Some people think Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley are just too tight. They couldn't care less
Rachel Nichols [ARCHIVE]
July 10, 2012
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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.

"Hungry?"

"Dump your stuff."

"Five minutes."

"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...
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