At one time, everyone knew Bevo
"He was one of those drum-beat stories. You sit by the tree, you hear people talking about the great legends of the game, then you hear people talk about Bevo, yeah," says former Georgetown coach John Thompson about Bevo Francis on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
In the early 1950s, Francis became a national sensation playing for tiny Rio (pronounced RYE-oh) Grande College in southeastern Ohio. Almost a half-century later, many of his scoring records still stand.
The 6-foot-9, sweet-shooting Francis still holds the college record for most points scored in a game (113) and his 46.5 average in the 1953-54 season remains the NCAA Division II mark.
His 48.3 average in 1952-53 is the NAIA record. Actually, Francis averaged 50.1 that season, but a 116-point performance and 26 other games didn't count in the official NCAA and NAIA stats because they came against junior colleges, military bases and bible seminaries.
"He was one of the greatest shooters who ever lived," NBA scouting director Marty Blake says. "It was a gift. He could not only shoot but shoot with range."
Francis points out that he played in an era before the three-point line. "With today's rules, I probably could have scored 135 in a game," he says. "Probably could have averaged 65."
Never having played in the NBA, Francis disappeared from the basketball scene almost as quickly as he emerged as a shooting star. But the legend of Bevo Francis is alive and well.
Born Clarence on Sept. 4, 1932 in Hammondsville, Ohio, he was the only child of Clarence and Anna Francis, who had six children from earlier marriages. His father worked in the clay mines while his mother watched over their small farm.
His father was called Bevo, after a near-beer bottled by Anheuser-Busch. "My dad drank it all the time," Francis says. "They called him Bevo, me Little Beve. I finally outgrew that."
Due to anemia, Little Beve missed two full school years. But he grew tall at an early age and became active in sports. He became a local legend as a teenager, thanks to his unerring jump shot, developed by sometimes spending eight hours a day practicing.
Francis had a turbulent high school career. He was ruled ineligible to play basketball as a freshman after complaints surrounding his transfer from Irondale to Wellsville High School. There were rumors that his parents had been given a house to entice them to move.
The next season, Francis practiced with the Wellsville varsity team, but was declared ineligible minutes before his first game after the school superintendent called the Ohio High School Athletic Association to check on Francis' status. The board president said if the superintendent was calling to check, Francis must have been guilty of something.
Bevo finally joined the basketball team for his junior season and was given No. 32 by his coach, Newt Oliver, because that's how many points Francis was expected to average.
He came close, averaging 30.6 to lead Wellsville to a 23-2 record. But before he got a chance for an encore, he turned 20, at which point his high school eligibility expired.
As a sophomore, Francis had married sweetheart, Jean Chrislip. The first of their two children, Frank, was born following their junior year.
When Oliver moved to Rio Grande, he brought his star player with him. He also made sure Francis enrolled at the local high school to finish the missing 1½ credits he needed to earn his degree.
There were 94 students, just 38 men, at Rio Grande when Francis arrived in 1952. The gymnasium had a tile floor, leaky roof and seated fewer than 200 fans.
Oliver assembled a 39-game schedule against low-level competition that was designed to showcase Francis' offensive talents. The coach also spent $25 of the athletic department's money to ensure Francis' scoring figures would be included in the NCAA's weekly statistics.
"I knew that people wouldn't pay to see five players score 15 points each," Oliver said. "But I knew they would flock in to see one player score 50."
On Jan. 9, 1953, Francis had the game of his life, scoring 116 points in Rio Grande's 150-85 victory over Ashland (Ky.) Junior College. A few nights later, Francis scored 51 in a 101-53 victory over Bliss College to give him 1,072 for the season, breaking the record of 1,051 set the previous year by Johhny O'Brien of the University of Seattle.
But Francis wasn't finished. On January 24, before a capacity crowd of 2,400 in Zanesville, Ohio, he scored 68 points in a 133-82 victory over Mountain State Junior College of West Virginia. The team's winning streak soon hit 25, and Francis was the talk of college basketball. Rio Grande began playing its entire schedule on the road to accommodate the large number of fans who wanted to see the hot-shooting star.
By February, Francis had already claimed a nice portion of the college basketball record book - most field goals, free throws, highest scoring average and points in a season.
Francis finished the season with 1,954 points and a 50.1 average as Rio Grande went 39-0. However, in March, the NCAA ruled that it would not recognize Francis' marks because schools that weren't four-year institutions comprised much of the Redmen's schedule. Among the excluded contests was his 116-point performance.
Though Rio Grande was an NAIA school, the next season Oliver scheduled 27 of 28 games against colleges that met NCAA standards, with all the contests being on the road. The first big date was Dec. 3, 1953, when Rio Grande hit Broadway, playing Adelphi in New York's Madison Square Garden before almost 14,000 fans. Rio Grande's winning streak ended at 40 as Francis was held to 32 points - only four in the second half - in an 83-76 loss.
"Their humiliating scores against nonentities is a travesty on the entire structure of intercollegiate athletics," wrote Jimmy Breslin.
But the next night, Francis scored 39 as Rio Grande lost 93-92 in overtime to Villanova in Philadelphia. Three nights later, he notched 41 as the Redmen defeated Providence 89-87 in Boston Garden.
Later in December, Francis scored 48 in a 98-88 victory over Miami. In a Christmas tournament in Raleigh, he had 34 in a 92-77 loss to North Carolina State and 32, including a game-winning jumper in the final seconds, to defeat Wake Forest 67-65.
On Feb. 2, 1954, in the Jackson (Ohio) High School gym, Francis hit triple digits again - and this time his record stood. Though frequently guarded by three players, Francis scored 113 against Hillsdale College of Michigan, sinking 38-of-70 shots from the field and 37-of-45 from the foul line in the 134-91 victory.
Francis scored 1,255 points in 27 games (46.5 average) against four-year colleges and was named a second-team All-American by the Associated Press.
Late in his sophomore year, Francis was suspended from Rio Grande for missing too many classes and midterms.
In April, he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters for $12,000 per year, and was assigned to the Boston Whirlwinds,
In 1956, he was drafted in the third round by the NBA champion Philadelphia Warriors, but turned down their contract offer.
After barnstorming and playing in the Eastern League, in the early 1960s Francis began working in an Ohio steel mill, loading trucks for almost 20 years until the plant closed in 1982. He was six months away from getting his pension.
Now retired, Francis lives with Jean in the same seven-room, redbrick ranch house in Highlandtown, Ohio, that they bought in 1954 for $9,500.
"I wasn't a singer or movie star, but there was a time when everyone in the country knew my name," he says. "They did know Bevo."