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Steve Francis looks back at his NBA career, Kobe and a photo shoot with Destiny’s Child

‘My life, overall, has been a blessing and I think telling my story can inspire someone else’

It’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since Steve Francis was named the 1999-2000 NBA Rookie of the Year (sharing the award with Elton Brand).

Francis was spectacular that season, averaging 18 points and finishing as the runner-up in the 2000 slam dunk contest best-known for Vince Carter’s incredible performance. He appeared to be a guy you could bank on becoming an NBA superstar, a player who would have no problem living up to his “Steve Franchise” nickname.

But as memorable as Francis was for his play in Houston — he started three All-Star Games — he went on to play only five full seasons with the Rockets and made just one postseason appearance. Francis, who played for three teams under eight coaches in his nine NBA seasons, said a lack of stability was a major obstacle during his career.

Francis outlined some of the other challenges he faced over the course of his life and career in an eye-opening piece he wrote for The Players’ Tribune in 2018, and he plans to make a docuseries about his life.

We caught up with Francis recently to discuss his plans for the docuseries,
the Rockets’ chances in the playoffs and the photos that appeared on the internet in recent years that had people concerned about his well-being.

What are your thoughts about the NBA using the bubble to shine a light on the social issues that have impacted this country?

I think it’s a change, and it shows that the league, as a whole, really wants to get involved with what the players want. When I came to the league, the NBA pretty much dictated the rules and wouldn’t bend. I’m happy to see Adam Silver be open to listen to the players and what they feel strongly about, and not shying away from the fact that the players and all of us in America are frustrated by what’s going on right now.

What do you think about the Rockets’ postseason chances playing small ball in the tough Western Conference?

Say what you want about James Harden — he does take up a lot of clock and he does dribble a lot at times — but he’s gotten better, and the team has gotten better by adding Russell Westbrook. Even though we’re playing small ball right now, I can see us getting past the first round and eventually getting to the Finals. Everyone says it’s going to be L.A. — the Clippers or the Lakers. Just don’t sleep on the Rockets. I think it’s going to be the Rockets and Clippers in the conference finals.

Can you believe that it’s been 20 years since you were finishing your first NBA season, which ended with you being named co-Rookie of the Year?

Steve Francis shared the 1999-2000 NBA Rookie of the Year award with Elton Brand in his first season with the Houston Rockets.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

The last 20 years, it’s gone by in a breeze. Twenty years ago I was getting accustomed to traveling NBA-style, being accustomed to having capital, being able to do the things I’d always dreamt of when I was a kid. Twenty years ago was the beginning of a new era of my life, just as I’m now entering a new era of my life.

What’s the new era of your life involve?

With all that I’ve been through in my life and the journey that I’ve made through growing up on welfare, seeing family members involved with drugs and persevering through all of those things, I’m working on telling my story through a docuseries. We’re in the beginning stages of planning it.

My life, overall, has been a blessing and I think telling my story can inspire someone else. I went through a lot, but was able to persevere and go to college, become a dad and be a leader in my community in Houston. I want to show all angles of my life, and also tell the stories of the people that I encountered along the way growing up in Washington, D.C., who didn’t have the platform that I have.

You’ve talked through the years — and in your article in The Players’ Tribune — about your dark years. Will we get stories about those dark years in more detail?

Yes, I’m going to be upfront. That dark time in my life, people perceived it as a deep problem like alcoholism. But if you really look at the things I was going through, it was kind of a lost period in my life. You have tragedy in your life. Death in your family, and death of your career. People are human beings. Just like any other person going through something like that, you get sick.

I got sick, I had to go to the hospital and get well. I’m well now. But there was a lot of speculation about drugs and other things, and when those things come about, that’s when you know who your real core family is. I really look forward to tackling those questions in the docuseries.

There were a lot of pictures of you circulating online during those dark times that had people concerned about you. What was your take on the reaction to those photos?

All those photos I was like, ‘Damn, where was I at? Did I have fun that night?’

Honestly, I don’t care about a picture. Anybody can take a bad picture. They can say anything. Pictures don’t mean anything to me; it’s who you are morally.

What did bother you about that time in your life?

The only reaction I was concerned about was from my kids. My kids got a little upset and they were younger at the time. They were hearing things. So when they got upset, that’s when it bothered me.

Let’s shift back to your NBA career. You were drafted by Vancouver but were adamant about not going. Any regrets about that move?

Not at all. It’s a business. I mean, basketball is basketball wherever you play.

A lot of people — myself included — will tell you that Vancouver is a great city. Did you ever come to like the place when you went up there to play?

I never got the opportunity to go out. When we went there to play, I always had security outside my hotel room.

Security outside your room?

Yeah, buddy. People threw batteries at me. People had pictures of me with a pacifier. People were talking about my grandmother. It was a hostile environment. With everything that was going on, I think I handled it professionally.

The death of Kobe Bryant this year hit everyone hard. What did you learn from Kobe during your career?

To always play hard. I started in the backcourt with Kobe during my three All-Star Games. And he’d get upset that people weren’t playing defense. Every time he took the court — even in the All-Star Game — he was playing to prove that he was the best player and we were the best team.

I remember playing the Lakers in Los Angeles one year, and Kobe always guarded me because he always wanted the challenge of taking the best player. I did a spin move on the baseline and made a fadeaway — something I had been working on all summer — and he goes, ‘Oh, you been working on your game.’ The fact he noticed, that meant a lot to me.

What was it like playing with one of the greatest centers of all time, Hakeem Olajuwon?

Retiring Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon (left) greets Steve Francis (right) before an NBA game against the Golden State Warriors at Compaq Center on Nov. 9, 2002, in Houston.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

He was a big brother, and uncle. From the first day he taught me about professionalism. He was a guy who had a legacy, and it was great to see how much love he got from the city of Houston.

Here was a guy who came to the United States of America with nothing, and he built an empire and created a following that will always be there. Hakeem had an influence on me off the court because he was a very intelligent businessman. He helped me learn how to handle my off-the-court business.

That legacy for Olajuwon stems from playing all but one of his 18 NBA seasons in Houston. You were traded from Houston after five seasons. That make you bitter?

Oh, … yeah. Who wouldn’t be? I built the Toyota Center. That’s when I learned about the business aspect of the NBA. I went to Orlando where, at the start, we were doing great. Then I went to New York. The biggest problem with me was there was never any stability with coaches. I had two coaches in Houston. Three coaches in Orlando. Two coaches with the Knicks, and Rick Adelman when I got back to Houston. Where is the stability in that career? Not much.

You look at Vince Carter, who played until he was 43. Your career ended at 32. Is it upsetting that you couldn’t play longer?

It’s bittersweet. Do I wish I could have played longer? Absolutely. I didn’t have that opportunity. I was angry for a bit. I knew I could still play. But you can’t have everything you want in life. You can’t be bitter or beat yourself up about situations you can’t control. At least I was able to make it to the NBA and make an impact. Even today, I’d like to be back in the NBA in some aspect.

Finally, I want to ask you about that rookie season which ended 20 years ago. Before you even stepped foot on the court, you shared an ESPN The Magazine cover with Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child. What do you remember about that day?

ESPN The Magazine‘s NBA 2001 issue featuring Steve Francis and Destiny’s Child.

Marc Baptiste for ESPN

For me, it marked the beginning of my career. I was a rookie and doing a magazine cover with those young ladies who were known — but not yet well-known. I heard their music a little before the shoot, but when I found out about the shoot I began to realize that, in Houston, they were a hot group.

My biggest concern going in was to not let them outdress me. I made sure to check with my guy, Cuttino Mobley, to make sure I had the right clothes.

It was a great feeling knowing that both of us were in the beginning stages of something special in Houston, and we were going to be able to share the stage in a national magazine, starting something special in Houston. When it was over I was like, ‘Damn, I bet every player in the NBA would like to be me right now.’ It was a great way to announce I had arrived.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.