Francois Bouchard heard the congratulations from a co-worker last May and had to ask. You’re not kidding, right? What did I win?
Recognition, said the colleague, who had read a newspaper. Bouchard was going into the University of Maine’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Bouchard was surprised. He hadn’t received a phone call, letter or email. But then, who would know where to find the 6-foot-6, 295-pound former basketball star? Who would remember his welcome at Maine and his conference Rookie of the Year season?
Who would remember his bittersweet goodbye in 1994 when Maine played Drexel for the North Atlantic Conference championship and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament? Maine lost 86-78 and Bouchard was named to the NAC all-tourney team.
He was the big guy with the big reputation. As a junior he led Old Orchard Beach High to the Class C state basketball championship in 1988, its only undefeated season. Then he broke hometown hearts by transferring to Cheverus.
It all seemed so many years ago. “I kind of like walking around and no one knowing what I used to do,” Bouchard said back in July. The passing of Rudy Keeling, the head coach who recruited Bouchard to play at Maine, had prompted the phone call.
“I don’t talk to sports writers anymore. Don’t need to and that’s fine with me. I’m not a basketball player. That part of my life is over.”
His voice was playful. He left Maine to play more than a dozen seasons for five pro teams in France. He married a Parisian woman who played in the French women’s professional league. He brought her home to Maine about eight years ago. They have two children, ages 8 and 5.
“My passion is bass fishing,” Bouchard said Wednesday night. “That’s my competition now, the bass and all the fishermen who are trying to catch a bigger one. I love it.”
Maine is pulling him back to his past. He laughs as he protests.
The Hall of Fame induction is Friday night on the Maine campus. Hockey player Jack Capuano (1989) is part of the class. So is track star Gerard LaFlamme (1976), swimmer Susan Herrick Lizzotte (1999), football player Carlton “Speed” Merritt (1924) and baseball player Chad White (1993).
Bouchard wasn’t going to the dinner at first. He was pleased with the recognition but didn’t need to hear the applause. His family quickly slapped some sense into his head, so to speak.
“I’m not a big fan of awards. A kid asking for an autograph or wanting to talk to me means a heck of a lot more. But this is a great honor, no doubt about it. That’s the bottom line. My wife said, do it for your kids. They’re old enough to remember. She’s right.”
Twenty-five years ago he wasn’t a creation of adoring fans or the media. He was a legitimate Division I prospect. Basketball powerhouses from California to Florida and Massachusetts recruited him.
“My dream was to play in the NBA,” said Bouchard. “I figured (NBA scouts) could find me in Maine. I liked the idea of staying home so my grandmother could watch me play.”
Ron Lisnet, manager of visual media at the University of Maine, was the basketball play-by-play broadcaster when Bouchard arrived.
“He was a big man who could shoot well from the outside, hit from the corner and handle the ball well. I remember (Rudy Keeling) saying ‘Wow, this is a great get.’ A good player and on top of that, from the state of Maine.”
Bouchard didn’t shy away from the radio microphone when asked. “He liked to talk. He was affable. He was confident,” said Lisnet. “I remember his last game. Maine and Drexel, who had Malik Rose (the future NBA regular). Francois coming off the floor for the last time, elbowed in the eye and blood flowing down his face.
“I may have seen him again at the awards dinner on campus. I don’t really remember. I’ll never forget him walking off the court. That’s my last memory of Francois.”
Bouchard is on the staff at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland. He works in the high-risk unit. His days can be difficult, working with kids who have lost their freedom. Special needs kids. Kids in the Day One program, dealing with abuses. He’s been at Long Creek for seven years.
He’s added more than 30 pounds to his last playing weight, which may be one reason he wasn’t interested in having his photo taken. He’s more concerned about his family’s security, which is why, for instance, he declined to say where he lives.
He doesn’t talk to his Long Creek kids about his past. Their past and future are more important. He takes them bass fishing. Teaches them to cast, how to play the fish after it’s hooked. He sees their smiles when they pull the fish out of the water.
Simple smiles of accomplishment. Bouchard’s 20-point games and winning baskets have been replaced by a different applause.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: