by William D`Urso - OC Register
You'll hear him before you see him, a loud invasive voice with unfiltered language you'd never hear in church.
When you see him, he's a 43-year-old coach who still has a basketball player's body, on the court jousting with his players, swatting basketballs away, pushing them with his chest as any opponent would.
Millikan High School coach Chris Francis, whose facial expression is a constant scowl, is trying to make a point: The basketball court – and the world – isn't a place for the weak.
So practice is a medley of instructions, encouragement and admonishments to his players, to teach them toughness and to never believe they can't win. He's succeeded so far. A Rams team that was 4-22 the year before he arrived went 14-15 last year – 8-4 in Moore League play – and is 9-7 so far in the 2013-14 season, challenging renowned programs such as Long Beach Poly and Compton in the Moore League and working for a high seed in the CIF playoffs.
It's the way he was taught, and what spills from his mouth often is a replay of long-ago memories.
Francis grew up in Lake Charles, La., a rough-around-the-edges town, and he had a just-as-rough introduction to basketball at Lake Charles-Boston High School. His coaches told the 18-year-old he was too short, that raw, 5-foot-9 athletes didn't have a place on the varsity team.
That rejection left him directionless. He played in an unorganized city league and in neighborhood parks. He worked at a grocery store, then at the Port of Lake Charles, unloading shipping containers from trains. He watched friends struggle and lose.
“Every dude I hung out with got shot or went to jail,” he said. “That's why I'm so passionate about basketball, because I could be dead. And that's a fact. I grew up in a rough, tough neighborhood. Some people even thought I was dead.”
A good friend of his, Harry Prudhomme, a standout college baseball player, was caught in the crossfire during a neighborhood dispute and shot in the leg. The bullet ripped through a major artery in his leg, nearly killing him, and ended his baseball career.
Days later, Francis' father sent him to Long Beach to stay with his brother. Francis, now 6-foot-4 after a late growth spurt, refocused on basketball, and hoped to explore the Compton rap scene.
“My brother told me Compton was six hours from Long Beach because he didn't want me to go there,” Francis said. “Compton was considered a bad place.”
In Long Beach, he played in pickup games until an acquaintance at Compton College invited him to visit the coach, Lee Porter.
He soon learned Compton wasn't six hours away.
He stunk in his first practice because of nerves. The next day, Francis didn't go in with anything fancy. He just played hard, sprinted on every possession and fought on every play. He earned a spot on the team.
He played two seasons at Compton and two at the University of La Verne in 1994-95. The NBA didn't beckon, but a chance to play in Taiwan did.
In Taipei, Francis found minor fame as a member of the Chinese Basketball Association's Han-Jin Tigers, appearing in TV commercials. As an African-American, he said he stood out.
“(People) would come up to me and rub my skin, then check their hand to see if anything had come off,” he said.
He returned home to become coach at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School in 1999, winning two LA City Invitational Division titles. He left for a job at Centennial High School and then Compton College, then finished his degree at Cal State Dominguez Hills and then landed at Millikan.
His coaching technique involves more than a loud voice. The Rams run sprints every day. They scrimmage without fouls or boundaries. He prizes effort and players who yearn to practice.
He has another job that demands the same kind of effort as a counselor at a facility for at-risk kids. It makes his coaching style understandable.
He doesn't cut kids. He plays his entire bench. He doesn't discriminate by size. He's promoting a change in the culture for the program. The decibel level and demands may be high, but there's also a strong sense of support.
“None of you would be here if we didn't believe in you,” he often tells players.
“Some people think I'm a maniac,” he said. “But people who know me, my players, they know why I do it.”
Millikan co-principal Jeffrey Cornejo has been satisfied with the results.
“I don't have a problem with intensity as long as it's respectful, and that's one thing he has, respect for his kids,” Cornejo said.
“You have to have some type of dog, some type of animal when you're out there on there on the court,” Francis said to his team after a practice. “Being better is one thing, but being tougher is something else.”