The ballad of Bevo Francis

The last week of October brings with it not only my favorite holiday, but also the dawn of the season of my favorite sport: basketball.

This past week, the pros took to the hardwood to begin their long quest for championship glory. Storylines abound as LeBron James strives to bring a title to long-starved Cleveland sports fans and continues to build his case as one of the all-time great players. The 11th hour has struck on the career of legend Kobe Bryant, while players such as Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and Steph Curry climb toward iconic status.

It’s amazing how fleeting that status can be, though. Sure, we will always remember Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson. But the greats of a bygone era–George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, Clyde Lovellette—slip from our collective memory. For one player in particular, even scoring 116 points in a college game and helping the game recover from a major black eye hasn’t been enough to permanently imprint his name into our minds—that being, Clarence “Bevo” Francis.

In 1951, college basketball was rocked by a point-shaving scandal. Top programs Long Island University, City College of New York, and Kentucky were implicated in the investigation. For LIU and CCNY, it was a blow from which the programs never recovered. For the common fan, it certainly left a bad taste. Fans want honest outcomes of games. Fairness is assumed and when that can no longer be the case, fans turn away.

Former coach and current CBS color analyst Bill Raftery, in his advanced praise for Shooting Star: The Bevo Francis Story, cited the slender 6’9” Ohioan sharpshooter with saving the game following the point-shaving scandal. Former Villanova coach Alex Severance compared Francis’ efforts to bring dignity back to the sport to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s efforts after the infamous Black Sox scandal a generation earlier.

Mike Puma writes in a SportsCentury biography that Francis missed two full years of high school due to anemia. His basketball talent was apparent, so much so that his eligibility was called into question after his transfer from Irondale to Wellsville. Rumors flew that his parents had received a new home as an enticement. He sat out the season. And the next.

Finally, in his junior year, he laced up for the Wellsville varsity squad. Puma writes that he was given jersey number 32 by coach Newt Oliver, as that is how many points he expected his projected star to score. He came close, dropping in 30.6 points per game in 25 contests. But after all the suspensions and illness, Francis was 20 years old by the time he was a senior. And so he was deemed ineligible once again.

When Oliver took the coaching job at nearby Rio (pronounced RYE-oh) Grande College Redmen (now Red Storm), Francis followed. The tiny school had only 94 students and the gym was filled to capacity with fewer than 200 fans. But the team, and especially Francis, would make a name for itself.

On Jan. 9, 1953, against Ashland Junior College, Francis led his team to a 150-85 victory. He finished with a record 116 points. This, remember, without the aid of a three-point line. Playing center, he cleaned the boards but also possessed a feathery shooting stroke. Francis was the type of hybrid player often sought after in today’s game. He was Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki, or Kevin Durant before any of them were even born.

He would continue his dominance, averaging 50.1 points per game while leading his team to a 39-0 record. Large crowds gathered to watch him and Rio Grande began playing a majority of their games on the road to accommodate the interest and, of course, cash in. But with great success came great critics. Skeptics pointed out the inferior competition and his 116-point total was stricken from the record book because of the junior college status of the opponent.

So Coach Oliver scheduled 27 of the 28 games for the following season against NCAA competition. The tiny Ohio school beat Miami (Fla.), Providence, and Wake Forest. They took Villanova to overtime and played #8 NC State relatively close. All on the hot shooting of Bevo Francis.

On Groundhog Day 1954, much like the Bill Murray character in the movie of the same name, Francis would relive the past. Suiting up against Hillsdale College (Mich.), Francis dropped 113 points on the Chargers. Francis shot 38 of 70 from the field and 37 of 45 from the line. I was curious about his assist totals, but don’t believe that assists were tracked in 1954. Given Hillsdale’s NCAA status, the scoring record stood until 2012.

The Rio Grande squad went 21-7 that year and Francis averaged 46.5 points per game against NCAA-level competition. He nearly single-handedly saved the small, cash-strapped school from financial ruin. But Francis’ time in college came to a close in a fashion similar to his high school career. He was ruled ineligible again, this time for his poor attendance in classes. According to his New York Times obituary, he promptly left school and began touring with the Boston Whirlwinds, an all-white barnstorming team affiliated with the Harlem Globetrotters. Coach Oliver followed suit, taking over the helm of the Whirlwinds (The move certainly leads one to question Oliver’s motives).

Puma cites Francis as describing his time with the team: “We’d play two quarters and then be the clowns,” says Francis, who played two years with the Whirlwinds. “It was a dog’s life.”

He was drafted by the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors (with whom he would have been paired with Wilt Chamberlain), but declined to play.

Francis eventually returned home to Ohio in 1962, where he worked in a steel mill until his retirement. He passed away earlier this summer at the age of 82.

As I consider the story of Bevo Francis, I can’t help but compare it to another Ohio basketball prodigy—the aforementioned LeBron James. Both Francis and James were marked for greatness early on, both possessed skills uncommon for their height, both were used by others for personal gain, and both were nagged by skeptics. But while James reached the top of basketball’s Mt. Olympus and returned to Ohio in 2014 as a hero, Francis returned and assumed a quiet life in a steel mill, to be mostly forgotten.

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