FRAN IS WHISKED away for a radio interview after Regis Jesuit's 58-28 playoff victory. She fidgets with the headset to get it just right. In the past two months, the media attention has intensified. Cameras from local news crews are posted in the bleachers. Sometimes cameras come to practice, too.
Once the interview concludes, children line up to get their pictures taken with Fran. What begins as a handful of kids swells to a stream. Spectators on hand to root for the other team get in line. One after another, Fran puts her arm around them and smiles. She even signs a poster made for her by a little girl and hands it back.
"You should keep that," she says.
Three sixth-grade boys huddle together, elated after their photos. They are adamant that Fran is underrated at No. 23 and is the best player in the country because she can dunk. They also think she's the coolest player since Stephen Curry.
Overwhelmed, Fran smiles and grants every request thrown at her. Sometimes she gets recognized wearing Stanford gear while out with her family, though if she says her name is Francesca, that can throw fans off her trail. This is a sneak peek at what could be Fran's future. Nike, Gatorade, fame, fortune. The ability to reset the market for women's basketball players. She's an attraction all on her own.
After a game at Chaparral High School, Fran put down a reverse dunk. She was about to walk off the court when the opposing team's cheerleaders started chanting, "One more time! One more time!" So she obliged, this time throwing it down as the backboard was rising.
Fran first dunked in a game during her sophomore season. She was out of position, joining a trap that was already in progress. She intercepted the ball near half court and took off. After blowing past the defender, she scooped the ball into her right hand, elevated, and put it through the hoop.
"When the first one went in, I was genuinely as shocked as everyone else," Fran says. She called her mom, who was visiting family in Cameroon, to tell her that she had finally dunked in a game.
"And she didn't believe me!" Fran laughs.
The video went viral, but Fran was mostly oblivious. She didn't have any social media. Her parents were out of the country. And she didn't watch much TV. She had no idea it would be that big of a deal because she's been dunking for as long as she has played basketball. It's just another shot, one that she works on almost every day after practice.
"Her ability will change how younger girls will think about basketball," Mattei says. "Be like Mike? Be like Fran!"
A DUNK COMES with baggage in women's basketball. Lisa Leslie missed a dunk in the first WNBA game ever played in 1997, stuffing the ball on the front of the rim. She didn't think she would try it until the last second. "I can dunk, and I was thinking, 'It'd be big for women's basketball,'" Leslie said to the Orlando Sentinel after the game.
Leslie didn't attempt another in-game dunk until she made one in 2002.
A dunk has never been just a layup alternative; it's held against women as evidence of inferior athletic ability and is accompanied by the idea that something is wrong with women's basketball.
"We are inevitably in constant comparison with men in every aspect of our game," Los Angeles Sparks forward and Women's National Basketball Players Association president Nneka Ogwumike says. "Dunking is an easy cop-out for those who give reasons why they don't follow women's basketball; for those that don't truly value basketball for how it began and how we play it: for raw skills and fundamentals."
There's been conversation through the years about whether lowering the rim for the explicit reason of facilitating dunking would be good for the game. Even though Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma has spoken favorably of the idea -- WNBA All-Star Elena Delle Donne, too -- the general consensus is that women's basketball is just fine, thank you, without a bunch of dunkers.
"The dunk is just added flavor," Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields says. "It's just a physical capability. A lot of us can dunk, but in a game situation, two points are two points."
DeShields put down an out-of-game alley-oop when she was 16, but she's never dunked in a game. Stewart entered the Powerade Jam Fest when she was a McDonald's All American, but despite her many run-outs while at UConn and with the Seattle Storm, she has never dunked in a game.
“She's going to be one of those people who continues to raise the bar.”
"It's not the easiest thing to do while I'm in a game," Stewart says. "After exerting energy doing other things, it's not my main priority to dunk. As much as other people are going to like it, it's only one aspect of the game."
Fran, however, makes dunking look effortless. Lili Thompson from the Harlem Globetrotters visited a Regis Jesuit practice and threw Fran some alley-oops. Fran attempted about 30 dunks that afternoon. It's customary for her to put down a couple of dunks at halftime before the referees return. After practice, she and teammate Vansickle work on alley-oops.
"It's something that people aren't used to seeing," Stewart says. "She's going to be one of those people who continues to raise the bar. Hopefully there will be more like her."
The hope for Fran is that she won't need a clear lane and a fast break to dunk. She wants to be able to do a windmill, or a behind-the-back. She isn't satisfied with simply being able to do something. "She wants to be the best at everything," Mattei says.
Fran has made three in-game dunks during her senior season. She has attempted nine, including three alley-oops. The misses don't garner much attention beyond the gym in which they happen. And that attention is disappointment. Or surprise, in Fran's case. "I've just missed them," she says. "They hit the back rim and I'm just watching it fly back like, 'Hope someone is there to rebound.'"
In college, a miss could mean more. The games will be closer and the players much better. It's a lot harder to get a dunk against Oregon or UConn than Denver East High School.
"We've never had anyone that could do it," VanDerveer says. "We're going to take advantage of every skill set available to us. It's not the meat and potatoes or even a vegetable or a salad, but it might be an hors d'oeuvres or a special dessert. It's not going to be something we do all the time, but it will be a part of her playing at Stanford."
NOBODY -- OF ANY gender or age -- wants to get dunked on. Against Legend High School, Fran thought she had a breakaway dunk. Her steps were right; she had the power; she just knew that she was going to slam the ball home. And then, instead of feeling her palm hit the rim, she felt hands in her back. The shove sent her careening into the mats along the wall underneath the basket. "Intentional foul!" Fran yelled, making an "X" with her forearms. She wasn't angry. She was laughing as she called for the foul to be given (it was). She gets fouled all the time, on breakaways and under the hoop. She wasn't hurt, and Regis was winning. So what if she didn't get another dunk?
"It was not a great decision on our kid's part," Legend coach John Angelo says. "But it happened and was in the heat of the game."
The foul that made Fran angry came five days later, on senior night. It wasn't just because it was senior night, Fran makes clear as she tells the story. Fran doesn't take herself too seriously, not even with the pomp and circumstance of her final regular-season home game.
Fran was not pleased about how it happened. It wasn't a breakaway; it was a contested layup. Fran was driving the lane, preparing to go up through the contact she was already anticipating. Instead of going for the ball, a Mountain Vista player shoved her in the side, sliding her legs out from under her.
Fran stood up, whipped off her goggles and started charging toward the player who committed the foul, only to be caught midstomp by two teammates. Not that Fran knows what she would have done had she been able to get past.
"I wasn't even going to dunk," Fran says. "She was right there."
As she tells the story, Fran dribbles the ball between her legs. Then she gestures with the ball affixed to her right palm. Her hands move with her expressions; the ball goes with them.
Her hands are 8½ inches long and 9 inches wide. Fran's length is partly what enables her to dunk. She has a 6-foot-5 wingspan. By standing and reaching her arm into the air, she is just 22 inches below the rim. Her 31-inch maximum vertical is more than enough to get her over the rim. Fran is an exceptional athlete, and she hopes to be an exceptional basketball player.
The conflation of her athleticism with supreme skill is something that baffles Fran. When she reads comments from fans about her being "league ready," she scoffs. "If I don't have to make a layup on the left-hand side, I'm not going to go to the left-hand side," she says. "And you think I'm 'league ready' because I just happen to be able to dunk?"
Fran rolls her eyes.
"Someone told me that Coach Carl told them that I was going to be the next Michael Jordan."
FRAN TAKES A bite of some leftover mac and cheese in her kitchen. The Belibis are just home from church and are grabbing food before going to watch Hana -- Fran's youngest sister -- play in an evening basketball game. Fran stands behind the massive island next to her dad, talking about food. She loves food and enjoys cooking. When she was younger and less busy, she would make meals for her family. "Three courses," she says.
Franck smiles and laughs. Fran looks at him. "Was it not good?"
"You need more reps," he responds in his low, measured tone.
Fran puts her hand over her chest in offense. Whether it's Suzanne telling Fran at the beginning of her senior year that she doesn't believe Fran can still dunk after she didn't do it her junior year, or Franck poking fun at her cooking, Fran's parents keep her humble and focused. "We don't sugarcoat," Suzanne says, laughing.
But admiration is apparent. Fran grew up going to her parents' clinic, spending hours watching the impact of their work, particularly her mother's. Fran points to the time her mother caught a child's cancer early enough to save their life. Anti-bullying posters hang on the wall at Grace Health Clinic. "You have to teach them to love who they are," Suzanne says.
Suzanne did that for Fran when she was bullied in elementary school. She did it again when Fran struggled to make sense of basketball as she learned the sport. That's tangible and real. Fran knows what that impact looks like. What's the impact of a dunk?
The expectation of her athleticism being transcendent and therefore a destiny she should embrace is not where Fran thought she'd be less than four years after picking up a basketball.
"The WNBA wasn't something I thought I could do, considering I'd never played," Fran says.
She never dreamed of her draft night, or an NCAA championship. She never considered what team she might play for or if she'd get a shoe deal.
But holding a stethoscope? Fran has always dreamt of that. Even as her profile has skyrocketed, her priorities remain unchanged.
"Since I learned what a doctor was, I was going to be a doctor," Fran says.
She knows that everyone sees her dunk and thinks about what impact she could have on the game. She hears it from Mattei; she reads it online. Some say she could play professionally and then return to school.
"You don't just go play and then go back," Franck says.
"And she knows that," Suzanne adds.
Dunking has opened doors that Fran never knew existed, but she isn't tempted to walk through them all. For now her focus is on Stanford, athletically and academically. As for the pros?
"It never occurred to me," Fran says, "that I would be good enough."
Katie Barnes is a writer/reporter for espnW. Follow them on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.