“Oh, here comes Drake.”
The slightly sarcastic comment from John Egbunu seems strange and out of place at the Florida Gators basketball media day. There’s no one named Drake on this 2015-2016 team.
As the subject in question approaches Egbunu to take his spot at the podium, it becomes clear that “Drake” is in fact Brandone Francis-Ramirez. The redshirt freshman guard does bare a passing resemblance to the rapper Drake; same skin tone, similar build and facial structure. The first noticeable difference though is the constant smile that Francis-Ramirez sports like a second skin and one that the monotone Drake hasn’t shown since he was dropping buckets of his own as the pre-paralyzed Jimmy on Degrassi.
Francis-Ramirez strolls into the room though like there’s no place he’d rather be—and according to him, that is true.
“Last year at this time I couldn’t even do media day,” explains Brandone. “So I think this is an important day for me. I’m one step closer to stepping on the hardwood and being proud to be a Gator and doing my best.”
His absence from the 2014 media day was only the tip of the iceberg during what has been a tumultuous year for the kid, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.
Three days later, Francis-Ramirez is showing off this infectious personality yet again as he stands forefront and center amongst a crowd of a few thousand at Gator Madness—the kickoff pep rally event for men’s and women’s basketball. Each and every player that exits the giant inflatable Gator head has Brandone on the other end, dancing, laughing, doing every thing he can to put his teammates at ease, even if it means looking ridiculous on his own.
He’s wearing that smile again, lighting up an otherwise smoky pyrotechnic display in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. A few minutes later, he’s lighting up the scoreboard, easing to a win in the three-point shooting contest, beating out current teammate Dorian Finney-Smith and past Gator greats like Jason Williams, Teddy Dupay and Lee Humphrey. Seeing this sharp shooter with the quick release and even quicker laugh, it’s hard to imagine a time when Francis-Ramirez wouldn’t seem on top of the world. For Brandone himself though, it doesn’t take long to recall, as it was just recently he was living through his self proclaimed lowest of lows.
Brandone came to America from the Dominican Republic.
A country that seems to churn out top-rated baseball players like a machine didn’t have quite the same luck with BFR. He gave it the old college try, stepping onto the diamond for a while—a rite of passage in his home country. He played second base but knew his defensive abilities between the bags weren’t going to get him anywhere.
“I ain’t gonna lie, I played baseball at first but I wasn’t good,” admits a laughing Francis-Ramirez. “Couldn’t hit, couldn’t hit anything… so I started playing basketball and everything worked out well for me. But there’s a lot of baseball players out there and some of them, they want to help their families and everything, but I just really like basketball, so I choose to play it. I love it.”
Finding a home on the court brought him to his new home in America, specifically Jacksonville, Florida to the high school Arlington Country Day. He helped lead the school to a 30-5 record, cumulating in a Sunshine Independent Athletic Association State Championship. That was also the last time he played competitively before things got, well, messy. “It’s probably been a year, state championship game,” says Francis-Ramirez. “It’s just amazing how quickly people forget about you. Coming in I was probably top-30 in high school. But having to sit out, it doesn’t feel like anybody remembers that but myself.”
He was in fact considered one of the nation’s top shooting guards, and was all set to make an immediate impact for then Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan in 2014. Then the NCAA stepped in, declaring him academically ineligible. Whether the discourse came from his transfer out of the DR to an American high school or from ACD itself is still slightly unclear.
All Brandone knows is that for a year he had to prove his worth not on the court, but in the classroom. “I just had to prove myself,” explains Francis-Ramirez, “and that’s what I did in the classroom because, you know, coming from that high school it was a couple of issues but anything I could do, me and other teammates from high school had the same problem. So my motivation to them was to prove I am a smart kid, I can do my work and I don’t need help from anybody to get my grades up.”
Still, knowing that he could have helped as his team stumbled to a 16-17 record, hit hard each and every game.
It can’t be easy, watching from the sidelines, especially for someone like Brandone Francis-Ramirez who was so obviously born to live in the spotlight. He belongs there, and shows up with a countenance that will have fans wanting him to stay there, thanks to a humbleness that is refreshingly apparent and a nice counterpart to his confidence that oozes out of everything he does. The few minutes seen at Gator Madness show that he inspires it in his teammates as well, with just the touch of cockiness needed to succeed on the court and convince his comrades to go along with whatever he’s proposing. And for the past year he wasn’t able to put this into play, instead watching from the stands, or even worse, his dorm room.
In a moment of complete honesty, Brandone Francis-Ramirez responded to a question as to whether he had had days in the past year when he felt like the NCAA issue would never get resolved.
“Yeah,” he said, face shocked like he couldn’t understand why no one grasped the doomed feeling that had been gripping his life for months. “Last year, I mean, I think the hardest part for me was when I had to watch the game from the stands because I wasn’t allowed to practice or be in any basketball activities. It was really hard. It really, really beats you down when you see your teammates get on the bus because they have a road game and you have to go back to your dorm. I think that was one of the toughest things to do… It got me down, saying ‘Who am I?’ I struggled personally, mentally, and physically.”
Then came the light bulb—“ When I found out I couldn’t do anything about… I was in the weight room 24/7. I worked as hard as I could, I listened to the coaches and I just tried to make myself a better student and a better basketball player… I think that second semester working with Coach Billy helped me a lot and definitely this summer and this semester, [with new head coach] Coach White, he made me a better player overall.”
As to what that better player will look like, only time will tell. Francis-Ramirez is leaving that judgment up to the Florida Gators fans that are soon to be reacquainted with their shooting guard. He brings a promise though, one that’s been a year in the making. “Oh you guys have to see [me] and tell me the way I play. But I’ll tell you that I’m back and I’m better.”