Steve Francis became slightly annoyed on Friday morning after the third question about how he would fit in with his new -- and latest -- backcourt mate, Stephon Marbury. He had already answered the question several times on Wednesday during an introductory news conference after being traded to the Knicks from the Orlando Magic. Now, hours before his first game as a Knick, the news media were nipping at his heels again.
"We can't keep talking about what the relationship between me and Steph is going to be," Francis said. "We've just got to go out there and do it. We can't prove it by words. We just got to go out on the basketball court and do it. That's the only solution."
Francis' debut as a Knick was encouraging, even if the result was the same. He had 16 points and four assists as the Knicks lost their 39th game of the season 94-90 to the Nets.
Afterward, Francis said that he had "felt like a new player who was thrown into a game with little experience."
The Nets are clearly a better team, but at this point, every team the Knicks play is better, or at least thinks it's better. There is no energy, and at times there doesn't seem to be much pride. The Knicks were down by as many as 21 points in the fourth quarter Friday night before an 11-0 run cut the Nets' lead to 10. Only a 3-pointer by Francis at the buzzer made it appear close.
These are desperate times at Madison Square Garden, and trading for Francis was a solid, though desperate, move. The team president, Isiah Thomas, and coach Larry Brown are hoping that the unlikely backcourt of Marbury and Francis can shoot the Knicks out of a deep hole.
The latest move is intriguing at a number of levels. This effectively is the last chance for Marbury and Francis to change the public perception that they are not winning players. In Marbury's case, the perception has been that teams improve only after he leaves. In Francis' case, it has been that he has an enormous, and fragile, me-first ego. His refusal to go back into a game earlier this month helped fuel that perception. Francis agreed Friday that his trade to the Knicks represented a critical juncture in his NBA career.
"It is, no doubt," he said. "This is my seventh season, and from this point on, I want to be here to be able to help this team get better, help this team win games."Francis gave a telling answer Friday when asked about his willingness to sacrifice to make the pairing with Marbury work. "Everybody's going to have to sacrifice," he said. "It's not just going to be one person sacrificing."
This week, I spoke with Earl Monroe, the Knicks' legendary guard, and he said he had spoken to Francis over the years and thought this might work. "He seems to be a guy who will make it work, but he's coming into a volatile situation -- you don't know where you'll be next year or even if this team will be intact."
On the night Francis made his Knicks debut, it was appropriate to invoke the basketball memory of Monroe. He joined the Knicks in November 1971 after four seasons with the Baltimore Bullets. I'm not comparing Steve Francis to Earl the Pearl, but merely pointing out how, at a time when little about the Knicks makes sense, this might.
Monroe was 26 and already an established star when he forced the trade to the Knicks. He was Earl the Pearl to the mainstream and Black Jesus on the street. Monroe had refused to play for Baltimore after the first two games of the regular season in 1971-1972 in a contract dispute. Monroe said there were major adjustments facing him when he joined the Knicks. They were Walt Frazier's team, and he and Frazier had had a fierce rivalry going, because Frazier normally guarded Monroe when the Knicks played the Bullets. He also said the toughest change was taking a secondary role to Frazier.