On June 30, 1999, Steve Francis did not smile after his name was called during the NBA Draft. He did not smile after he hugged his grandmother, tugged a crisp Vancouver Grizzlies hat onto his head, or as he shook hands with commissioner David Stern on the stage at MCI Center, in Washington, D.C.
More to the point, he looked miserable.
Not only had the 22-year-old just been selected by a struggling expansion team, he had been picked to play in a foreign city on the other side of the continent. He did not want to go, and that reality set off a months-long melodrama that still echoes across the Lower Mainland today.
Francis smiled more easily during a visit to Toronto earlier this month, now 45 and relaxed in the lobby of a boutique downtown hotel. He went on to have a long career in the NBA — he was a three-time All-Star during his decade in uniform — and had, until recently, enjoyed a long run as a villain in Vancouver.
He is a star in an engrossing documentary on the doomed Canadian basketball team prepared with care and attention by filmmaker Kathleen Jayme. With “The Grizzlie Truth,” Jayme weaves dozens of key figures from Vancouver’s NBA cameo, which started in 1995 and ended when the franchise left for Memphis in 2001.
A case is made that Francis was a final death blow for the team — a signal young American stars would always resist playing in the Canadian hinterlands — and that he left without remorse. But Jayme, who is famously a diehard Grizzlies fan, also provides important context, building a more nuanced, compassionate narrative.
She convinced Francis to speak on camera and offer his side of the story.
“It’s probably something that should have been done a while ago,” said Francis, still warming in the lobby after venturing into a brisk Toronto morning.
He took time out of his busy schedule to field 20 Questions from The Athletic, talking about the film, the Toronto Raptors, and the Canadian team he might have helped save.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
1. How have you enjoyed your morning in Canada?
Oh, it’s cold. I probably had the best breakfast I’ve had in a couple of weeks, I’d like to say. The meals have been great, and I get to wear some nice clothes.
2. In 1999, you declined to travel for a pre-draft workout in Vancouver, but less known might be that you also declined to go for a workout in Toronto: Why was that?
I thought I was going to be locked into either Chicago or Charlotte. Both of those teams — along with a lot of other teams — were able to come to the University of Maryland to see me work out. Coach Butch, here, was cool. I kind of knew him. Honestly, he was trying to convince me to come to Toronto.
3. Former Raptors coach Butch Carter?
Yeah, Coach Carter. He came to D.C. so many times. He was great. I don’t know if anybody knew that, but I probably talked to him the most.
4. It’s only a nine-hour drive from here back to your hometown, in Takoma Park, Md.
Hey, that would have been easier.
5. What might you hope viewers learn about you through this documentary?
My humble beginnings. That I’m a normal person, just like anyone else. God said I could be one of those selected people to be in the prestige of the NBA. At no point did I ever think I was bigger than anyone. I still don’t.
6. Give me your reaction during the film when former Grizzlies player Antonio Harvey says: “Steve Francis’ decision destroyed the franchise.”
It was so wild. I’m talking to him the whole day. I meet him all day, and we’re just talking. I’m like, we’re cool. He’s telling me about his kids, I’m talking about my kids. And it smacked me in my face: Like, “God! I didn’t know you felt like that.” But it was great. Everybody was honest. We’d seen it at the same time. So after that, we had a great conversation and he said, “I never knew you felt like that.”
7. Is that a lot to put on one 22-year-old player?
Especially where I came from. I grew up on welfare. Money wasn’t that easy for us coming up. It wasn’t like it was just going to be me. I was taking care of a whole neighbourhood. Still do to this day, in Takoma Park. Houston, too.
8. Antonio Davis didn’t like the metric system, and Tracy McGrady thought we had too much curling on television.
The only thing that I heard about, of course, was the cold. I was an East Coast guy, so I was used to the snow. And just the distance. It was the distance of getting back home, for me.
9. If U.S.-born players ever chatted privately about Canada back then, what might they have said?
What the women looked like. Definitely what the women looked like outside the United States. That was one thing that I was looking forward to. At 22? I was like, “You know what, I wonder what these Vancouver women look like?” Never got a chance.
10. How do you think U.S.-born players might view playing in Canada today?
I think it’s more open, because it’s the international game of basketball. The floor is open. And you can put together a good team with some young guys. There’s a lot of young, talented players out here, with no names, and you see they’re starting to make a name for themselves in the NBA.
11. Two decades later, what memory remains freshest from your public visit to Vancouver?
Robson Street. That was my first time out of D.C./Maryland, out of the country. I knew how significant it was.
12. You bought two CDs at a downtown record shop that day: Can you remember which ones?
Nas and Jay-Z.
13. Local news reports said you bought albums by Lil’ Cease and Too Short.
I can believe that.
14. In another interview, director Kat Jayme said you eventually blocked her on Instagram when she was trying to line up an interview for the film: What happened to soften your heart?
At first, I just thought it was another Vancouver person telling me how much I ruined their life. All these years, people still tell me those things. Softened my heart? (Jayme appeared) at an autograph session when I was with my 14-year-old son, in public. Who I am now — from what they saw when I was a 22-year-old kid — is a dad. My son was there, and that was a great opportunity for me to open that Vancouver conversation with him. I’d never spoken about it publicly until then.
15. What has the experience been like for you since it premiered this fall?
I do have a good social media presence, but I’m not one of those guys who everybody follows. I don’t know if the United States understands how significant it is here in Canada. For me, it’s a load off, personally. And it’s opened up a more talkative relationship with me and the city of Vancouver about possibly doing some other basketball endeavours there.
16. Oh, really?
17. We can travel back in time to June 30, 1999: What would a 45-year-old Steve Francis whisper into the ear of a 22-year-old Steve Francis just as the first round of the NBA Draft begins?
Don’t lean back in the chair, and keep a straight face.
18. Would you have changed your mind and signed with Vancouver?
After looking at the movie and seeing what was going on behind the scenes? I would stick to the same decision.
19. Looking back, do you think you could have helped save the Grizzlies in Vancouver?
If the ball would have been given to me, like it was in Houston, definitely. If that was a definitive answer, that “you would be the starting point guard,” definitely.
20. Complete the following sentence: “By the time I’m done …”
By the time I’m done, I’ll be blessed to see both of my kids go to college and have the life that they want.
(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)