Robert Morris's Bateko Francisco celebrates with teammate Mezie Nwigwe after they defeated Boston College 57-51 in January.
By Colin Dunlap Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Robert Morris University athletic department Web site lists senior guard Bateko Francisco's hometown simply as "Paris, France."
That does not begin to tell the story of this 24-year-old with a reckless defensive streak and the most unassuming demeanor when he changes from his basketball sneakers into his everyday clothes.
There are many layers to pull away, starting with this: the 6-foot-1 Francisco was born in Angola, escaped a civil war in that country and, as an infant, fled to Zaire with his mother and siblings while his father went to Paris to make money for the family.
"It was tough times," Francisco recalled, shaking his head softly from side to side. "There was no food, there was no nothing. I was just little, but I remember how hard it was just to survive. I just thank my mom because she stayed strong. She's been through a lot, but it was tough times all the time."
And it wasn't until Francisco was 8 that his mother saved enough money to send him to Paris to be with his father, to meet the man he had known only in pictures -- actually, a lone picture that hung prominently in the family's small house in Zaire.
"As soon as I got to Paris, I was just 8 and I traveled all the way there," Francisco recalled yesterday after practice, "I was in this house and my dad wasn't there and I fell asleep. I thought I was dreaming when I woke up and saw this man and I knew it was him from that picture. I knew it was him and I gave him a big hug."
Before his mother and father could save enough to also get his mother to Paris -- which they did a few years later -- Francisco and his father lived in Paris together.
It was better there than in Zaire, but not by much.
"I was like 9 or 10 when we lost our house in Paris," said Francisco, the Northeast Conference's defensive player of the year this season. "Then they put us in a foster house for a little while. There, one kid was playing basketball."
It wasn't the fancy dribbling, long-range shooting or crisp passing that was the magnetic part of the sport for Francisco.
No, the main reason he began to play more and more was "the one kid who was in the foster house who played all the time had friends because of basketball," Francisco said. "I started to play because I wanted to make friends, too. I didn't have too many friends before basketball, but then, when I started playing, I had friends."
And, as his family members reconnected and got back on their feet, his game grew. So much so that he caught the eye of Fort Scott Junior College in Kansas, and, after a verbal commitment to St. Mary's in California fell through, the kid from Paris, Angola and Zaire wound up at Robert Morris.
Friday, the biggest assignment of his basketball life awaits Francisco in Robert Morris' first NCAA tournament game since 1992. He is saddled with the task of guarding Michigan State sophomore guard Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten Conference's player of the year.
Is there any apprehension in Francisco? Not hardly according to Colonials coach Mike Rice.
"What he's been through in his life, there's not a whole lot of fear in his game," Rice said of Francisco, who averages 7.4 points per game. "He gets excited and, sure, maybe he plays too fast sometimes, but I will never say to myself, 'Bateko Francisco is afraid.' That is not going to happen. Ever."
-- Game: No. 15 Robert Morris (24-10) vs. No. 2 Michigan State (26-6), approx. 10 p.m.