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When I first saw Steve Francis he was holding back tears.
The year was 1999. Francis, fresh off of a hugely successful one-year stint at the University of Maryland, was drafted with the second overall pick by the Vancouver Grizzlies. To watch Steve Francis in that moment is to watch someone coming to terms with the limitations, fair or not, placed about him by outside forces. Vancouver had posted an 8–42 record the year prior (which puts the Grizzlies among the all-time bad teams); Francis wanted to play—if not for a contender, at least not for an athletic atrocity. The television cameras did Francis no favors: He can be seen in the backstage draft room tearing up, rolling his eyes in frustration, and generally looking like he'd just been called on to serve in Vietnam. Francis was eventually traded to the Houston Rockets, where success-hungry fans instantly embraced him, and where he became, for a time, perhaps the most exciting player in the National Basketball League.
But the entirety of Francis' career, despite the three All-Star appearances and the custom shoe deals, tells a similar story: one of imposed limitations. There was his questionable trade to Orlando, his even more questionable trade to New York, and his eventual return to Houston—where he was assigned a bench role for reasons apparently beyond my comprehension. And then he was out of the league, with—if we're being honest—all of four good seasons to his name.
It's this sense of unfulfilled promise that makes Francis' essay in the Player's Tribune so worthwhile: Granted his own agency through words, Francis allows us to hear the story he wants to tell, not the one others have crafted around him. Through his writing, we learn that Francis spent his teenage years selling crack on a street corner in Washington, D.C.; and that he and teammate Yao Ming formed a charmingly affable duo both on and off the basketball court, and that the suicide of his stepfather a few years ago drove him to drink; and that he is, at his core, a man who never stopped being astonished at his own success.
That's the real story of Steve Francis, outside forces be damned.