Steve Francis bounced around area high schools, at age 18 endured the death of his mother and stopped at two junior colleges and the University of Maryland before a nine-year NBA career that brought the 35-year-old Takoma Park native and guest of honor to the microphone on Sunday.
Behind him was a new basketball court with glass backboards, padded stanchions and his signature, painted between the half-court and 3-point lines, part of the $70,000 donation the Steve Francis Foundation made to Montgomery County Parks to renovate Takoma-Piney Branch Local Park.
In front of him were many of the friends and family members who played roles in his uncommon path to professional stardom, including his sister, Tiffany Bryant, and grandmother, Mabel Wilson, who continued to help raise him after his mother, Brenda Wilson Bryant, died of cancer in 1995.
“Most guys in the NBA, they take the traditional route,” Francis said. “I was never a high school All-American. I didn’t have those accolades. For myself, this is my accolade right here.”
The skinny, trash-talking kid from the Park Ritchie apartments on Maple Avenue stood in front of a crowd at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Sunday, and spoke about what he hoped the rebuilt park would mean to the hometown that meant so much to him.
Francis, his eyes hidden by sunglasses, began to choke up midway through his speech. His hand started to shake. Wilson stood up, walked over to him and put her hand on his to help steady the microphone.
“My mom passed away when I was 5,” Bryant told the audience. “I know she loved children and I know if she was here today, she’d be smiling. She’d just be so happy.”
Francis was a three-time All-Star for the Houston Rockets from 2002 to 2004. By then, his aggressive style and highlight-making athleticism, unique for a point guard of his size, had made him a household name. In 1998, when he transferred from the Allegany College of Maryland in Cumberland to the nationally-ranked University of Maryland basketball team for his junior season, he vaulted into the national consciousness by leading the Terrapins to what was then the best record in school history.
Tony Langley met Francis well before that. Langley, who coached Francis at the Boys & Girls Club and at Takoma Park Middle School, remembered when the 9-year-old Francis walked into the basement court at the old Takoma Park Fire Station in 1986 with no tennis shoes and the idea that football would be his sport.
“He was really small, but he could play,” Langley said.
Langley brought Francis to Foot Locker to buy him athletic shoes and guided him through a series of setbacks. He was a bench warmer as a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School, then broke his ankle upon transferring to Kennedy High School the next year. When he came back to Blair, his mother died and his focus on basketball waned.
Langley helped him along, teaching him how to play all five positions despite his size. He also connected Francis with an Amateur Athletic Union team, which helped him garner interest from college recruiters once a growth spurt finally came.
“He’s been there throughout everything,” Francis said.
In 1999, after one season in College Park, he was the second pick in the NBA Draft. The court at Takoma-Piney Branch Local is dedicated to Langley.
“A lot of guys who are late bloomers like Steve, they wind up appreciating it a lot more because they were always underestimated and undervalued,” Langley said. “It’s hometown boy does good and it’s wonderful.”
Francis now lives in the Houston area with his wife and children. He toured the park, which also has a pavillion dedicated to his mother, a skateboard park, volleyball court and playground, for the first time on May 31.
“To me, it’s like 25 years coming. For me to see that was mind blowing,” Francis said. “Growing up out there, playing out there gave me so much.”
Trees line the park, built about 30 years ago near Darwin Avenue between the middle school and a wooded area that backs up to the highrise where Francis grew up. Friends called him “710” because he lived in apartment 710. They would walk through the woods to get to the park.
“It’s about the scenery, the trees, about everybody knowing that this is a family place,” Francis said. “That’s the feeling I want everybody to have, to be able to feel like this is a place you can come to be yourself.”