Bouncing around, never giving up
On the road, their lockers are in close proximity, and they use nicknames for each other that are indecipherable to an outsider. The talk with the back-and-forth banter of old chums from back in the day, which is what they are. They are diminutive guards with shake-’em-up handles that cripple ankles and excite the crowd.
Steve Francis and Moochie Norris share many a trait -- from growing up in and around Washington D.C., to losing parents at an early age, to struggling in high school to attending junior colleges in Texas, to playing guard for the Rockets -- but they couldn't be more different.
Is it about money? After a moody Francis said Tuesday, "I don't do interview before games," Norris, within earshot of the man they call Franchise, noted that "well, he is the $80 million man."
But it might not be -- Norris pulls in a cool $3.6 million a year himself, which isn't bad for a barely 5-foot-11 guard who has never averaged double figures in this his seventh season in the league.
It could just be about personality. Norris is always the first off the bench to high-five teammates, wears a perpetual smile, and is genuinely happy to be in the NBA.
"It's still a dream to me, I'm living the dream everyday," he said.
Norris grew up in the rough neighborhood of Northwest Washington D.C., just a long three-pointer from Takoma Park, Maryland, where Francis honed his game.
The area is a hotbed for hoops talent, as the pair came up idolizing and playing against the likes of Reggie Williams (Georgetown), Charles Smith (Georgetown), Michael Smith (Boston Celtics), Lawrence Moten (Syracuse), Johnny Newman (San Antonio Spurs), and Sam Cassell (Minnesota Timberwolves).
Norris played mentor to Francis, who is four years his junior, and remembers their days together.
"We have various gyms all over, and we'd go wherever the best run was that day," he said.
Growing up, both ran into problems in the classroom and off the court.
At Montgomery Blair High School, Francis was academically ineligible as a freshman, and then a third string varsity bench warmer as a sophomore. He left for Kennedy High School as a junior, but was sidelined by a broken ankle.
"It was definitely a challenge, but having a good family - my mom and my grandma - they helped me get through it," Francis said briefly, not at all enjoying recalling his formative years.
He went back to Montogomery Blair as a senior, but had to sit out per transfer rules. The devastating blow was when his mother, Brenda Wilson, passed away in March of 1995. A distraught Francis turned reclusive and a basketball career looked like a longshot at best.
Norris' mother passed away when he was a freshman in high school, and he didn't play for two years, transferring from famed Dunbar to Cardoza.
"Everybody had their rough times," Norris said. "A lot of guys don't recover from losing their parents. A lot of them resort right to the streets."
The lure of the streets is tough to resist. For inner city kids who lose a family member, and who have nobody at home to take care of them after school, the streets are the answer.
"You're out there, and it's all you know," Norris said. "You come home from school, and you're out there all day. It's hard on kids. I see it the more I go back. The younger the kids are in the drug game, selling drugs, doing drugs. It’s a struggle all the way. We were just trying to make it out of there alive."
These two did.
They got away from trouble, matriculating to junior colleges in Texas for a second basketball life.
Francis grew a few inches, and with the growth spurt, his game blossomed. A promising AAU season after high school graduation caught the eye of several prep schools and junior colleges. Francis first landed at Milford Prep in Connecticut in the Fall of 1995, but that stay lasted just one semester. In the summer of 1996, at an AAU tournament in Florida, he was selected to the All-tournament team, and the creme de la creme of junior colleges – San Jacinto (Texas) – came calling.
Norris, who went to Odessa Junior College in Texas, before matriculating to Auburn, put a heavy emphasis on AAU summer ball helping advance both of their careers.
"You try to play in as many summer leagues as possible and try to get your name out there to get an opportunity," Norris said. "You never know who's going to be at those games. It's the perfect time for them to go out and showcase."
Francis spent one season at San Jacinto, and then transferred back home to Allegany Community College in Maryland. He put in a legendary two years of indentured basketball servitude in JUCO land, becoming what is believed to be the first player to take two unbeaten teams to the national junior college championships in Hutchinson, Kan.
At Allegany he was tabbed a Junior College All-American, and Maryland came calling. He went to the Terrapins, then the NBA, and in 2002, signed a 6-year, $80 maximum deal with the Houston Rockets.
Tuesday, in an impressive 86-75 road victory over the defending Eastern Conference Nets, Francis’ game mimicked his career path. Terminally slow start – 0-for-8 first half, 2-for-12 shooting after three quarters, then a strong finish. Francis scored eight points during a pivotal fourth quarter run, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists.
Call him moody, call him a shoot-first point guard who dribbles too much. But Steve Francis never gives up.
Jason McIntyre is a a freelance journalist in New York City and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
Tell us what you think about this article. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com