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A New Yorker in Beijing

By Zhu Chong (朱冲)
Lifestyle, page 58
Issue No. 564
Apr 9, 2012
Translated by Laura Lin
Original article:

Former NBA star Stephon Marbury has just led the Beijing Ducks to victory over the Guangdong Southern Tigers, winning the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) championship.

Although Marbury will be excluded from receiving the MVP award from the CBA, which can only be won by Chinese natives, he was nevertheless made an honorary citizen of Beijing -- and received a fat bonus.

Marbury, 35, was born in the Coney Island district of Brooklyn, where he was raised in a housing project by his older sister. As a child, he didn't have any toys, but there was a basketball hoop in his local playground (also called "The Garden"). Very early on, he displayed a gift for the sport. Legend has it he was already taking on adults while still in elementary school.

By the time he reached high school, he was the uncontested king of streetball. Although he went on to NBA stardom and to achieve millionaire status, he's never forgotten his roots and often goes back to Brooklyn for the summer streetball games.

To a certain extent, the reason why Marbury was so arrogant, narcissistic and rebellious during his NBA years was because of the confidence he gained playing inner-city basketball. He was nicknamed the "Lone Wolf." He rarely passed the ball to his teammates, a common trait in street basketballers, because, as he said, "Why should I trust others?"

He was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1996 NBA Draft, and later traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves on fellow player Kevin Garnett's suggestion. The duo was once touted as a perfect winning combination. They led the Timberwolves to the NBA Playoffs in 1997 and 1998. Unfortunately, Marbury quickly fell out with both Garnett and the team management over contract renewal issues.

Back to New York

"Starbury," as he was sometimes called, was then traded to the New Jersey Nets for two years. He scored his career-high 50 points during this period. However, the Nets never made their way to the playoffs.

A lot of Chinese fans still remember his cross-step technique as he shook down Yao Ming, a former NBA star from China, while playing for the Phoenix Suns. It was during that period that Marbury was arrested for driving under the influence. The Suns accelerated his return to New York.

Marbury was traded to the New York Knicks in 2004: his lifelong dream. He made an effort to change his lone wolf style and be less selfish on the court. The Knicks advanced and made it to the playoff the first year after he joined. He was praised as the "prodigal New York son."

However, under new coach Larry Brown, the Knicks performed badly during the 2005-2006 season and didn't make it to the playoffs. Frequent public spats between Brown and Marbury caused a sharp decline in the latter's reputation. The New York Daily News called him "the most reviled athlete in town."

Although Larry Brown was later fired by the Knicks, Marbury's relations with the new head coach, former NBA champion Isiah Thomas, didn't flourish either.

One incident during this period changed his life - the sudden death of his father during a game between the Knicks and the Phoenix Suns. Just as he was leaving Madison Square Garden, a young teammate rushed over and told him "Your father had a heart attack during the first half and has been taken to the hospital. You need to get there as soon as you can ... "  
The muscly point guard grabbed the young player's shirt and roared "The first-half? And you only tell me now?! ..."

The young man cowered and replied hastily "It was Isiah who didn't let us tell you. He said we have to win tonight's game ..."

Marbury threw the poor guy out of his way and rushed to the hospital, where he learned his father had passed away.

Marbury and Thomas, both New Yorkers, couldn't stand to be in each other's presence after that.

They had endless public feuds, but Marbury seemed to be the one losing the battles.

He was the best-paid NBA player, earning over 20 million dollars a year. Yet Thomas consigned him to limbo, manipulating the New York media and making Marbury out to be a devil.

Goodness Concealed

Even though Marbury donated $1 million to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and once gave a Mercedes-Benz to one of his teammates, he was still voted  the "most undesirable teammate" in a poll organized by the American magazine Sports Illustrated.

The image of a young and frivolous player concealed his goodness.

A former legend had become the object of everyone's hate. Finally, when he couldn't stand this anymore, he gave up.

He broadcast himself on a live stream website eating Vaseline ... to make people believe that he was indeed insane.

After that he was banned from attending Knicks' practices or games.

It took an e-mail from Shanxi in China to change Marbury's life. In the summer of 2009, he was invited by the Chinese to come and play for their team. He hesitated for a while. He had never been to the Far East and he didn't have a clue about what to expect. Although he hadn't touched a ball for ages, he decided to give it a go.

A New Fanbase

When Marbury got out of Shanxi airport, he suddenly heard shouting. A dense crowd was waving and screaming in his direction "Ma-Bu-Li!!!".

He had no idea what it was all about. And then someone told him they were his fans.

Yang Yi (杨毅), a Chinese reporter who knows him very well, recalls that at that moment, Marbury's face lit up.

"Me? They are here to welcome me?" He was stunned.

He never imagined that here - on the other side of the world – people might have heard of him, were looking forward to seeing him, and needed him.

He was the New York devil! Were these people really going to embrace him?

The Shanxi police tried to shield him from the crowd and ushered him onto a bus. But all he wanted to do was stay where he was, close his eyes and listen to the cheering that had been absent from his life for so long.

As the bus was leaving the airport, Marbury saw his fans running after the bus, still waving. He waved back.

He says he'll never forget the welcome he got on his first day in China.

The rest of the story takes place in Beijing. Today he is nicknamed "Ma zhengwei" (马政委), meaning Political Commissar.

The phrase implies that he is the respected spiritual leader of the Beijing Ducks, suggesting tactics and encouraging his young teammates. Not only is Marbury very proud of his new moniker, he pronounces it clearly and understands what it implies.

In the eyes of Min Lulei (闵鹿蕾), the Beijing Ducks' head coach, it was Marbury who revitalized the team. "I'm not essential to The Beijing Ducks, but Marbury is."

A New Man

Stephon never misses a training session. He insists on playing even when he is injured. He flies economy and eats in the canteen just like the other members of the team.

For his fans, not only is he a great player leading their team to victory, he is also someone who never disappoints them. No matter how long the queue is, he signs every notebook handed to him.

He also talks with the old Chinese ladies in his neighborhood, makes Chinese tea for journalists, has learned to use chopsticks and speak Chinese, and he even takes Beijing's crowded subway.

After spending three weeks in the United States in 2011, the star quickly returned to China to attend his interpreter's wedding. When his interpreter expressed his surprise, Marbury explained "When I was at a very low point in my life, my interpreter helped me. He is very important to me."
When J.R. Smith, another American NBA player, had a disagreement with the Chinese Zhejiang Golden Bulls during his one-year contract, Marbury acted as the mediator.

When he heard that one of his fans had leukemia, he went to see him in hospital.

Marbury once told this reporter: "I don't care about statistics and scoring. They are not important. What is important is to win the game."

He also told people: "China changed the direction of my life. I gained a lot of things that I did not have before. Coming to China has been a blessing for me."

So who is the real Stephon Marbury? Maybe it's just like what the tattoo on the left of his chest says "Two souls, one body."

News in English via World Crunch (link)


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