Who do you trust?
No, who do you really trust? Who's there for you when the sweat streams down your back, when they all want the ball, when the crowd curses at the mention of your name? Who do you trust when the groupies circle, when the coach yells? Who understands growing up so rough it was nothing for someone to stick a gun down your mouth just for fun? Who understands how all that money feels now?
Thing is, they can make you run drills for miles, they can blast you for not making the playoffs, they can even trade you and tear you apart. But when you find someone you trust, "it doesn't matter," says Steve Francis. "You're brothers. You're brothers for life."
Francis is sitting in a big, beautiful section of Houston, in his big, beautiful house, the one with the thick columns and ivory-colored marble and swimming pool so sprawling it chews up most of the backyard lawn. He is sitting on a slatted chair, holding 3-week-old daughter Shailyn in his sculpted arms, and he is trying to get Cuttino Mobley to take a turn with her.
This is not easy. Mobley has a 5-year-old of his own, but he isn't much for holding babies. "You always have to support the necks," he says, and then there are the germs. Mobley has washed his hands twice already-this after using a handful of sanitizer gel-and still he's worried that he's going to get it wrong, or drop Shailyn altogether, which would be as big a deal as dropping his own son.
After all, this is Steve's baby, and what's Steve's is his, and what's his is Steve's. There is a crowd around them now, and someone suggests, in the way close friends do, that it'd be oh-so-cute if Francis' daughter and Mobley's son grew up and got married. Then Francis and Mobley-the two former teammates, the two best friends-would really be related. Which is when Mobley looks up sharply, horrified, his attention turned from the baby's neck.
"That would be incest," he says, voice hospital room serious. "People don't get how we are. You just don't get it."
All of it-this whole intense, life-changing do-or-die friendship-started with a suggestion. Well, it was more than a suggestion, it was a lifeline, really. Steve Francis was just a gangly thing, a 22-year-old rookie with puffy hair and syrupy eyes and a desperate need to prove himself. This was 1999, after he'd been drafted by Vancouver, back when Vancouver had a team. This was after he said he didn't want to play there, after his agent helped engineer a trade to Houston, after nobody seemed to understand.
Francis merely wanted to live in a place that was warm and familiar and, well, American. He got that, but he also got called a crybaby by practically every sports-talk radio host in the country. He got scorn and ridicule, and as he heard the question boomerang around the league-"Just who does this kid think he is?"-he worried.
All he wanted to do was make them forget he'd caused any trouble. So, even though his agent had forbidden him to pick up a ball before his contract was signed, he wandered over to the Rockets' practice facility anyway. And when he saw a bunch of the team's veterans running up and down the floor of the brightly lit gym, he hopped in, because maybe if he played a little pickup, they'd see he wasn't so spoiled after all.
"You should have seen him," a chuckling Mobley says, recalling how Francis walked into the gym reeking of a need to please. Francis remembers too-how every time he got the ball he passed it. He wasn't selfish pass he wasn't demanding pass he'd show 'em they could believe in him pass.
Mobley was just turning 24 at the time, and had just finished his rookie season, an abbreviated one because of the NBA lockout. But as soon as he saw Francis, he started feeling protective, big brotherlike. Not to mention bewildered. Francis wasn't endearing himself to anyone with this ball-dumping routine. This was the NBA, not a tea party. "Hey," Mobley said, pulling Francis aside, out of earshot of everyone else. "Just do you," he told Francis. "Just play your game."
It was simple, really, and it could have been nothing, just a quick word between two guys, brushed off as easily as lint. But for Francis, it was as if Mobley had reached over and ripped the weight from between his shoulder blades. For Francis, it was permission to start fresh. He relaxed, playing his game with more authority and confidence, and when he went home that night he felt for the first time in months that maybe everything would turn out okay. He went home that night with a new friend. And by the time the season was over, they were brothers. "They're like the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin, except maybe they're Batman and Batman, because neither one of them is the sidekick," says Rockets guard Moochie Norris, who played with Mobley and Francis in Houston. "You don't see a lot of guys in the NBA as tight as that, especially after they get traded. But they are. And you should have seen it back when we all played together. I mean, you just never saw one without the other one there."
After home games, it was over to Arcodoro, an Italian place by the Galleria mall. On the road it was usually Ruth's Chris. No one even had to ask, after a while. There was Francis in the second-to-last row of the team bus, driver's side. There was Mobley in the seat directly in front of him.
They'd pile onto the sidewalk, in front of a hotel in Cleveland or Boston or Sacramento.
"Dump your stuff."
"Yeah, right, five minutes. You take forever."
"Five minutes, lobby."
When Francis was taunted in city after city his rookie year, when it seemed like even grandmas were swearing at him because of his bolt from Vancouver, Mobley was there to make him laugh. And when the girls came around-at dinner, after dinner, at the clubs-Francis watched Mobley's back, warning him off the ones who just wanted to tear off a piece of NBA fame for their scrapbooks.
Sometimes they'd just sit at the bar, backs to the rest of the room, engrossed in conversation. "People would get upset because we were just off to ourselves," Mobley says, cracking into a pitying smile. "There's even people who said, 'They're gay.' Definitely heard that one. On the radio, on the Internet. They don't realize that when you can hug a guy, and say I love him and he's my brother, that's not gay. That's just being a man. We're just two guys who really understand each other."
They are a lot alike. Found that out when they talked about growing up, Francis in Maryland, Mobley in Pennsylvania, both drenched in poverty. Meals that didn't always come. Guns that often did. Mobley was 12 when, he says, an older kid chased him from a block party in North Philly, stuck the barrel of a gun down his mouth and taunted him to see how he'd react. Francis was just 17 when the single mother who raised him died of cancer.
Slowly, they let each other see the oldest and deepest wounds, began to help each other deal with the people who wanted to come pick at the scabs-old friends, old enemies, relatives needing help. Together, they discovered it's not easy to have nothing, then suddenly have everything. "When you play in the NBA," Francis says, "the list of people you trust gets shorter. But Cat was always on the list."
This is not to say that having money was a bad thing. Francis and Mobley used to take it out in cash, big wads of it, $10,000 or $15,000 at a time. They were kids in the country's most expensive, most exclusive candy stores, where the wrappers said Prada and Gucci and Ferragamo.
In Philly they got their first furs together. In Atlanta they bought belts by the fistful, two of each because each knew if he liked something, then the other would too. Once they went to LA and had lunch at the oh-so-trendy Ivy, staying for more than three hours. One time in Vegas they played craps until dawn, losing everything in their pockets. There were the two of them, big-time ballers, standing in the lobby of the MGM Grand, not even speaking but shaking their heads, furious at their bad fortune but laughing their heads off anyway.
"That was ridiculous," Francis says, thinking of the image. He and Mobley are at yet another of their infamous dinners, interrupting each other as they talk about all the good old times, filling in each other's gaps, finishing each other's sentences.
For a moment it could be 1999 all over again. Except it's not. These days, the dinners are much fewer and farther between. These days, Batman and Batman no longer hang out in the same cave.
They both cried. Neither Francis nor Mobley has any problem admitting this, although they want to make it clear that it wasn't the big blubbery sort of crying, just the small tears that spill out when you feel you've been sucker-punched. It was this past January, more than nine months ago now, but for both of them the moment is flash-frozen in memory, as crisp and jarring as when it first happened.
They remember the smell of the visitors' locker room in Boston, that pungent mix of sweat and cleaning solution. Francis was sitting at his stall, grooving to the throb of his iPod, when Mobley walked in from his pregame warmup, stricken. He slumped into a chair and whispered, "I'm gone. That's it. I'm traded. I'm gone."
He was so library-quiet that Francis, ears still plugged with music, didn't actually hear him. "Yep," he said to Mobley, still innocent of the knowledge that his whole life was about to change. "We're going to win this game."
In that moment Francis still thought there was a "we." He and Mobley had been traded from Houston to the Magic the summer before-a package deal, of course-and while they never quite got into the rhythm they had with the Rockets, neither had any reason to believe things weren't okay. They were still Steve and Cat, just in different uniforms, still the guys who would hang out at each other's houses and shoot pool. Mobley's mother still came to town and cooked for them from time to time, making the potato salad that's Francis' favorite. And on road trips they still rode one behind the other on the bus. When Stevie's girlfriend, Shelby, called to tell him she was pregnant, it was Mobley, less than two feet away, who got the news first.
Really, being transplanted to Florida had only caused their friendship to take deeper root. But on the court, the pair's success was shallower. Mobley and Francis may believe their familiarity with each other's every move gives them an edge when they play, but it doesn't always show up in the win-loss column. A third of the way into the season, the Magic were barely above .500-a much better mark than the team had the season before at that time, but not quite what management had hoped for.
John Weisbrod, then Orlando's GM, began to think that keeping Francis and Mobley together wasn't such a good idea. "They've been together for a long time, and they like one another, but that doesn't necessarily mean their games are ideally fit for one another," he told reporters covering the team. Weisbrod wondered if Francis played too carelessly around Mobley. He wondered if it was worth it to the Magic to pay Mobley the money he'd soon command as a free agent. (Mobley signed this summer with the Clippers for $42M over five years.)
He wasn't the first to wonder such things. Former NBA player and coach John Lucas runs the Houston workout sessions that Francis and Mobley participate in each summer; he knows their games inside and out. "When best friends play together, they co-sign each other's BS," Lucas says. "It's like any other sibling relationship. They both need the ball and there's only one of those. It's best they're not on the same team."
And since that night in Boston, they haven't been-not since Mobley sank into his chair and Francis turned off his iPod, and the two of them sat there, stunned and teary. Mobley was bound for Sacramento, traded for Doug Christie. For the first time in nearly six years, the NBA's most inseparable players would be separated by a whole continent.
Hours after the deal went down, Francis was still pale. He barely played his game against the Celtics, he was so shaken, and afterward every sentence out of his mouth seemed to simply sink onto the carpet of the locker room floor. "I can't put it into words," he told reporters. "Playing with a guy, living with a guy, just knowing that every day when I wake up, that's something I can count on-him not being here is going to be tough for me. I don't know what I'm going to wake up for." He threatened he would start wearing a suit to games, because "this is obviously just a business."
Mobley was just as crushed, and just as ready to show it. Finding his number taken in Sacramento, he chose No. 3 in honor of Francis. He also began waiving his hands in the air after scoring, the way Francis often does.
The whole thing struck many people as, well, odd. Two pro athletes showing such emotion for each other? What was that about? Cleveland guard Damon Jones is a friend from the Houston workout sessions, so he got it. But he understands why others didn't. "You don't expect guys to come out and just say it like that, let everyone know how much they want to be together," Jones says one afternoon, as Lucas runs Francis and Mobley through a set of drills nearby. "But they're tight. That's just how they are. Look at them now. Still that way."
Jones points to the court, where the pair is standing. They've barely gotten to see each other over the past few months, but now they're back in this gym in Houston, the same gym where they met all those years ago. The drills are over, and Mobley is giving Francis a hard time about the black Reebok baseball cap perched precariously on top of his head. "That is the worst wearing of a hat in the history of hat-wearing," he says.
Jones shakes his head. Mobley laughs. And so does Francis.
They chirp each other now. Anyone with a Nextel cell phone has heard the chirp: the squeaky sound the phone makes when you use its walkie-talkie feature. Francis and Mobley are such frequent chirpers that Francis' girlfriend jokes that someone walking into the house might wonder if it's being attacked by a flock of pigeons.
Mobley likes it. He figures it's a good stopgap for two friends who no longer live in the same place, whose lives are starting to feel very different from each other's. Francis is becoming more firmly settled in Orlando; he's finally going to buy some property there this year. And then there is Shailyn, the baby, the bundle who sits tiny in Francis' arms. Francis is dedicated to being a father, and plans to be a husband, as well. Mobley, when he's not in LA, spends time with his own son in New Jersey, and is looking into investing in a nightclub in Spain.
They are no longer the two kids who run around the country buying furs. They are no longer the buddies who crap out in Vegas. Hanging out now consists of going to get haircuts at a barbershop a few miles from Francis' house. They do what you do in barbershops: listen to the radio, argue about Suge Knight, flip through pages of pretty girls in glossy magazines. Nothing's changed. Everything has.
"Family," Francis says. "That's what happens with family. Sometimes you end up going different ways, but you always stay close. You always know who has your back."
For both of them, that's what it all comes down to, really: brothers, bound not by blood but by basketball, just happy to be hanging once again, just preparing to watch another night unfold.
Five minutes. Dump your stuff.