Steve Francis crept over the Canadian border more like a fugitive than a star. But he's not a wanted man.
Francis told WRC-TV last week that he would visit Vancouver the day after Independence Day. The Grizzlies had just taken him with the second pick of the NBA draft, so, barring something radical, he'll be spending the next four years of his professional life there. He'd never left the country before. But on draft night, Francis showcased his disappointment about being bound for Canada as soon as his selection was announced. He made things worse a day later, when asked what he knew about Vancouver during his first interview on the Grizzlies' flagship radio station: "It's cold. It rains a lot. It takes all your money," he said.
The Grizzlies and their fans endured almost the exact same abuse a year ago from Mike Bibby, a point guard from Arizona and the second pick in the 1998 draft. Bibby said he should have been the first player picked, then disparaged Vancouver, even hinted that he wouldn't be showing up. But once he actually came to town, Bibby changed his tune. And journalists figured Francis would do the same once he learned that players in Vancouver can still get real shoe contracts, not just snowshoe deals.
"People here resent the situation where Canadians know basically everything about your country and Americans don't know anything about us," says Gary Mason, sports editor of the Vancouver Sun. "The weather is one thing. OK, it rains sometimes, but the weather here overall is fantastic! But Americans think we all live in igloos! We had one player come up for a predraft workout this year who was actually wearing a big parka when he got to the airport. With Francis, we wanted to see if he'd really have a change of heart about Vancouver."
But they never got to talk to Francis. Around the time he was allegedly going to show up, the team declared that he had actually come in on July 4, a day earlier than scheduled, and had flown back to the States within mere hours of his arrival in Vancouver.
"We're all completely flummoxed at the way this was carried out," says Mason about the Grizzlies' failure to deliver Francis to him and his staff. "Nobody liked his reaction to being drafted here, but then we thought things might be getting better, that maybe with his coming here for the visit everything would smooth out. Now, who knows? It's really getting bizarre."
The most flummoxing part of Francis' tale, however, is that, of all the draftees, he was the one to fall from grace quickest. His draft-night conduct made all but his staunchest supporters forget what a great underdog he really is, that he'd used basketball and the support of friends in his Takoma Park neighborhood to overcome being orphaned as a teenager, and then risen to stardom at the University of Maryland. In a matter of minutes, Francis reduced his public persona to that of run-of-the-mill brat. It'll take a few years of backboard-shaking slams to make everybody forget the image of him holding his head in his hands on the floor of MCI Arena. In a coliseum packed with worshipful hometown fans--scalpers outside were charging, and getting, $60 for an $8 ticket--Francis carried on as if he'd been drafted into the Army, not the NBA. The truth is, if Francis was a victim of anything, it was of a marketing campaign that was too successful.
Francis apparently forgot that his stock wasn't nearly so high at the end of his college career in March. He was a 6-foot-3 point guard who had played just one year of Division I basketball out of position at shooting guard, and in that year he hadn't even earned first-team All-American honors. His run at Maryland ended when it did because Francis couldn't keep the Terrapins from being blown out by an allegedly inferior St. John's squad in the NCAA's Sweet 16. Had the NBA draft been held within a few weeks of that game, Francis wouldn't have been whining about not being the No. 1 pick. Nor would he have pulled a Bibby by saying, "The Bulls took a gamble" by using that choice on Elton Brand, a younger, bigger--turns out Brand is 6-foot-8, after all--and stronger kid who happens to be the reigning college player of the year.
But over the past few months, Francis' agent, Jeff Fried, made his client seem so high-profile and desirable that Vancouver couldn't pass him up. Fried, who had never represented a basketball player of Francis' caliber before, made his client ubiquitous. Francis began making in-studio appearances on local television and radio stations as often as they'd have him. Fried got the player to tell his wonderful life story to ESPN. He made him available to national magazine writers and newspapers around the country. The agent even started a charitable foundation in Francis' name. He shelled out a reported $40,000 to have Chris Webber's old wall by the MCI Center covered with a shot of Francis a week before the draft and who knows how much to throw the biggest party in town, at Sequoia, on the eve of the selection process.
Fried's scheme couldn't have been more effective. Everybody in basketball and most people out of the game knew of and loved Francis by draft night. If the same cast of characters were drafted on the basis of their March reputations alone, Francis would in all likelihood still have been on the board after Vancouver picked. But by last week, at the culmination of the hype crusade, the Grizzlies were under incredible pressure to take Francis if he was still available, or risk alienating the team's fans.
Don't think an agent makes a difference? Well, two months ago, Corey Magette and Lamar Odom would have been taken ahead of Francis. But Magette decided to become his own agent, and by draft day, he'd proved he had a fool for a client. After becoming essentially invisible, Magette was drafted with the 13th pick by Seattle, who then just gave him away to Orlando as a way to clear up space under the salary cap. And Odom, once the odds-on favorite to be the top choice, fired his original agent, and, without anybody to pull his strings, started having public arguments with himself about whether he really wanted to play pro ball next season. Odom ended up going, with the fourth pick overall, to the Los Angeles Clippers, a historically woeful team that, unlike the Grizzlies, really needs a point guard. Without all the hype, that's probably where Francis would have ended up.
And--who knows?--he may still. After the bizarre appearance/disappearance that Francis pulled last weekend, Mason and many other Vancouverians would probably be willing to bet some of their devalued dollars that the draftee won't ever report for duty there. The locals sense that something radical, like a blockbuster trade or prolonged holdout, is on the horizon.
And they couldn't care less.
"People here see a kid who's going to be handed an $8 million contract, and what Steve Francis expressed about Vancouver was just pure ignorance," says Mason. "The pervasive feeling in this city was, 'We don't need this. Get him out of here now!'"
For a while at least, the rights to Francis will stay in the great Northwest. NBA rules prevent any trades from taking place until Aug. 1. His presence around here, meanwhile, has already diminished. The wall on F Street that housed his giant photo is now consumed by a poster for D.C. United. --Dave McKenna