Why I’ll Always Love Steve Francis and the Houston Rockets
By Joe Edwards
“I thought we were really building something, something very good in Houston. Obviously that’s not the direction they want to go. I still think we could be a very good team. I’m not crying. Like I told you before, I know this is a business. Things like that happen. I’m not mad. I’m not upset. This is what they’re trying to do. But like I said, I still think we could be something.”
He stood there looking at the ground with a dissolved, almost spaced, facial reaction.
I remember that as a kid more than I remember the actual interview.
I remember defending him while all my friends would trash his game.
I remember hating Tracy McGrady.
I remember loving Cuttino Mobley.
In an inteview with ESPN, ex-Rockets guard Moochie Norris, who played with Stevie Franchise and Mobley in Houston said:
“They’re like the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin, except maybe they’re Batman and Batman, because neither one of them is the sidekick. You don’t see a lot of guys in the NBA as tight as that, especially after they get traded. But they are. And you should have seen it back when we all played together. I mean, you just never saw one without the other one there.”
I remember wearing the pajama pinstripe #3 jersey for literally 72 hours until my mom, in protest, made me take it off.
One thing is sure, when the city of Houston lost Steve Francis, it lost a genuine piece of Texas‘ soul.
In a way, Steve Francis represented exactly what I wanted to become as a little kid.
He had a subtle, intact sense of rebellion—no fear to express his emotions.
Growing up, when people would tell me about the draft where he declined to go to the Vancouver Grizzlies as the second pick in the 1999 draft I sided with the Franchise (Who really wants to live in Canada anyway? Keanu Reeves, Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette? Steve Francis does not fit that roster).
No wonder the high flying kid from Virginia’s upper lip quivered when his name was called; and so, he declined Canada Basketball on draft day. Who cares? I thank God Houston got him.
After transferring to Maryland from previous community colleges, The Franchise carried the Terrapins through a standout year to finish Second Team All-American as we watched the Terps get knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen by St. Johns.
After his infamous draft experience and the demanded trade from Vancouver to Houston, Francis then continued to set ablaze his rookie year under the legendary and beloved, former two-time NBA Champion and Rockets head coach: Rudy Tomjanovich.
As the team transitioned into new head coach Jeff Van Gundy in 2003—and into red and grey jerseys from the blue I loved—I reluctantly bought the No. 3 Francis jersey, only to watch him soon depart from the team.
I saw the Houston Rockets transition into something I secretly hated.
Spearheaded by the new 7’6” Chinese celebrity, Steve Francis was forced to dribble less and feed the post more often.
I’ll always believe that Steve Francis carried Yao Ming into success. Franchise was the floor general; and as Yao transitioned into Western-style basketball, Francis helped him transition his game into the roughneck basketball needed to beat Shaquille O’Neal, and become a quality center in the NBA overall.
Lineup Tm FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT PTS TRB%
Francis/Mobley HOU +.006 +1.7 +3.8 +.017 +2.6 +3.9 +4.1
Francis/Ming HOU +.019 +0.9 +2.2 +.006 +3.0 +3.9 +2.8
As the team transitioned under a new coach, new uniform and newly-prioritized defense, it almost felt like I watched the team slow down. As Yao Ming developed, his statistics benefitted under the Van Gundy regime; and, naturally, Francis saw diminished numbers.
Yet as Franchise reigned in his third All-Star selection, he balked at the trade that many Houstonians refer to as genius.
In 2004, the Houston Rockets traded Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley, and Kelvin Cato to the Orlando Magic for Tracy McGrady, Juwan Howard, Tyronn Lue, and Reece Gaines.
Francis was upset and frustrated about the sudden transition to Orlando.
Some accredit the depreciating relationship between new coach Van Gundy and Francis for the resulting trade. Francis didn’t point any fingers, though.
“We were basically a half-court team. You know we wanted to try to run, but it was tough. We didn’t really work on running in practice enough for us to be real comfortable in the games with running.”
Yet Van Gundy, himself, recently told our Air Alamo editor Bill Simpson in an interview:
“I really enjoyed Francis’ group, they presented such unique challenges. I was just talking to somebody today, we were laughing about some of the things, you know. But Francis, I will say this, we traded him for McGrady, but it wasn’t because of what we didn’t like about Francis. He was good to deal with, he played hard.”
As Francis arrived in Orlando, he welcomed a smooth transition back to the more familiar run-and-gun offense to which he was accustomed.
I remember catching glimpses of him in his Orlando jersey on SportsCenter occasionally in the mornings before school—a random game winner here, a 30-point game there—it just wasn’t the same for me anymore.
My heart was broken that Steve Francis wouldn’t emulate some sort of Cal Ripken, Jr. for Houston basketball. It felt like a best friend had moved to some state with a dumb name where everyone wore goofy royal blue jerseys, sorry Orlando.
Steve Francis MP FG% 3P% TRB AST STL BLK PTS
6 seasons HOU NBA 39.1 .430 .345 6.0 6.3 1.6 0.4 19.0
2 seasons ORL NBA 38.0 .426 .284 5.4 6.5 1.3 0.3 19.4
Despite of the transition, Francis drastically upgraded his points per game from 16.6 in 2003 to 21.4 in 2004.
Followed with 5.8 rebounds per game and 7.0 assists, Francis proved he was more comfortable back in the fast-paced style growing within the league.
Yet in the 2005 season, Francis was suspended for “conduct detrimental to the team“.
Soon after, Steve Francis was traded to the New York Knicks in 2006 for Trevor Ariza.
Stevie Franchise would never spend more than two years on any other team besides his beloved Houston Rockets, and his statistics would begin to fall greatly.
After the stint in New York, he had a brief, but failed comeback in Houston, followed by yet another failed experimental year, this time in China playing for the Beijing Bears.
After a plateau in effort towards a comeback, it almost seemed that Steve Francis disappeared from the basketball world as a whole.
With sporadic glimpses at Houston night clubs, a new focus on his rap career and the duties of his family; it seemed that he had new priorities.
I recently saw a glimpse of Francis on TV as a spectator at this year’s All-Star festivities. It was shocking to see how different he looked from my adolescent memories of the high-flying franchise centerpiece that used to run the All-Star game.
His aesthetics looked drastically aged, tired and some have even speculated that he’s caught himself into a whirlwind of drug addiction.
In a convoluted response of internet rumors, some were even saying he recently voluntarily engaged in drug rehabilitation; yet I doubt anyone, especially from the general public, knows what Steve Francis is currently doing (perhaps besides Mobley).
All I know is I hope he knows Houston still loves him.
(As evident through the constant Francis jerseys I see throughout the city—I make a point to talk to anyone wearing a Francis jersey, you would be surprised how many fans of his are still around.)
Maybe in a lot of ways, I love Steve Francis because he represents what I envisioned myself to be on a good day: a rebellious fighter with scrappy moves to success, and a never ending ability to sporadically excite someone watching.
The Franchise gave me hope. The style in which he produced points would always be Houston’s way of emulating a modern David vs. Goliath: The small kid with an incredible leap from Takoma Park, Maryland who took on the world, one crossover at a time.
It was almost ironic to see his last years in Houston, again next to the colossal Yao Ming.
I wanted Franchise and the Cat back to rule the West, not necessarily as a Rockets fan; but as a fan of the city Houston, as a fan of the underdog and the scrappy—David with his slingshot, Steve Francis with his crossover.
I’ll always love you, Stevie Franchise.
***All stat lines courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com