Sports

Zion Williamson, Steve Francis, and the Art of Spurning the Team That Drafts You

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - APRIL 05: Zion Williamson of the Duke Blue Devils speaks during a press conference after being awarded the USBWA Oscar Robertson Trophy Player of the Year prior to the 2019 NCAA men's Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 5, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson is awarded the USBWA Oscar Robertson Trophy on April 5 in Minneapolis.
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

When the New Orleans Pelicans overcame 6 percent odds to win Tuesday’s draft lottery, the team’s ticket office couldn’t believe its luck. It’s always nice to have the overall No. 1 pick. But Duke’s Zion Williamson isn’t any ordinary No. 1. Williamson is talented and charismatic enough to lift an entire franchise, and he makes it much, much easier to convince people to buy season tickets.

Williamson was present at the draft lottery in Chicago, and, according to ESPN’s Marc Spears, the presumptive No. 1 pick was a little less excited than the Pelicans’ sales force.

The next day, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst noted that Williamson hadn’t yet hired an agent, meaning that the freshman still retained his college availability. Windhorst said that Williamson “could threaten to go back to Duke,” adding that “it’s a conversation that’s happening in the NBA right now.”

This speculation metastasized into a full-fledged news cycle. Williamson’s hypothetical holdout was used to drive opinioneering about the unfairness of the draft, how player empowerment has run amok, the perils of being a small-market franchise, and so on and so on. The rumor was so juicy, chatter about it continued even after Williamson’s stepfather reassured the people of New Orleans that the presumptive top pick would be wearing a Pelicans jersey next season whether he liked it or not. “One thing that Zion has always been taught is that you accept the things that you can’t change. You change the things that you can change,” he said. “Certainly we’re excited about the Crescent City down there in New Orleans.”

While it seems extremely unlikely that Williamson will refuse to report to the Pelicans, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Both John Elway and Eli Manning pulled this move in the NFL, and some international basketball players have been known to return to their overseas teams if the draft doesn’t go as they’d like. Duke star (and recent Pelicans general manager) Danny Ferry refused to join the Los Angeles Clippers when they picked him in 1989, instead choosing to play in Italy for a year. Kobe Bryant also famously maneuvered his way to the Lakers when he was drafted out of high school in 1996, though he says he would’ve played in Charlotte if the Hornets hadn’t traded him.

The most famous and overt precedent, though, took place in 1999, when the Vancouver Grizzlies selected University of Maryland guard Steve Francis with the No. 2 pick. Francis looked so miserable upon his selection that commissioner David Stern had to reassure him at the podium that “there will be better days.” During his first interview with the Grizzlies’ radio partner, Francis summarized what he thought about Vancouver: “It’s cold. It rains a lot. It takes all your money.” (The Vancouver tourism board did not adopt this slogan.)

There was more to Francis’ displeasure than his hatred of frigid climes, precipitation, and the tax man. For one thing, the Grizzlies had drafted point guard Mike Bibby the year before. For another, the team was rumored to be relocating. (They would indeed move to Memphis two years later.) Compounding all this doubt was an experience at the Vancouver airport during his first trip to Canada, when an airline employee reportedly asked Francis and his two friends if they were in a rap group.

Francis wanted out, and in a recent (and extremely entertaining) Players’ Tribune essay, he recalled his attempts to wrest control of his situation.

I damn near cried when I got taken by the Grizzlies at No. 2. I was not about to go up to freezing-ass Canada, so far away from my family, when they were about to move the franchise anyway. I’m sorry but … actually, I’m really not even sorry. Everybody sees the business of basketball now. That team was gone. The only thing I’m sorry about is that I went up there and gave probably the rudest press conference in NBA history before they traded me.

Although Francis doesn’t elaborate, this rude press conference seems to have taken place immediately after the draft. “I’m glad this is over with, and hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I’ll be happy,” Francis said. He wasn’t. And soon enough, he was no longer a Vancouver Grizzly.

Francis and his representatives ultimately convinced Vancouver to trade him to the Houston Rockets for what was at the time the biggest swap of players and draft picks in NBA history. (The Grizzlies’ haul: Michael Dickerson, Antoine Carr, Brent Price, and Othella Harrington.) Soon afterward, Vancouver Sun columnist Gary Mason called Francis “a symbol of everything wrong with professional sports as this millennium closes.” During shootaround before his first game in Vancouver as a Rockets player, the local press attempted to extract an apology from the rookie. “Steve, the two words ‘I’m sorry’ aren’t very tough to say,” said one reporter. “Why not just say them to Vancouver fans?”

“For what?” Francis responded.

Francis’ spurning of Vancouver was a huge story at the time. Zion Williamson’s hypothetical return to Duke would be a much bigger deal. Francis was a three-time All-Star; Zion is as close to a sure thing as a teenager can be in the NBA. And while the Pelicans are in a small market, they garner much more attention than the Grizzlies could ever manage in Canada. As one local paper noted ahead of Francis’ first game against the Grizzlies in 1999, “the buildup to Francis’s return [was] overshadowed by a week of Grey Cup activities.” Without the BC Lions to shield him from scrutiny, Zion will have no choice but to give New Orleans a chance.