Nearly four decades have passed since that winter night in Jackson, Ohio, when Bevo Francis jumped and soared and shot his way into basketball history. But Wayne Wiseman can still close his eyes today, return to that hardwood floor and see the scene that would forever define for him the two years he spent watching the man spin magic into memory.
"I can still see it in my mind," Wiseman says. "He went up to take the shot, and I remember thinking, It doesn't have a chance...."
Ah, but this was Bevo Francis during another of his out-of-body nights, when every ball he tossed into the air had a chance. It was Feb. 2, 1954, and tiny Rio Grande (Ohio) College—a school of 92 students, just 38 of them men, eleven of whom filled the roster of the school's basketball team—was racing through the final minutes of a blowout over Hillsdale (Mich.) College. Even before that February evening, the gangly, 6'9" Francis, a sophomore at Rio Grande (pronounced, then and always, RYE-oh grand), had established himself as the most celebrated college gunner of his day, master of a turnaround jump shot that he could hit from all points of the compass. He was a deadly foul shooter as well, and beginning in the 1952-53 season, his freshman year, Francis scored points at a rate so extraordinary that he became honey to the media bees, evolving quickly from a kind of outsized public curiosity into a national sports darling.
In a college game still suffering the stings of the 1951 game-fixing scandals, here was a shy, long-boned, earnest young man of 21, the son of a poor Ohio clay miner, whose appearances in ever larger and richer venues—he would take his team to play in Madison Square Garden and in Boston Garden—commanded enough money to help keep his financially moribund college alive. If the hype was huge, it was not empty.
"He was one of the greatest shooters that ever lived," says Marty Blake, now the NBA's director of scouting, who saw Bevo play on several occasions. "It was a gift. He could not only shoot but shoot with range. And he was an excellent passer, too."
His passing skills, however, were not to be seen on this night against Hillsdale, in the Jackson High School gym. This was a night for shooting.
In his freshman year at Rio Grande, over a 39-0 season, Francis had shattered nearly every national individual scoring record extant—from most field goals (708) and free throws (538) to the highest scoring average per game (50.1). Of course, bigger NCAA schools raised an unholy stink about those marks, claiming they should not count because Rio Grande's schedule was shot through with junior colleges and military bases. The NCAA agreed after the season, ruling: "Intercollegiate record claims must be based on schedules made up largely of four-year, degree-awarding institutions." So Bevo's freshman records disappeared from the books, among them the most remarkable of all, the single-game scoring record that he set against Ashland Junior College on Jan. 9, 1953: 116 points on 47 field goals and 22 free throws.
Newt Oliver, Rio Grande's pugnacious and outspoken coach, had been stewing over the ruling for months. And now, against the four-year, degree-granting Hillsdale, Oliver at last saw Bevo's chance to seize the day, and the airwaves and headlines with it. At halftime Francis had 43 points, and he was shooting with the eerie, unconscious rhythm of a man who could not miss. The Rio Grande offense was an uncomplicated food chain leading straight to Francis—"Feed Bevo!" Oliver would exhort his men—and in the locker room the coach again implored his players to dish the ball to the man. "With Bevo scoring, we're one of the elite," Oliver told them. "We go to the big arenas! Without Bevo scoring, we go back to playing Podunk basketball. Slip into oblivion. We can make headlines all over the country tonight! They robbed us of the record bust year. We'll run it over 116.1 want that record back tonight!"
Oliver turned to Francis. "Bevo, you're as hot as fire! You shoot that ball every chance you get. I don't want any passing off. I want you to put that ball in the air!"
For the last half of the basketball game, Francis took the feeds and made the shots. He scored 31 points in the third quarter, giving him 74; by the fourth quarter he was quadruple-teamed by Hillsdale defenders. "I was always moving," Francis recalls. "I'd go to the top of the key. If I didn't get the ball, I'd go back down the lane and swing out on one of the corners."