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Friday, September 1, 2000

Francis has Olympic dream come true

  HONOLULU -- Money, greed and ego long ago twisted and polluted sport beyond all hope of redemption.

 But the Olympic odyssey of Toronto guard Greg Francis is why people, maybe against better judgment, have a reason to believe in sport after all.

 Greg Francis' story is about believing. It's about faith, about a refusal to go into that good night. It's about appreciating a small gift like it was a king's fortune.

 His story isn't flashy by any means, which of course only adds to its appeal. He is very much the 12th man on a 12-man team that will represent Canada at the Sydney Olympics in two weeks.

 Canadian coach Jay Triano confesses he nearly cut Francis a half-dozen times over the past month. He wavered back and forth, deliberating while holding the Olympic dreams of the 26-year-old former Oakwood star in the palm of his hands.

 "I kept all those guys on the bubble for a long, long time," Triano said.

 At several junctures, Francis thought his dream had died as he clung to a spot on the roster. There would be a bad practice, and with it the sickening dread that the axe would fall, that it would be one of the other two players vying for the final roster spot who would earn the privilege of going to Sydney.

 But the next day he still was alive and the pendulum would swing. And on it went.

 "It was really tough," Francis said softly the other day.

 He was afraid to hope, as any of us would be. Afraid to risk caring again because his heart could be broken. Again. The way it was last summer when he was left behind as the team went to Puerto Rico and qualified for the Olympics.

 "I didn't think I would have a chance," said Francis, who played professionally last season for the Chester Jets in England. "Coming into the summer I thought maybe my time was past."

 After all, he had played on the team that went to the 1998 world championship in Greece, but that team flamed out and then he was cut last summer.

 But his parents urged him to try again. To believe. And as camp opened, players like Peter Guarasci of Niagara Falls kept urging him on, telling him he could do it.

 "There were reasons to cut everybody (who was after the final spot)," Francis said. "As (the tryouts) went on, I had to keep saying, 'Well, if I make it, I make it. If I don't ...'

 "(But) deep down I really wanted to make it. When I did, it was an unbelievable feeling."

 Francis has a habit of believing in himself.

 In the first round of the NCAA tournament in 1997, he nearly single-handedly booted the heavily favoured North Carolina Tar Heels out, scoring 26 points before Carolina recovered and put Fairfield away.

 Oh, and by the way, Francis outscored some guy named Vince Carter in that game. Carter had 22 points.

 So then. Why Francis as the 12th man? Why not one of the others?

 "Character was a big issue," Triano said. "And I wanted a guy who could shoot a little more, just in case somebody goes cold and we need a little more scoring.

 "He has a tough job. He's like a relief pitcher. He either has to come in and maintain a game's flow or change a game.

 "A guy who can do all that has an unbelievable quality."

 Triano knows the role too well. The former guard spent two years on the bench under then-coach Jack Donohue mostly because, "Jack thought I was nice guy and I worked hard in practice," Triano said.

 "Greg isn't necessarily a vocal guy, but he can lead and help by example.

 "He has to be in the game mentally on the bench for 30 minutes, and then all of sudden come in and be there physically for three or four. He might not play in Sydney for two games, but in the third game I might need him.

 "At that moment, that guy had better not be in a pout (about lack of playing time) or in a funk or have an excuse.

 That role suits Francis just fine. He already has lived a trial by fire. He kept a flame flickering inside himself all summer and nursed that hope into the privilege of representing his country. He already has fulfilled a promise to himself and now he will witness the lighting of the Olympic flame.

 "If you can get through it, it makes you better," Francis said.

 "I don't think there is any kind of adversity that can touch me now."