Rick Evrard’s enduring childhood memories of Mike Francesa are the outside jump shots the future radio star repeatedly hit on basketball courts at Nevada and Brookline avenues.
Now a Kansas attorney, Evrard was best friends with Francesa’s younger brother, Marty, when they all attended Long Beach Catholic Regional School and also played CYO hoops in gyms from West School to East School to St. Mary of the Isle Church.
“We just loved the game and Mike’s passion for playing basketball in my judgment led him to his career,” Evrard said.
Throughout his 30 years on air at the first all-sports radio station, WFAN-AM 660 — a run that will end with his last show Dec. 15 — Francesa has peppered his no-nonsense commentary with tales of growing up on the barrier island, mostly on Oswego Avenue in East Atlantic Beach.
He’s waxed nostalgic about everything from swimming, surfing and fishing off the island’s beaches. He recalled parking cars at the Atlantic Beach Club, studying his St. John’s textbooks while waiting on long gas lines in the 1970s, and the countless hours spent playing sports with his brothers and friends.
“We all played on those courts very competitively for a very long time, especially the Brookline court,” Francesa, 63, said when asked about Evrard’s recollections. “That was a very competitive court. There were a lot of pickup games there.”
A radio legend is born
The Yankees fan — who idolized Mickey Mantle and won a 7th-grade baseball championship in a Long Beach Recreation league — made his name when he teamed with Chris Russo to form WFAN’s “Mike and the Mad Dog” show in 1989. With near encyclopedic sports knowledge, the highly-opinionated, fiery duo and their afternoon drive show quickly topped the ratings and hovered there during their 19 years together, inspiring hundreds of replica shows nationwide.
ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series in July featured the radio pioneers and included a segment on their Long Island backgrounds. Russo’s stable, upper-middle-class roots in Syosset was contrasted with Francesa’s upbringing in blue-collar Long Beach, where his father abandoned his wife and three sons and left them destitute.
“My mom had to work, so I’d say from about nine years old on, I came home to an empty house,” Francesa told ESPN. “I took care of my younger brother, and all we did was play sports — that’s all we did.”
Francesa maintains that their show was a sensation because he and Russo were two different, sometimes combative personalities who nonetheless developed a great, lasting chemistry.
“I think we were individual performers who brought a lot of passion and a lot of intensity to work every day, and we were very conscious of our talents and our beliefs about certain things,” Francesa said. “At the same time, we understood how to make things work between us.”
When Russo departed for Sirius XM Radio in 2008, Francesca maintained high ratings on his renamed solo show “Mike’s On: Francesa on the FAN.”
A voice for listeners after Sandy
Among his signature non-sports moments came in the days and weeks after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. He became a voice for many of his listeners, particularly in Long Beach, whose flood-destroyed homes were without power, plumbing and cell phone service.
Francesa devoted an opening monologue to the day he visited his older brother, John, whose house on Mohawk Avenue in East Atlantic Beach got wrecked. He received updates, he said, from his brother and others he maintained ties with in Long Beach, including his real estate attorney, Ray Ellmer — a Long Beach firefighter who helped battle a blaze that ripped through eight homes in the Canals during the storm — to keep his listeners informed.
“We were very conscious of what was going on there and obviously the plight of everybody who was having to dig out from what was just an incredible storm, and going down to see just how ravaged the place was unbelievable,” Francesa recounted.
He has always called Long Island home, having resided in Merrick briefly after landing his first post-college job in Manhattan. Eventually, he returned to the barrier island before settling in Manhasset, where he lives with his second wife, Roe, and their three children.
Career future a mystery
Earlier this month, WFAN announced a trio to succeed Francesa in his afternoon slot come Jan. 2. The crew includes Chris Carlin, a former producer of the “Mike and the Mad Dog” show; Bart Scott, a New York Jets linebacker for four seasons; and Maggie Gray, who works for Sports Illustrated digital and CBS Sports Radio.
Meanwhile, Francesa’s future remains a mystery. He’s contractually restricted from publicly revealing details about next steps until early January, as well as from taking certain actions until April. To accommodate fans who still want his take on the sports landscape, though, he may voice his views on Twitter.
“I’m basically going to take it one month at a time,” he said.
But there are rumblings his radio days could come full circle. At an event celebrating his career, held at the Tilles Center at LIU Post on Nov. 15, Russo was among Francesa’s many guests. Russo seemed to half-jokingly suggest they could reunite, whether at Sirius or another station. At first downplaying any rumors, Francesa played along.
“We’ll see,” he told his former partner. “I think a little 500-watt station in Walla Walla, Washington. We’ll do 10-1.”