The (Really) Long Road To Glory: Stephon Marbury’s China Redemption
Stephon Marbury’s NBA career crashed and burned, leaving him hopeless. He had run out of options and was nearing the end. Thankfully, the Chinese Basketball Association reached out and wanted to give the former star one final chance. Marbury accepted the offer and turned his career and life around through a series of remarkable, seemingly scripted events, all while becoming one of the most beloved people in China. Here’s how Stephon Marbury went from NBA outcast to Chinese legend.
1. The Best of Brooklyn
To understand Stephon Marbury and why, from the outside, he was such a polarizing character, you’d have to make a stop in Coney Island, a section of Brooklyn. An overcrowded urban area, Brooklyn — and New York at large — produces some of the best basketball players in the world. Legends are made on the tough outdoor courts that dot the urban landscape.
Streetball’s roots trace their way to the cracked concrete courts of New York. To stand out and make a name for yourself in these parts, you have to thrive in an environment not conducive to whiners, foul-callers, and complainers. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. With Stephon Marbury, that adage proved to be true.
2. Continuing The New York Tradition
In high school, Marbury starred at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. As a star point guard, all the eyes in basketball’s most famous city were always peering in on the player hyped to be the next great point guard to emerge from New York City. He was compared to the likes of Mark Jackson and Kenny Anderson, two guards who made it big in the NBA.
They played with a hard-nosed style that could only be forged in some of the country’s hardest streets. At the end of his senior year, Stephon Marbury, known by his nickname “Starbury,” was awarded Mr. New York Basketball, given annually to the best high school basketball player in New York.
Though a highly-touted recruit and McDonald’s All-American, Marbury’s future remained a mystery.
3. The NCAA’s Biggest Buzz
Some analysts thought he would make the jump straight to the NBA while others believed he would benefit from some time playing college ball. With virtually every major college program wanting Marbury’s services, the elite scorer elected to attend Georgia Tech. In his lone season at Georgia Tech, Marbury led the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA Tournament and was named a third-team All-American.
A virtual lock to be a top pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, Marbury’s trajectory was pointed in the right direction. Everything for the former New York City prodigy was lining up. He would fulfill his personal dreams and be the next star New York City basketball player to make it to the NBA. But not everything goes according to plan, and it wouldn’t take Marbury long to realize that.
4. Breaking Ankles and Turning Heads
Taken 4th overall in the 1996 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, Marbury was immediately traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night. The year before, the T’Wolves selected Kevin Garnett, and the thinking was that by trading for Starbury, Minnesota would have a dynamic young duo that could play inside and out. A young core to build around in the deeply-talented Western Conference. From the start, the plan worked.
Garnett and Marbury led the T-wolves to the franchise’s first playoff appearance during the 1996-97 season. Although they were swept by the Houston Rockets in the first round, the franchise couldn’t have been happier with their two young stars, especially their rookie point guard who averaged nearly 16 points and 8 assists per game.
5. Major Problems In Minnesota
The next season, Marbury again led his team into the playoffs, although they were once again ousted in the first round. Still, progress was being made and Minnesota was looking at its next big thing after Land O’Lakes butter. From the outside, everything in Minnesota seemed to be smooth sailing.
The waters were calm on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. One of basketball’s youngest franchises appeared to be a team ready to contend for a title in only a matter of years. They had a young roster primed for future success. But on the inside, everything was rocky and turbulent, and the proverbial fingers began to point in Marbury’s direction.
6. A Rolling Stone Who Can’t Get No Satisfaction
Dissatisfied and jealous of Kevin Garnett’s massive contract extension. Unable to warm up to Minnesota’s frigid winters. Too far from home. The exact reasons Stephon Marbury began to grow disillusioned with Minnesota still remain a mystery, but one thing was certain: Marbury wanted out. And his wish would be granted.
Midway through the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, Minnesota dished their star point guard to the New Jersey Nets, a media market that was bigger and closer to home.
With New Jersey, Marbury proved himself again as one of the NBA’s best young guards and was named to his first All-Star Game in 2001. Losing, however, was much more prevalent in New Jersey than individual accolades.
7. From New Jersey To A Suns Jersey
Marbury again became dissatisfied with his situation. When the team wasn’t winning, Marbury was frowning, and his body language showed a tangible disgust for his team and situation. Suddenly, in a blockbuster deal, he was traded to Phoenix for Jason Kidd. He lasted just over two seasons in New Jersey, a situation that could have been perfect for the New York native.
The Nets and Suns essentially swapped two of the league’s most exciting guards, except Marbury was younger and had already been with two teams in his short NBA tenure. While Kidd would immediately lead the Nets to multiple appearances in the NBA Finals, Marbury was a troubled soul who was deemed selfish on the court.
8. Life In The Valley
Life in the Valley of the Sun proved to be no better for the disgruntled star. At this point, Marbury’s true self shined through to all who watched him play, and what they saw was downright ugly. He was selfish with the ball and had a “me-first” mentality, neither of which are conducive to winning in a team sport like basketball.
Although he performed at a high level in Phoenix and made his second All-Star team, he was not the answer the Suns needed. He and young center Amare Stoudemire led the Suns into the playoffs, but could never advance past the first round. Finally, things boiled over in Phoenix to unsustainable temperatures.
9. You Can Go Home Again (And Again)
De-ja-vu. Another mega trade involving Marbury. This time it would be to the New York Knicks, his hometown team. At just 26 years old, Marbury and his massive contract had the potential to elevate New York to the next level in the Eastern Conference. He was supposed to be the electric ball handler and elite scorer who could change the game in a flash.
He wasn’t. What he was was a locker room cancer. A player who vehemently hated his coaches — Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas — which, ultimately, led to their dismissals. What he was was a player who publicly criticized his teammates and created rifts as big as his contract.
10. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
But Marbury had a lesser-known side to himself that hid in the shadows of his oversized ego. After Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the southern United States, Marbury, then a Knicks captain, stepped up in the biggest way possible. In an emotional interview where Marbury wept uncontrollably, the disgruntled star pledged to donate up to $1 million to victims — the largest donation made by an NBA player.
In an interview with the New York Post, an emotional Marbury proclaimed, “You complain about the littlest things. But we’re so fortunate to breathe and walk, knowing all of this is going on.”
And before Katrina, Marbury had stepped up big to help his city after the September 11 terror attacks.
11. Marbury To The Rescue
In 2007, Marbury again stepped up for his city, this time with another million dollar donation. The funds went to the NYPD, FDNY, EMT, and New York teachers. “Being able to help those programs that would allow EMS to hire 2-3 people, if it saves more lives, I’m down for that,” Marbury told the New York Post. “I felt compelled to do that.” He also made a $10,000 donation to the Brooklyn Public Library.
What made his charitable contributions even greater is the money came from the sales of his Starbury shoe line. His signature shoe, the Starburys, are designed to look great without breaking the bank — the polar opposite of what Nike does with their outrageously priced signature shoes worn by the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
12. Gotta Be The Shoes
In fact, most shoes sell for under $20 dollars, making them an affordable choice for cash strapped kids. “I’m from the same place where people buy my products,’’ Marbury said. “I’m from Coney Island and the ghetto. I was one of those kids who wished someone did this like me. It’s important to have social responsibility to the community,” Marbury told Newsday.
Yet Marbury couldn’t find happiness playing basketball in the NBA. All the money in the world couldn’t buy him happiness or success. All the donations and good deeds couldn’t help reshape his tarnished reputation.
A good man with a bad image, Marbury began to run out of luck and his life began to take a turn for the worst.
13. The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back
Playing for his hometown team should have been a great thing, a perfect marriage. It was the exact opposite. It was a disastrous tenure filled with frowns, petulant behavior, and the demise of two coaches, all at the hands of Marbury. There was, however, one straw that finally broke the camel’s back.
After yet another disappointing season running the point in New York, fans and players began to lose patience with the dismal franchise. Some believed it would be Marbury seeing the door, others speculated it would be head coach Isiah Thomas. At the end of the day, it was the coach who was removed, leaving Marbury with one small, final victory.
14. A Knack For Upsetting Knicks
Thomas’ replacement was Mike D’Antoni, a coach widely considered to be a players coach. This reputation would not extend to Marbury and the two didn’t mesh from the start, butting heads in practice over minutes and Marbury’s starting role. Eventually the two entered a stalemate that resulted with Marbury being banned from all organized team activities by Knicks president Donnie Walsh.
In the most bizarre of circumstances, Marbury was blocked from practices and games while being owed money that the Knicks withheld. Marbury vehemently asserted he did nothing wrong while the Knicks contested that he refused to suit up for a game and earned every minute of his team-wide ban.
15. Marbury Bids Farewell To NBA
Regardless of whose side of the story was more plausible, neither party could mend a sour relationship that spoiled to the point of no return. A divorce was inevitable. Marbury, again, would be switching teams, further giving credence to the negative labels he already carried with him everywhere he went.
On February 27, 2009, Marbury, released by the Knicks, signed with the Boston Celtics in an attempt to re-invent himself. In a moment’s notice, Marbury went from playing for his favorite team to joining their bitter rival. Following the season, the Celtics offered Marbury a one-year extension for the veteran’s minimum. Marbury shunned it, exiling himself from the league forever.
16. Vaseline Can’t Soothe Everything
“I wanted to die,” Marbury told Sports Illustrated. “I wanted to kill myself some days.” He reached rock bottom. Depressed and suicidal. Alone and panned by all as a sore loser who forced his own demise from the game he loved.
In one sad, confusing video that Marbury live streamed, the former star wept in front of the camera while eating Vaseline, a move he claimed was to soothe a sore throat.
Either way, fans and followers of basketball were genuinely concerned for his health. He needed a drastic change of scenery, and the unlikeliest of suitors reached out to him.
17. A Good Fortune
The contract offer was too lucrative to turn down. The endorsement deal opportunities too plentiful. The chance at fame, fortune and rebirth too tempting. The magical suitor that could provide Stephon Marbury with a new life was China. A burgeoning basketball market, China was the perfect opportunity for Marbury, but teams were still worried about the poisonous point guard.
“Before we thought he was more like a monster, but then we understood that he’s very sincere and even fragile. We felt that he’s really a great person,” Yang Yi, a Chinese Basketball Association agent, told the LA Times.
Four months after his initial conversation with Yi, Marbury had a job offer. The Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons, a desperate team, took a chance on Marbury, who equally took a chance on them. China was uncharted territory for NBA players, and it would be Marbury taking on the role of explorer and ambassador.
18. A Star is Born
With the Brave Dragons, Marbury lasted one season (2010) but electrified the miserable fan base. The next year, he moved to the Foshan Dralions where he’d again participate in the CBA All-Star game, but All-Star appearances didn’t mean satisfaction for Stephon. At this point, he was playing for much more than All-Star games.
At this point he was trying to stay with a franchise long enough to make a difference. Even thousands of miles away from his former life in America and the pervasive NBA drama that followed him, Marbury remained unsatisfied.
That is until the Beijing Ducks, a team with no championships and a struggling fanbase, reached out.
19. Balling in Beijing
In his first year as a Duck, Marbury took on an unfamiliar role. Yes, he was still the same passionate player and elite scorer. But now he was a leader, the team’s superhero rather than super villain fans grew accustomed to seeing and hearing about. Averaging 25 points per game, Marbury was once again selected for the All-Star team, but this season Marbury would also guide his team to the playoffs.
As the two seed, the Beijing Ducks beat the heavily-favored seven-time champion Guandong Southern Tigers 4-1. This championship was just the start of the unprecedented success and stardom Marbury would receive with his new club.
Following the victory, the club unveiled a life-size bronze statue of Marbury clutching the CBA championship trophy. Located outside the Cadillac Center, the basketball venue at the 2008 Summer Olympics, Marbury’s statue was the first true step towards super-stardom in his adopted country, but it would not be his last.
20. The Titles Keep Coming
In 2014 and 2015, Marbury and the Ducks captured their second and third titles, all while Marbury asserted himself as the most dominant player in China. A prized possession over in China, “Marbury has signed endorsement deals valued far above his $2 million annual salary with sponsors including Chinese property developer Vanke, energy drink maker Red Bull, and…Chinese footwear producer 361 Degrees.” (LA Times)
For a communist country that doesn’t idolize much besides work and sound morals, being a basketball player adored by billions is a rare feat. But sponsorships, rabid fandom, and championships were just the start of Stephon Marbury’s ascension to Chinese basketball god.
21. Chairman Marbury
Starting with the statue, Marbury’s fame began to astronomically rise, almost like the Chinese economy over the past 20 years. First came the musical “I am Stephon Marbury” about Marbury’s life in China as a “beipiao,” the local Chinese slang for a foreigner living in Beijing without permanent residence status. Often these migrants flounder and get lost in the massive sea that is Beijing.
In Marbury’s case, he thrived, and his story inspired a musical that will “feature the Chinese Basketball Association’s top cheerleading squad and performers trained to do various basketball tricks,” as well as celebrity appearances from figures like Yao Ming (Becky Davis, New York Times).
22. Putting A Stamp On Success
However, attracting thousands of fans to Beijing to see Marbury’s personal spectacle wasn’t nearly a great enough effort to show China’s appreciation for their unlikely saint. The next honor Marbury received was a custom set of postage stamps that featured Marbury during his playing days for Beijing.
Although some would say that Marbury mailed it in while playing for the Knicks, the meaning took on a totally different meaning in China, where receiving a postage stamp is revered.
After the stamp, where Marbury’s already ubiquitous face could now be seen in even more places, Marbury was dubbed an honorary citizen of Beijing. Following that symbolic gesture, Marbury was then informed that a museum bearing his name would be built in his honor.
23. The House Of Marbury
Dubbed the House of Marbury, the museum features artifacts that document Marbury’s playing days in high school, to the NBA, and culminating with his remarkable success in China. The museum also featured a life-size wax Marbury figure. Suffice to say, when a country builds a museum around an athlete who is still playing, there’s a level of fandom that cannot be replicated.
If there ever was a story of love at first sight, Stephon Marbury and China would be the quintessential version, and the story, somehow, took an unprecedented historic turn that could possibly reshape the Chinese landscape for generations to come.
24. The Grass Was Really Greener
China is a nation known for its extremely tough immigration laws, and because of that, the country is home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants floating around without legal status. Caught in limbo waiting for permanent residence status, these migrants live and work in the city’s poorest parts, struggling to make ends meet.
In 2004, China set up a permanent residence program designed to help foreigners with significant ties to the country find a path towards becoming more solidified members of society. To date, only “about 5,000 foreigners of more than 600,000 living in China have been granted a green card” (New York Times).
And of those 5,000, none have been athletes or CBA players. Until Marbury.
25. Marbury Goes Green Card
In 2015, Marbury received one of the most prestigious honors a foreigner can receive: a Chinese Green Card. No longer would Marbury need to apply for work visas, and no longer would he, despite the fame and loving community he was welcomed into, be considered a foreigner. He was already a champion. Now he was a Beijinger.
On his Twitter account, Marbury proudly exclaimed, “Right now. In Chinese history, the first foreign player to win a green card.”
“I feel like my love for China is being shown in the same way. Being the first foreign basketball player to receive a green card means a lot in making history in China,” Marbury told the New York Times. And the fans were just as receptive at making their city’s official population increase by one.
26. Doing it For the Kids
But China didn’t fall in love with Marbury squarely because of his basketball prowess. They fell in love with him because of the community outreach and impact he had on locals. In 2015, Marbury was named one of Beijing’s top-10 model citizens. It wasn’t because he drained threes and raised trophies. It’s because he raised the morale of children suffering from Leukemia. It’s because he donated generous amounts of money to schools in the rural Yunnan Province.
In 2012, “Marbury auctioned a collection of his personal belongings, including a 2003 NBA All-Star Game jersey signed by All-Stars of the 2003 class, raising RMB 366,000 to build rural schools in China” (The Beijinger).
Marbury was also the face of a volunteering campaign to clean up the subways in Beijing.
On February 11, 2018, Marbury played his last professional basketball game. “I’m tired, man. I’m tired. I played 22 years,” Marbury told ESPN.
But his story is hardly over; in fact, it’s just getting started.
27. Marbury’s Next Move
What’s one of the easiest, most seamless ways to transition into retirement? If you’re Stephon Marbury, it would be acting. Already beloved by the masses, Marbury simply needs to put his face on camera and he’d, by default, be considered successful. People would flock to the theaters to see Marbury, even if he had minimal speaking lines.
Said Marbury to the LA Times regarding his upcoming movie, “I’m excited about the movie. Acting is definitely something I want to do after I finish playing basketball.”
Retiring from basketball, however, doesn’t mean Marbury is done with the sport that made him into a legend.
28. Marbury The Reality Star?
Marc J Spears of The Undefeated reported that “Marbury wants to start a 3-on-3 professional basketball league in China that he hopes NBA players will be attracted to play in during a 10-week season with about eight teams.” Marbury, he continues, plans to establish a “3-on-3 basketball reality television show in China that is expected to be aired through China’s Hunan Television and video hosting service Youku.”
Coaching is also part of Marbury’s plan, be it for the Chinese National Team or the CBA.
However Marbury decides to live out the rest of his life, his story will forever be cemented in basketball lore. He is, unequivocally, one of the most fascinating stories in NBA history.
Marbury entered the league as a star, living up to the media’s sky-high expectations that were set for him in high school, but then attitude interfered with ability.
29. Coming Full Circle
Then his personality got in the way and he bounced around the league as an outcast, a piece of the puzzle that didn’t exactly fit perfectly anywhere. Then he had his New York reunion, what was supposed to be the perfect marriage between two old high school sweethearts who rekindled their love. It was far from it, and it sent Marbury spiraling into depression. He almost quit the game for good and nearly killed himself.
China intervened and extended a much-needed hand, offering him a clean slate. With the opportunity, Marbury rose from the ashes like a phoenix and took flight in his new country, revolutionizing both himself and the game of basketball in the world’s largest untapped market.
30. The National Hero
In China, Marbury transcended the game and rose to levels of celebrity status much greater than the sport alone could provide. He became a national hero, a champion for China, and a star in every sense of the word. More importantly, Marbury finally was able to live the life he always dreamed of. That of a champion, a winner, and a man well-received by those around him.
As of now, Marbury has no plans of leaving the land he lovingly calls home, and despite not speaking much Chinese, he fluently understands the raw emotion and support his fans give him, and that’s something he’ll never want to leave.