The timing of Maryland's prosperity couldn't be better, filling a void of sports success in the area created by the struggles of the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Washington Capitals and the Georgetown basketball team. The Terps are even being mentioned in the same sentence with the ACC elite for the first time in years. "Growing up in Gibsonville, North Carolina, I remember the tone of reverence that my family and friends used when speaking about North Carolina and Duke basketball," says Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow. "This season we're being discussed with that same reverence, and that's heady company."
All these accolades are difficult for a demanding coach to process. "It's way too early to get carried away, but I love the way we're playing," says Williams, who received a lucrative contract extension last week. "We keep coming up with answers to all the tough questions."
Even Williams is a little amazed that many of those answers are coming from a player who started only one game in high school. Francis played one season as a 5'3" sophomore at Montgomery Blair High in Silver Spring, Md., usually as the third-string point guard. He missed his other three high school seasons because of a combination of academic lethargy, transfers and injuries. In March of his senior year, his mother, Brenda, who had raised him and his two older brothers as a single parent, died of cancer at age 39, a loss that led a distraught Steve to do so poorly in school that he failed to graduate.
By that time though, Francis had sprouted almost a foot and had improved enough as a player that he was steered to a Connecticut prep school by a family friend. He couldn't afford the tuition payments there, however, so he returned to Takoma Park in November 1995 and began playing almost every day below the firehouse. He still possessed the ability to create shots in traffic, which he had developed during his days as the shortest runt on the court, but he had also improved his jump shot. Francis dominated pickup games, but he was excelling in obscurity. "You started thinking about playground legends like Earl Manigault, and you wondered if Stevie would ever be anything more than a superstar in the 'hood," Montgomery Blair High coach Dale Lambert says. "But Stevie was always a little kid with a big heart, and he refused to let the bad times consume him."
Steve kept heeding Brenda's advice to never give up on his dreams. (He even got a tattoo on his right biceps that reads IN MEMORY over the name BRENDA, and he rubs it before every foul shot.) Francis finally caught his break in the summer of 1996 when he was invited to play on a Maryland AAU team that competed in the 19-and-under nationals in Florida. He was named to the all-tournament team and, armed with his high school equivalency diploma, got a scholarship to San Jacinto College, the Texas juco powerhouse. The following summer Francis became homesick and transferred to Allegany Community College in Cumberland, Md., where he averaged 25.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 8.7 assists. "He wasn't just our point guard, he was our best rebounder, best defender and best passer. The way he elevates, it looked like he was posing for pictures around the rim," Allegany coach Bob Kirk says. "We must have had 30 Division I coaches come here to scout him, and every one told me that he's a can't-miss for the NBA." Francis even briefly considered declaring himself eligible for the draft after last season, but instead he enrolled at Maryland—his sixth school in the last six years.
When preseason practice began and Francis displayed a dazzling crossover dribble reminiscent of Allen Iverson's, some observers worried that a hotshot juco newcomer might drive a wedge through a team stocked with seniors. Instead, Francis has played unselfishly, emerged as the Terps' best player in the clutch and averaged 28.8 minutes a game, the most on the team. "I have never doubted myself, because when people came to the firehouse they would see me play and ask, 'Who's that? Where does he go to school?' " Francis recalls. "I always figured I'd play Division I and get on TV, but I had to wait a little longer than I thought. They say the best flowers are the late bloomers, and I'm still blooming."
The gym below the firehouse is closed now. The rims are torn down, and there are support beams in place to keep the floor of the firehouse from collapsing onto the abandoned court. About the only thing that remains from the old days are the memories and a few pictures of African-American heroes stapled to the walls. Francis stopped to look at those faces while visiting the gym last Friday, studying them the way he did three years ago. He stared into the eyes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall and Harriet Tubman. "I used to think about all the people who doubted them and all the hard work they had to put in to get where they got," Francis said. "It teaches you that you can overcome anything, and that if you really believe in yourself, there's no telling what heights you might reach."
It's a lesson the Terrapins seem to have learned as well.