Whenever the fire alarm rang, the game stopped. Not because
there was a fire in the gym, but because the gym was located in
the basement of a firehouse, and many of the guys playing
basketball were firemen. The backboards were made of plywood.
The rims were bent. The floor was slick tile laid over concrete.
There was barely a foot from baseline to wall, and
three-pointers were occasionally blocked by a heating unit that
hung from the ceiling. The court was brutally hot in the summer
and dimly lit most of the time, because many of the lights were
smashed during emotional outbursts and the bulbs wouldn't be
replaced for months. Steve Francis was 18 years old, and this
was the only game he could find.
It is just 3 1/2 miles from Francis's boyhood home in Takoma
Park to Maryland's Cole Field House, but after high school it
took him more than three years to get there. Talk about your
scenic routes: Francis traveled to College Park by way of
Milford, Conn.; Winter Haven, Fla.; Pasadena, Texas; and
Cumberland, Md., trekking through a lot of basketball nowheres
to finally get somewhere and become somebody. The kid brought
new meaning to the term All-America as he covered most of the
map on his way to Division I. These days Francis ignites No.
2-ranked Maryland, which is 10-0 after beating Stanford 62-60 on
Sunday and DePaul 92-75 on Monday at the MCI Center in
You can almost see the chips on the shoulders of most of the
Terrapins, especially the seniors--a group of talented players
who until now have been erratic. Forward Laron Profit was
recruited out of Dover, Del., hardly a basketball hotbed, and
his shooting touch at Maryland has been so errant that his
teammate Obinna Ekezie once noted, "Laron isn't always
consistent, and when he's bad, he can be really bad." Then
there's Ekezie, a 6'10" center from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, who
had never played organized basketball until he came to the U.S.
to attend Worcester (Mass.) Academy in 1993. He chose Maryland
largely because he could major in both engineering and business
there, but he arrived in '95 weighing 290 pounds. Says Profit,
"When I first saw Obinna I wanted to throw up. He was a fat slob
who couldn't get over half-court." Or take point guard Terrell
Stokes, who was so clueless a year ago that Terps coach Gary
Williams removed him from the starting lineup for seven games
Heck, consider Williams himself. He left a promising program at
Ohio State in 1989, just months after signing future All-America
Jimmy Jackson, to return to his alma mater, which was promptly
slapped with two years of NCAA probation (for violations that
occurred before Williams's arrival) and began losing to teams
like Coppin State and Jacksonville. "We've all been through some
tough times, so maybe there's a little vengeance involved this
year," Profit says. "We don't just want to win, we want to win
big. We're like a heavyweight champion who wants to prove he's
the best by knocking everybody out cold in Round 1."
In its first eight games Maryland thrashed its victims by an
average of 32.8 points. It won its opener against Western
Carolina by 67 and later beat Duquesne by 34. In a 92-69 blowout
of Wake Forest last Thursday, the Terps opened the game by
sinking 14 straight shots, put together runs of 13-0 and 10-0,
caused 18 turnovers and made 10 steals--and that was just in the
first half. "It's hard to imagine them playing any better," said
Demon Deacons coach Dave Odom, who after the game thanked
Williams for not running up the score. "They're so quick in
their press, and they keep bringing in new players who create
Maryland has overwhelmed most of its opponents with a withering
pressure defense. In wins over American University of Puerto
Rico, UCLA and Pittsburgh in the Puerto Rico Shootout in
November, the Terrapins forced a total of 68 turnovers.
"Sometimes it feels like we've got nine guys out there," Profit
says. "It reminds me of that UNLV team in 1990, which attacked
the ball like piranhas."
The turnovers have led to lots of gimmes for Maryland on
offense. Profit and Ekezie are scoring in double figures and
shooting 50.5% and 45.2%, respectively. Francis is hitting 58.8%
of his shots and getting 16.1 points a game. Stokes is playing
to his strengths, averaging 6.4 assists and producing more
steals than turnovers. Nearly lost in the frenzy has been the
maturation of versatile sophomore forward Terence Morris, who
leads the Terps with a 68.8% field goal percentage, scores 16.6
points a game and is their best shot blocker.
Maryland faced its toughest challenge of the young season on
Sunday against fifth-ranked Stanford, a smart, experienced team
that finally forced the Terps into a half-court game. Maryland
fell behind 51-48 with 7:49 left to play--the first time all
season that it trailed in the second half--when Francis made a
steal and two layups to shift the momentum. Later, with the
score tied at 57-57 and 1:22 left, Francis calmly hit two free
throws to put the Terps ahead to stay. He finished with a
career-high 24 points on a variety of stunning moves in a coming
out party on national television. "Before today Steve was mostly
a reputation," Williams said afterward. "Now he has a national
name and face."
The win over the Cardinal allowed the Terrapins to maintain their
No. 2 ranking as they looked ahead to an even tougher test at
Kentucky this Saturday. That's Maryland's loftiest ranking since
January 1976 and the 18th time the Terps have been voted second.
Maryland has never been ranked No. 1.
Those bittersweet numbers fit with the Terrapins' image as being
among college basketball's bridesmaids. Recent postseasons have
proved perilous for the Terps, including last March when they
lost in the third round of the NCAAs and their plane was struck
by lightning on the flight home. No Maryland team has ever gone
to a Final Four, and the Terps haven't even reached a regional
final since 1975. Williams has never advanced beyond the Sweet
16 in four chances as the coach at Boston College and Maryland,
and the Terrapins haven't played in the ACC tournament title
game in 14 years. "We talked about our postseason goals over the
summer and then filed them away," Ekezie says. "We've learned to
enjoy the moment, because there's no use dwelling on March
Madness in December."
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
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
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
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.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN SLAMMIN' Among the flying feats Francis performed while scoring 24 points against Stanford was this alley-oop dunk. [Steve Francis dunking basketball]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN BLOCK PARTY In only his second season, Morris has shown his maturation by leading the Terps in rebounds and blocked shots. [Terence Morris and opponent in game]
"We've been through some tough times, so maybe there's some
vengeance involved," says Profit. "We want to win and win big."