Rising Dragon: The Unfinished Business of Stephon Marbury

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“Ma-bu-li! Ma-bu-li! Ma-bu-li!”

The chants fill the Chinese basketball stadium. It’s sweet music to the ears of the Beijing Ducks fans, many of whom are wearing Stephon Marbury’s No. 3 replica jersey.

It’s March 30, 2012, and Marbury and the Ducks have just defeated the Guangdong Southern Tigers in the deciding game of the Chinese Basketball Association Finals. The stadium erupts in celebration, and a healthy dose of disbelief. For a few minutes, Marbury is overcome with emotion, unable to speak as he sits down on the basketball court, mobbed by a throng of reporters.

How does a point guard – a 6-2, 205-pound specimen of a point guard, two-time NBA All-Star, NYC playground legend, Coney Island’s Finest – get to this point? How does a player gracefully cap off a star-crossed professional career halfway around the world, beloved by millions, with a manifest destiny to coach the Chinese national team?

How does an American player win the hearts and souls of Chinese fans everywhere?

Where others have failed to make inroads in the Middle Kingdom, Marbury has become an honorary resident and fixture of the sport. To understand him is to understand the insatiable desire to compete, the business evolution of basketball, and the creation of a basketball icon half a world away from where he flamed out.

The origin story

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Marbury’s story is nothing if not well-documented. A young, brilliant and explosive point guard from Coney Island. A player cut in the mold – no, pantheon – of New York point guard greats, Marbury was always destined for greatness. “Starbury” prevailed in every stage of his career, starring for Lincoln High School, Georgia Tech and finally the NBA.

Eighteen years. Hard to imagine that it’s been so long since Marbury began his NBA career, playing the Robin to Kevin Garnett’s Batman.

Marbury and Garnett represented the arrival of the “new guard” – the new breed of players who didn’t honor tradition so much as smash it to smithereens. The Fab Five phenomenon had swept the nation just a couple of years earlier, with the brash injection of hip-hop culture into the basketball mainstream. Marbury and Garnett were going to be the new Dynamic Duo, locking up a dynasty for the next decade. Who would stop them?

Alas, it was not to be. There was too much ego, pride and jealousy in Minnesota to fit into one locker room. Garnett locked up a massive contract worth $126 million in 1998, and that signaled the beginning of the end. For Marbury, it was validation that he was not the most valued asset to the organization. A petulant Marbury demanded a trade, and got his wish when he was shipped to the New Jersey Nets.

For Marbury, handling adversity on the basketball court against opposing defenses geared to stop him was nothing new. But adversity off the court from critics and the league itself? That was another ballgame.

The roundball experts criticized his selfishness and me-first mentality. Why couldn’t he sacrifice personal gains for the organization? Why couldn’t he keep his mouth shut? Didn’t the Wolves have a dynasty in the making? Didn’t he care about winning?

Years later, when asked about the possibility of reconciliation with Garnett, Marbury was wistful. “That would be great; that would be a beautiful thing.” Yet the damage was done, and would forever mark Marbury’s career.

After hightailing it out of Minnesota, Marbury played three seasons in New Jersey and developed into a certifiable All-Star, if not a winner. The criticisms remained. New Jersey couldn’t make the playoffs, and Marbury couldn’t lead a team. The team lacked the right pieces, and considerable blame was placed on Marbury.

It certainly didn’t help matters that after Marbury’s exit from the organization, the team went on an incredible playoff run under the steady leadership of Jason Kidd, reaching the NBA Finals in consecutive years. Everything that Kidd was – facilitator, leader, passer – Marbury was not. While Kidd’s abusive domestic behavior off the court was troubling, he got the team to the NBA Finals. The success of the post-Marbury Nets poured more fuel to the fire.

With all the baggage Marbury attracted, the Knicks and Madison Square Garden should have been a homecoming for him – a basketball city where he could find peace and – more importantly – support. Alas, this scenario never fully materialized.

Marbury’s relationship with coach Larry Brown and GM Isiah Thomas quickly grew strained; on the court, he famously refused to check into a game. In retrospect, it’s easy to see now that Brown never got along with most players, save for a grudging partnership with Allen Iverson. Nonetheless, Marbury behaved unprofessionally by refusing to suit up for games and disappearing on game days with no explanation. He sulked and acted in the worst interests of the team. At this point, his $22 million annual salary was an incredible risk to every NBA team – while the talent warranted the contract, the attitude did not.

And this should have been the end of the story. A brilliant prep career, an NBA star that burned brightly but briefly, winding down to limited minutes on a rebuilding team. A “me-first” lead guard who won individual honors but could not win – or conform – at the game’s highest level. Unable to elevate the play of his teammates, petulant, difficult to coach.

Was this the end?

The next chapter

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People didn’t know why I was going to China. People couldn’t understand the change and the difference, what I saw, and what I believed to be certain for myself and for my career. … And the fans there, the people in Shanxi, when I first landed off the plane, they showed me so much love that I couldn’t even, I couldn’t go back. It was too much love.

A change of scene does wonders for people in the most unexpected of ways. Nobody batted an eyelash when Marbury declared his intent to play in China, because his NBA career was done. Stephon Marbury was cancerous and could not make his teammates better. The label stuck on him like a tattoo. Certainly the Boston Celtics did not think much of him by that point. Perhaps Danny Ainge thought Marbury could play a role on the team as a backup, like fellow New York point Kenny Anderson did so many years ago. It didn’t pan out.

Going over to play Chinese basketball ranked lower on the scale of international competition than playing in Europe. To most American fans, China was like Siberia – what was Marbury going to do there? Crash and burn like Bonzi Wells or Steve Francis, no doubt. Many fans expected Marbury to fade away, never to lace up his signature Starbury kicks in professional competition ever again.

Who really knew what occupied Marbury’s mind as he sat on that flight to China, getting ready to play professional basketball in Asia? Perhaps he thought of his family, or the lucrative sums the Chinese Basketball Association paid him. Maybe he asked himself how he was going to get used to living in a foreign land, devoid of hometown comforts and fans that knew little about American basketball other than Yao Ming’s appearances on the Houston Rockets, or Yi Jianlian’s trials and failures with so many different teams. His basketball circle must have given him plenty of information, but experiencing something firsthand was different. This was a new lease on life.

As Marbury suited up for the Shanxi Brave Dragons in his first season, he experienced many things. Culture shock. A losing team. Teammates that never played American basketball or possessed the type of mental toughness associated with the playground.

It didn’t matter that he put up gaudy numbers – the league wasn’t exactly known for defense. In his second year, Marbury switched allegiances and joined the Foshan Dragons. Same scenario, and the Dragons failed to make the playoffs.

At this point, nothing Starbury did in China suggested any deviation from the neatly constructed condemnation of him as a shoot-first, pass-second player. If leaving the NBA was the end, Marbury’s first two years in China was the proverbial nail in the coffin.

The rebirth

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I mean, when people say, ‘Oh, you did this, you did that.’ I was 25. I’m 36 years old. You still want to talk about what I did 10 years ago? I mean, you can’t hold something over somebody here forever.

In Marbury’s third season of professional basketball in China, things clicked into place.

Marbury starred for the 2011-12 Beijing Ducks and represented China’s capital city. The Ducks shot out of the gates with a phenomenal start, winning 13 straight games. Partnered with fellow American Randolph Morris, Marbury and the Ducks finished the season with a strong 21-10 record. They rode that momentum into the CBA playoffs, where they eliminated Guansha. In the second round, against former team Shanxi, Marbury averaged 40.4 points, 5.8 dimes and 4.8 boards – including back-to-back games of 52 and 53 points. Marbury asserted himself in a big way, playing the only way he knew how – getting to the basket and scoring in bunches.

In the CBA Finals, Beijing upset top-ranked and heavy favorite Guangdong. The Southern Tigers possessed the deepest roster and the best Chinese player, Yi Jianlian. It was a hard-fought series fraught with physicality and unsporting behavior that would have warranted player suspensions in the NBA. Beijing was the David to Guangdong’s Goliath. And just like the fable, the underdog emerged victorious.

And so Marbury won a championship in, of all places, China. In the hearts of Chinese fans, at least, he had reached the ultimate goal.

And Marbury knew how to say the right things. In a post-championship TV appearance, an interviewer translated the fans’ sentiments, telling Marbury that in the hearts of Beijing fans, he was the true MVP. (Due to CBA rules, an American cannot be voted MVP.)

“I’m truly blessed for the people of China, the people of Beijing, to feel the way they feel about me … as far as how I played in the Finals,” Marbury replied. “Without my teammates, none of this would have been possible.”

Marbury hurt his knee this season but underwent surgery in the States and is now back in Beijing, preparing for a return to the court. The Ducks effectively have Damien Wilkins “on loan” until Marbury comes back, due to rules about the maximum number of foreigners that can play on a CBA team. The Ducks are currently positioned to make a deep run in the postseason, and another title for Marbury is not outside the realm of possibility.

The business of Starbury

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To suggest that China embraced Marbury because he was a winner on the court would be an oversimplification.

The one thing that Marbury did well, which other foreign players in China did not, was bank on his marketability. He was a big name player from the U.S. who had a great smile, said the right things and attempted to learn the Chinese language.

He appeared in TV spots. He rode the Beijing subway. He started a stream of constant communication with fans through Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Apparently, he’s even making his kids learn Mandarin.

One factor about Marbury not to be underestimated was his peculiar mannerisms and ability to be, well, goofy. Remember the vaseline eating incident? Whereas behavior like this was off-putting to American fans, in China it became a vehicle in which he endeared himself to people who heard about it through social networks.

It is difficult to completely buy into Marbury’s total embrace of Chinese basketball culture and his emotional breakdowns. Cynics would say that it is all part of an elaborate act, a foreigner’s clever propaganda toward a basketball-crazy country. But Marbury’s past behavior has certainly lent credibility to the notion that he is a tad unstable. Over the years, he has made proclamations about spiritual awakenings, kissing his sister, and prophetic voices coming to him in the night.

At this point, it’s particularly telling that in an era of constant political corruption and societal unrest, Chinese basketball fans are willing to overlook the seemingly innocent quirks of Marbury’s persona. And Marbury, unlike his contemporaries, is in China for the long haul. He signed a three-year contract extension with the Ducks last year, played a guest role as assistant coach for the Chinese national team and reportedly is interested in becoming head coach for Team China in the future.

And so Marbury cultivated a persona that was at times awkward, at times self-deprecating, and usually genuine – the sign of a great marketer. And he had great reason to do so. The Starbury shoe brand, launched in 2006 as a low-cost alternative to the Nikes and adidas of the world, was a great idea but flamed out in the States, with reports of legal action taken against it.

Now, due to Marbury’s strong popularity in China, the Starbury brand has risen from the ashes in a joint partnership with a Chinese shoemaker, 361 Degrees. It’s become impossible to watch the Chinese national sports channel without running into Marbury’s TV spot.

Where Starbury ends – and China begins

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Just how reasonable is the prospect of Marbury coaching Team China? Let’s consider the positives. Chinese sports has had a long history of hiring foreign coaches, so nationality isn’t a problem. In fact, American Bob Donewald, Jr. served as head coach from 2010-2012.

Marbury’s background as a player will certainly help him gain the respect of his team, and he has played the role of assistant for the Chinese national team, which was the event that prompted this speculation in the first place.

China is looking to win now. If it is looking for a stable and steady coach, then Marbury would not be their first choice. The national team is in rebuilding mode, having suffered a number of high-profile losses as of late. Most notably, they suffered an embarrassing defeat to Taiwan in the quarterfinals of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, finishing fifth in the tournament. Their hopes of going to the World Cup in Spain this summer rest on the possibility of them receiving one of four wild-card berths.

For too long, the Chinese have banked on the star power of players such as Yao Ming, Wang Zhizhi and Yi Jianlian. Though it was the country that raised these players, it rested on its laurels over the past few years. Now Yao is gone, and China hasn’t correctly addressed the deficiencies in its basketball system. Wang Zhelin is “the next Yao Ming,” but he’s only 20 years old and inexperienced on the international stage. The guard play is severely lacking and underdeveloped, and the team lacks a cohesive defensive identity.

Although China would never officially admit it, the team needs a strong identity, infrastructure and disciplinary makeover. Current coach Panagiotis Giannakis is a seasoned veteran but lacks the mannerisms to get through to his players. China is well-positioned to receive one of FIBA’s wild card berths next month for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, but a deep run is unlikely.

Appointing Marbury for the job would be a great PR move but ultimately ineffective for China on the international stage. This isn’t the same as appointing Kidd to coach the Brooklyn Nets; China is in disarray, and the stakes are much higher.

Moreover, Marbury still has a number of years left to play in the CBA, and it’s unlikely that he could juggle playing commitments and coaching. Marbury the savvy businessman needs to promote the Starbury brand, and the best way to do that is to keep playing.

Therefore, Marbury leading Team China in the next two years is a long shot in terms of what China needs, and fit with Marbury’s best interests. But this is China, so we’ll never say never.

What we do know is that when all is said and done, Marbury will be remembered as the biggest American star to ever play in China. And the story isn’t over yet.

From Coney Island’s Finest to China’s Finest? That’s not a bad place to be.

James Hsu is a Chinese-Canadian writer currently living in Beijing. Follow him on Twitter at @james_hsu.

 

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