COLLEGE PARK – Former University of Maryland star basketball player Steve Francis was preparing for the start of the NBA season, playing pick-up games with former teammates in Cole Field House Monday, when a tornado tore through campus.
“I was looking out those windows (at Cole), watching all this stuff fly by, and I just kept thinking to myself `That could be me out there,'” said Francis later.
The experience was so moving that Francis wanted to do something for students affected by the storm. So Thursday, Francis provided dinner for 110 of the more than 700 students displaced for several days after the tornado damaged their housing complex.
“He said that he understands all the tragedy and wanted to do something positive,” said senior computer science major Scott Sherman, who attended the dinner. Sherman was allowed to re-enter his University Courtyard apartment Thursday afternoon.
Two students were killed by the twister and a firefighter collapsed and died after helping with the campus rescue. More than 300 cars were damaged, more than 3,000 students were temporarily displaced and more than $15 million in damage was done to university property.
Residents of the University Courtyard apartments are the last to return to their homes. About half of the 704 residents will be allowed back in their residence by Sunday. Others may be homeless for up to two weeks, according to University Courtyard officials. Now a member of the Houston Rockets, Francis often returns to campus, near his hometown of Silver Spring, during the off-season.
He joins other Good Samaritans who have offered donations, lodging or other services to students most affected by the worst twister in Maryland in 75 years.
“I wanted to do what I could to help them out,” said Francis. “I figured hosting a dinner where they could relax, enjoy some good food and hang out would be a good distraction in the midst of everything else.”
The dinner was held at the university’s golf course banquet facility, and was attended by current basketball players Steve Blake and Lonny Baxter, two of five team members who live in University Courtyards. Along with Francis, they posed for photographs with students and signed autographs on a button that displays the university’s theme since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – “Lend a Hand, Heal A Heart.”
David Thaw, a senior from Tolland, Conn., introduced Francis, and noted the rough start of the semester for Maryland students, who have endured a fraternity student’s mysterious death Sept. 5, the terrorist bombings and last week’s tornado.
“It was as if it was a regular dinner and very personal,” said Thaw, a government and politics and computer science major. “This has given us some sense of normalcy.”
Francis, who left campus Friday to attend Houston’s preseason training camp, called the university Wednesday to ask what he could do to help lift student spirits. He suggested holding a dinner.
The event was coordinated by the Resident Life Office and Stamp Student Union.
“Steve contacted the university on his own initiative,” said Jan Davidson, associate director of Resident Life. “He was after something low-key, he did not want media attention attracted to himself and did not want to be surrounded by university figures. Steve was doing this for the students.” Francis was the second overall selection in the 1999 NBA draft following his junior year at Maryland, when he was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference First Team performer. He was the 1999-2000 NBA Rookie of the Year and is the Rockets’ starting point guard. – 30 – CNS 09-28-01