December 10, 1998
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The legend of Maryland's Steve Francis grows almost daily.
They buzz about the time the 6-3 guard finished an alley-oop dunk over Chris Webber during a pickup game.
And everyone seems to remember his three consecutive dunks in a summer league game at Georgetown.
Oh, and did you hear about his third game at Allegany Community College (Md.) last season? You know, the one with the quadruple-double of 24 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds and 10 steals.
Such stories -- true by all accounts -- have circulated like wildfire because, before this season, so few had actually seen Francis play.
Until settling at Maryland, just a short drive from his Takoma Park, Md., home, he'd bounced around more than the basketballs he so effortlessly handles. There were two high school stops, one prep school cameo and two junior colleges on the road to College Park, one which shows all signs of some day leading to the NBA.
Before that, though, Francis looks like the player who can put a talented Maryland team over the top in its quest for a Final Four berth.
''The personnel we have this year is capable of a championship,'' he says. ''I'm sure everyone on this team wants to win the championship.''
Maryland coach Gary Williams says Francis, 20, has fit in so well because he didn't need to be a program savior.
''He was fortunate to come into a team with really good players,'' Williams says. ''The pressure was not on him to score 25 (points) a game. The pressure was for him just to help us, and that's what he's done. I don't want people to think that we wouldn't be a good basketball team this year without Steve Francis. It's not fair to the seniors.
''Steve is a great basketball player who's come into a very good team, and obviously that makes us better if he's willing to play the way he has.''
Teammates also like playing with Francis.
''We play open-court basketball and that's Steve's game,'' says guard Terrell Stokes, who plays the bulk of the time at point guard while Francis adjusts to the two-guard role. ''Get in the open court, let him slash. He can shoot the open jump shot. He can go for the alley-oops. He's exciting.''
In just 10 Division I games, Francis -- or ''Allen Iverson with discipline'' as some are calling him -- is averaging 16.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and a team-leading 2.4 steals.
His performance Sunday in a nationally televised 62-60 victory against Stanford -- 24 points, seven rebounds, four steals and countless scratch-your-head moves -- was something of a coming-out party.
In the BB&T Classic championship-game victory Monday against DePaul, Francis scored 14 and won tournament MVP.
''He's a very skilled player,'' Stanford swingman David Moseley says. ''We kind of underestimated his jumping ability, but he really gets up there. We've seen a lot of the top guys, and he's close. I don't know if he's there yet, but he's close.''
Adds Stanford guard Arthur Lee: ''You have to bring your 'A' game against him.''
In high school, Francis was academically ineligible as a freshman, was a third-stringer as a sophomore, suffered a broken ankle as a junior and a broken heart as a senior. That was when cancer took his mother, Brenda Wilson, at age 39.
The pain of her loss was so devastating to Francis that school was an afterthought. His grades suffered and he didn't graduate. Only later did he earn a GED, making him eligible for junior college, where he maintained solid grades.
''I couldn't even begin to explain how I felt about it when she died. I still can't,'' Francis says. ''It's something you have to swallow, but you always think about it. I could have just stopped playing ball, left school, just got a job . . .''
Francis' voice trails off and in the quiet of the moment your eyes canvas his muscled arm, where partially hidden under his practice jersey is a large black tattoo with Brenda's name printed across it and ''In memory'' inked in above it. It's his way of keeping his mom close to him forever.
Getting an education would have made Brenda happy, so he got his GED and went to San Jacinto Junior College (Texas) after being discovered in an AAU event in 1996. He blossomed, averaging 13.1 points, 7.1 assists and 6.6 rebounds.
But racked with homesickness, Francis transferred to Allegany, in Cumberland, in western Maryland.
Once back in familiar surroundings, his legend mushroomed. In averaging 25.3 points, 8.7 assists, 7.1 rebounds and 5.3 steals, he set a slew of school records. He became the first player to lead two unbeaten teams to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) tournament, and NBA scouts came calling like ants to a picnic.
''My coach at Allegany was getting overwhelmed with calls, so he had no choice but to bring it to my attention and see if that was what I wanted to do,'' Francis says. ''I thought about going to the pros, but I knew at the end of last year I wasn't ready. I think, mentally, I wasn't ready for it. I've learned a lot since then and I've still got two years to play here, so it's going to be a long journey.''
Not nearly as long, however, as the one he already has taken.
Long and winding road
Guard Steve Francis has emerged as a star for the unbeaten (10-0) and second-ranked Maryland Terrapins this season, but not before several stops along the way. The route taken by Francis:
Year School Status 1991-92 Montgomery Blair HS Ineligible 1992-93 Montgomery Blair HS Third-stringer 1993-94 Kennedy HS DNP, broken ankle 1994-95 Montgomery Blair HS DNP, mourned mother's death 1995-96 Milford (Conn.) Acad. DNP, left after one semester 1996-97 San Jacinto JC (Texas) Point guard for junior college finalists 1997-98 Allegany CC (Md.) First-team junior college All-American 1998-99 Maryland Starter for 10-0 TerpsBy Dan Rafael