In a game few remember, Boston was the loser. It was a game 7 and it was the last sight of NBA point guard Stephon Marbury. The last game of his NBA career ended quietly and it was a paradox. The end of the beginning and the beginning of the end are strange companions. Except, Marbury flipped the script by going overseas and rediscovering what made basketball so necessary. So it wasn’t really the end.
But that spring in Boston for a game 7, Marbury played with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, two players who lived up to the hype. And so there was something ironic about Stephon Marbury not continuing his career because he refused the minimum contract the Celtics offered. Playing next to KG and Paul Pierce who wrung every ounce of talent and elitism from their career was the Marbury metaphor. Less. More. Less. More.
Like many, Marbury lacked the good fortune of a linear career. He wasn’t Steph Curry and the fact is when he left the NBA Stephon Curry entered and everything changed. Even if Marbury had not turned down the Celtics offer he would have been old-school. He didn’t space the floor with his shooting. He wasn’t efficient though he was a strong athlete. His leadership skills waned depending on the stress level. Marbury and the NBA were ready for a divorce.
Marbury couldn’t overcome his inability to live up to the hype. What was created out of his New York Lincoln H.S. phenom days was a romantic story but one that had stops and starts. Marbury was the 4th pick in the famed 1996 Draft, a draft that introduced lottery picks Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, and Kobe Bryant to the world. Much of NYC was waiting for Marbury to dominate the NBA the way he dominated the city but he could never live up to the legend archetype because he wasn’t great at any one thing. He wasn’t a great shooter, scorer, passer, or playmaker. He defended well enough. His ego often got in the way. He just wasn’t realistic about the intersectionality of talent and skill. He didn’t have a mentor. Soon, the shine of his potential dulled to a glow and Marbury went from place to place.
He played 846 NBA games which is a big number but a far cry from Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant’s 2,646 combined games played. Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson played the most games in their lottery class. Then Marbury. He was never an efficient shooter but his career average of 19.3 ppg was 3rd best in the class, after Iverson and Bryant.
He was drafted by Milwaukee then traded to Minnesota. Minnesota indulged him before they treated him as a disappointment. There were rumors that he was jealous of Kevin Garnett. During his Nets years, the team never made the playoffs but Marbury became an All-Star. He was an All-Star where he went next: Phoenix. Phoenix was a great fit for Stephon until he wore out his welcome. Then he was back home in New York, which was a disaster.
He feuded with every coach. Larry Brown, Isaiah Thomas and Mike D’Antoni. There were rumors that Starbury and Isaiah Thomas nearly came to blows on a team bus. Marbury’s contract made him untradeable which, perhaps, incentivized him. The fans took his side. But he was banned from practices and games after Chris Duhon took his starting job in the D’Antoni era. Finally, there was a buyout.
How does it happen? How does a talented point guard struggle in America and then become a god-like icon in Asia? By winning two titles which he did in China. The country does not matter. If you lead your team to a championship which Marbury did for the Beijing Ducks in 2012 and 2014 you get a statue. You are revered.
In the NBA, Marbury had 6 seasons in which he posted a PER over 20+ and 7 seasons of 20+ ppg. 3 out of 5 playoff years, he averaged 20+ ppg. During his last playoff run in 2009, his on-court time was sporadic but it was way better than when he signed with the Celtics, after he cleared waivers. Marbury barely got into games. Once the playoffs started, Marbury was in Doc Rivers rotation, more or less, but he couldn’t count on the minutes he would get. He would play 10 minutes one game and then 24 minutes the next. Then five minutes. That year, the Celtics won a game 7 in Boston against Chicago and lost a game 7 in Boston, against Orlando. They couldn’t stop the Magic’s 3-point barrage. The Celtics were only able to make 25% of their threes. It was Stephon Marbury’s last game on an NBA stage and it wasn’t memorable. He played 13 minutes and took 4 shots for an underwhelming 4 point total. It was an anticlimactic ending that mirrored his beginning on November 1st, 1996: 8 minutes, 0-3, 0 points.
China was next and it is China that is the point of this story. But there could haven’t been a China if Marbury hadn’t flamed out in the NBA. He had to make a decision: quit basketball, or rediscover the love of the game. Marbury hesitated, took a year off, and then self-exiled. To his wonder, he was scintillating in China and the fans adored him which set up the perfect storm many years later. New York needed Stephon Marbury but Stephon Marbury no longer needed New York.
Someone sent me a video of a refrigerated trailer outside of Brooklyn Hospital and a steady stream of dead bodies being stacked inside the trailer, beneath an overcast sky. The epilogue of New York is grim. As of this writing, 67,000 are infected with the virus. Over 1,200 have died. There are not enough PPE- Personal Protective Equipment. The stories of the dead are catastrophic. One of my editors sent me a note that said living in New York is like living in a 24-hour funeral.
Marbury could have done a lot of things in this worldwide catastrophe. He is of the privileged and they have choices that many just do not have. Marbury could have done nothing at all and no one really would have cared. He could have written a check with a lot of zeroes and would have been applauded in a similar fashion of Kevin Love. He could have ranted and raved on social media at the President who claims healthcare workers are stealing masks. But what Stephon Marbury did was negotiate a deal from a Chinese manufacturer for one-third of the cost to send 10 million masks to the healthcare workers in NY who have run out of supplies, as they bravely fight an uphill Sisyphus type of battle.
In crises, ingenuity is the name of the game. Some healthcare workers have made masks from 3-d printers. Others are using scarfs or used masks. Garbage bags were the go-to healthcare wardrobe a couple of days ago. The probability of infection is a real fear, as nurses leave patients and go home to their own vulnerable families.
Enter Stephon Marbury acting as an intermediary to help New York, his beloved hometown. It matters more than anything he could have done on the court. Speaking of on the court, Marbury played for the Knicks for 4 years. In one of his more memorable games against the Lakers he dropped 45 besting draft classmate Kobe Bryant who had 32. But Bryant had Caron Butler who added 26 points while Marbury had Kurt Thomas. Nevertheless, Marbury played 41 minutes, made 6 out 9 threes in front of Denzel and Jack Nicholson. He went to the free-throw line 16 times and only missed one. Add in 10 assists to his totals. But the Knicks lost.
The cruel fate of Stephon Marbury is that he couldn’t basketball-save the city he was born in. He couldn’t bring them up to an elite level. He didn’t have comparable talent of the Bostons or Lakers or Pacers for that matter. He had to leave the country to save a country and now here he is.
Hero. But he’s been here before. He gave money during 9-11. He helped the abandoned victims of Hurricane Katrina with close to a million dollars. He gave one million each to the NYPD, FDNY, EMT and NYC Teacher’s Fund. That was 13 years ago. Beijing honored Marbury with a Top 10 Model Citizen award for his community service and was the first non-Chinese to be honored.