Franchise's roller-coaster ride continues
It’s 11 a.m. on a game day and Steve Francis is studying the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup.
A curious and bored Francis pulled out a whiteboard inserted into the wall of the Knicks visiting locker room at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. He studies the board’s contents – notes made by the Tampa Bay Lightning in preparation for their matchup the night prior with the Leafs – looks baffled for a moment, and then moves on.
Francis is the only New York Knicks player to take a look at the board. But then again, when you’ve been on the ride he’s been on, why not adventure?
In a span of three weeks, he’s been on the verge of being released, hinted at retirement, hit a game-winning buzzer-beater in his hometown, taken the blame for a turnover-filled loss, and claimed to be the team’s scapegoat.
He wears his emotions on his sleeve. His animated character has a reaction time second to none when an official makes a questionable call. Steve Francis doesn’t hold back.
He didn’t attempt to conceal his frustration and disappointment with his knee injury when he was backing up Knicks guard Jamal Crawford on February 26, and he wasn’t shy to hide his newfound determination and resolve when Crawford went down with a season-ending ankle injury on February 27, making Francis an instant-starter, and bringing him back into the spotlight for the first time since November.
“We’re in a great position as a team, and we all believe in each other,” says the eight-year veteran. “And I’m definitely one of the guys who believes in everybody in this locker room.”
Infamous for his draft-day exploits in 1999, Francis had quickly developed the reputation of a selfish player – someone disinterested in team play, someone who put himself first. He refused to play for Vancouver and effectively forced a trade to Houston when the Grizzlies picked him second overall that year. He also swore the Chicago Bulls would one day regret passing on him with the first overall pick.
Despite being labeled “The Franchise” early in his tenure with the Rockets, Francis has only experienced one playoff game victory, and, personal or not, the chip on his shoulder shows he wants back.
“That was a long time ago,” he says, when asked if the inspiration for his current rejuvenation is similar to that of his promise the Bulls would regret passing on him. “I just think I’m in a different stage of my career now, and these are the steps that I have to take to try to get myself to the playoffs.
“It’s important… Everybody wants to be successful, and when you [make the playoffs] in New York – the biggest stage – who could ask for anything more?”
Teammates, for the most part, think his commitment to bringing the Knicks back is genuine.
“What he’s done as of late has been huge for us,” says center Eddy Curry, who proved he wasn’t afraid to call out the veteran guard when he screamed at him twice during Wednesday’s loss to Toronto. “We’ve got to believe that part of our success is because of him.
“He just showed a lot of heart by coming back, and in the absence of [Crawford] he’s done a good job at trying to fill that void.”
“To see a guy like that come back and keep fighting towards wanting to play, helping the team and coming to practice… It shows,” says sophomore guard Nate Robinson. “God bless him.”
Such strong words don’t run rampant in the Knicks room. Several players don’t want to talk about Francis.
“Who’s Steve Francis?” one player remarked Wednesday.
It wasn’t apparent if the player’s tongue was planted in his cheek or not.
At the times it’s present, Francis’s passion is respected and appreciated by teammates. But his emotions are what frame his public persona, and that’s where his image becomes cloudy.
Never mind Stephon Marbury or Curry, it was Francis who received the biggest reaction when introduced to the Toronto crowd Wednesday. Mainly boos. Presumably, some thanks to his sob-filled display, a rejection of Vancouver – and, in many Canadians’ minds, Canada – at that ’99 draft. Others representing simple character judgments toward a player that can kill opponents with his talent, and kill teammates with his rapacious reputation.
But the climax of Francis’s roller coaster 2006-07 season has been capsulated in these last few weeks.
The ride, for all intents and purposes, had stopped in December. Francis developed tendonitis in his right knee and, despite two separate attempts to give things another go, he seemed ready to shut it down for the season in late February.
On February 26, he told reporters the tendonitis in his knee was causing too much pain to play and indicated his season was likely over.
But later on that very night, Crawford got hurt. Things changed quickly.
Two days later, Francis was practicing. He made his return to the lineup March 2 against Golden State, scoring seven points to go along with seven assists in 22 minutes. Since his restart, Francis is averaging 18 points, 5 assists and, most incredibly, 35 minutes per game.
“This is the point I’m at now,” says the 30-year-old. “I have to play regardless of the time I’m out there or [what the] coach wants me to do. [If I] play 40 minutes, so be it.”
It is implied in places that Francis was preemptively throwing in the towel prior to Crawford’s injury. And he doesn’t deny the injury pushed him to return sooner. That’s what brings things back to the chip on his shoulder – to his determination. The inspiration that creates his drive is, in this case, irrelevant, and no one seems shocked he has quickly returned to form.
“I’m not surprised at all… Steve was extremely athletic in college and coming into the NBA, and after a while all the jumping and pounding takes a toll on your knees,” says Raptors guard Juan Dixon, Francis’s teammate for one year at the University of Maryland. “He worked his way back, he’s playing extremely well right now… He’s playing the type of basketball I know Steve Francis is capable of playing.”
What’s taken place within the return has merely increased the speed of the proverbial coaster.
Usually one of the best free throw shooters in the league, he missed a pivotal shot from the stripe with seconds left in last Saturday’s game in Washington. Francis, from nearby Silver Spring, Maryland, had likely cost his team a chance at victory with his grandmother sitting courtside.
But his ride continued. Francis got the ball back with seconds to play and dramatically hit a game-winning three-pointer with no time left on the clock. Within a moment, his excitement – those knee-jerk emotions – had him on standing on top of the scorer’s table, playing to, and almost taunting, the shocked Washington crowd.
“I’m always in the top five in free throw percentage,” he says. “So whenever I miss a free throw, it’s kind of hard on me… I was fortunate enough to be able to rebound from it and come back and hit [the shot].”
“It was a good feeling,” he adds, not breaking character. He won’t let a smile interrupt his focus.
But then Wednesday night happened, and the ride Francis was enjoying took a sharp turn. The Raptors defeated the Knicks 104-94, and Francis tied a season-high with seven turnovers. Ironically, his other seven-turnover game was the dramatic Washington victory. But the Knicks lost this time, and that converted Francis from hero to zero.
“I’ll take the blame for this,” he said after the loss. “I turned the ball over too much.”
Despite 14 turnovers in two games, he insisted he wasn’t out of touch with the team’s offense. Rather, his decision-making was lacking.
“There’s not a bone in my body that wants us not to be successful,” he said. “But sometimes you overthink in those situations.”
Knicks president and head coach Isiah Thomas didn’t finger Francis when discussing his team’s problems following the game, saying instead that “we had some untimely turnovers that really cost us.”
The New York Post reported Saturday that Thomas “lashed out” at Francis during the team’s video session the next day.
At the Knicks shootaround Friday, Francis told reporters he was the team’s scapegoat.
"When things aren't going well, who else would be the donkey that they pin the tail on than myself?” he told reporters. “It's been like that since I've been here."
On the court, he rebounded Friday night, scoring 21 points and only turning the ball over twice in 40 minutes. But the Knicks fell to the Hornets 92-90.
Despite the effort, Francis missed a three-pointer that would’ve won the game.
And the ride continues.
Brad Gagnon is a freelance reporter from Toronto
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