2018, Francis did say that he had found some perspective and was thinking “how damn crazy it is that I ever played one minute in the NBA … and this is the only thing I want people to remember.”
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