Last week, hiking through the ancient forts of the Great Wall was an unlikely figure: Stephon Marbury, the latest, and perhaps the most enigmatic, NBA refugee to bring his game to China.
"Truly amazing," Marbury said, as he gazed west, the silhouetted battlements running along the skyline, the cold air reminiscent of New York, where he was born and where he spent five tumultuous seasons with the Knicks before a contentious divorce last spring. Three hundred miles away is Marbury's new home, Taiyuan, an industrial city in north central China and the capital of Shanxi province. "This is something I've been looking forward to for a long time."
Marbury's tour guide told him what Chairman Mao once said: "You are not a real man until you set foot on the Great Wall." But it was not Mao's credo that brought Marbury to China. Believe it or not, he has a plan: first, to take his new team, Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons, one of the worst in the Chinese Basketball Association, to the playoffs; second, to give his low-cost sneaker and apparel line, Starbury, a jump-start in the world's largest market.
To accomplish the first one, he needs a small miracle. Shanxi Zhongyu, 6-16 before the current Chinese New Year break and 2-3 with Marbury, ranks 14th in the 17-team CBA. With 10 games to play, the Brave Dragons are four wins out of the final playoff spot. The second one, well, pretty much depends on the first.
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Twelve hours after landing in Taiyuan last month, Marbury was sending messages via the Chinese version of Twitter: What's up China? How are you guys doing? I'm so excited to be here. This is going to be a great experience.
This is déjà vu for Shanxi supporters. Last season they saw the arrival of NBA star Bonzi Wells and heard similar words. Wells averaged 34.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.8 steals over 14 games and then left without so much as a goodbye.
"I'm not Bonzi," Marbury said. But why did the two-time NBA All-Star guard, who earned more than $20 million just a year ago, decide to come to China? The CBA is arguably the most competitive league in Asia, but Shanxi can pay Marbury no more than a relative pittance. Each CBA team is allowed to recruit only two non-Asian players, with a combined monthly salary not exceeding $60,000.
"I wanted something new," Marbury said. "I wanted to play basketball for the Chinese fans. It'll be part of my history. I am also very happy to bring my brand [Starbury] to the kids here who wanted to play basketball but couldn't afford the expensive shoes."
It was his business interests -- to "keep building my empire" -- that Marbury cited last summer after turning down the Boston Celtics' veteran minimum offer of $1.3 million for this season. The former Dream Teamer, who turns 33 on Saturday, launched Starbury in a joint venture with retail clothing chain Steve & Barry's in 2006, aiming to provide sneakers and sportswear for less than $30. Since the retail chain went bankrupt two years ago, he had been looking for opportunities to revive his brand.
Now Marbury has a new partner. "We will be helping him promote his brand and generate business opportunities [in China]," said Zhang Beihai, general manager of Shanxi. On Jan. 31, two hours before stepping on the court for the first time in nine months, Marbury Tweeted the link to his Chinese online store.
"We never thought he'd come and join us, until the business [opportunities] came up," Brave Dragons owner Wang Xingjiang said. "He agreed to give a shot at CBA only after having looked into the market potential in China."
Wang, the 61-year-old self-made steel magnate, says that when it comes to basketball, he is not "a businessman." This is an owner who has shelled out more than 100 million yuan ($15 million) over the past decade on his team, "only for the love of basketball;" who once chose watching Michael Jordan over going to a business meeting; who has been known for setting his team's lineups, telling his coach when to call a timeout and what to do during practice. "The Chinese Mark Cuban," is how one Chinese basketball commentator described Wang.
Wang knows that for the miracle of his team reaching the playoffs to happen, his only hope is to keep Marbury happy. And to do that he has to control himself, not the team. Wang has made it clear that "Marbury is our leader and he calls how we play." "He likes Marbury a lot, but he won't change the way he dealt with the rest of the team," a source close to Shanxi said. "After Marbury came in, he asked players for more shooting practice. He went, 'With Marbury the passes will always come, and all you have to do is make the shots.'"
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In his first game in China, a jet-lagged Marbury had 15 points, four rebounds, eight assists and four steals in 28 minutes, but missed all six of his three-point shots. The Brave Dragons lost by one point. (Wells, in his debut for Shanxi, scored 48 points and tallied 11 rebounds in leading the team to a 107-106 win.) In his third game, Marbury put up 35 points, nine rebounds and nine assists, but the team lost its fourth in a row.
"A tough loss," Marbury said afterward, "but we're getting better. My energy is getting better." He understands that for his brand to take off in China, he has to play well and win games. Also, like Wang, he has to control himself and not let his mercurial ways get the better of him.
In CBA, things can turn around quickly. Just ask Yao Ming: Shanghai Sharks, his hometown team for which he played before joining the NBA's Houston Rockets -- and which he bought last year -- went from the league's worst last season to a championship contender this year. One good wai yuan (foreign player) can make all the difference.
In his fourth game in China, Marbury tallied 34 points and seven assists, leading Shanxi to an emphatic win over Zhejiang, a mid-table team. Next, in a win over Beijing, he put on a show with 30 points, nine rebounds and 15 assists before a national television audience. Marbury has averaged 33 points, eight rebounds and 10.3 assists in his last three games.
"He has made all the difference," said Wu Qinglong, Shanxi's coach. "Because of him, we are now more of a team." Given Marbury's history with coaches, Wu has every reason to be worried. But instead Wu has been taking notes when Marbury works with the team, such as showing young players how to defend the high pick-and-roll.
But might Wu's authority as coach ultimately be undermined by Marbury's presence? "No," Wang said matter-of-factly. "Wu is open-minded and eager to learn." Wu added: "I've never seen a foreign player with such patience and charisma." His teammates agree, as do the fans.
"He certainly has enjoyed his popularity here," one Chinese reporter observed. "The Chinese fans don't mind his troublesome past."
In just three weeks in China, Marbury has picked up nearly 35,000 Twitter followers. The morning after beating Beijing, he had an autograph-signing session in Taiyuan, attracting fans from age 6 to 80. Countless pictures were taken; 500 pairs of Starbury were signed and sold in less than two hours. "It is a bit of a test on the market and it's very successful," one source close to Marbury's business team said. "They're looking for partners in China to brand and distribute [Starbury]. But so far nothing's been ironed out."
It is worth noting, however, that Marbury's online store has sold fewer than 20 pairs of sneakers so far. An employee for the store was quoted in a Chinese newspaper report as saying that the reason for the low sales is "limited style choices."
Starbury has entered a market saturated with not just Nike, Adidas and Puma on the high end, but a long list of local brands such as Li-Ning, Anta and Peak, all supplying a wide range of affordable sportswear. In fact, before Marbury came to China, his business manager had discussions with Peak about incorporating Starbury into their product lineup. Peak, endorsed by Ron Artest, Jason Kidd and Shane Battier, held back on the idea because it couldn't be assured how long Marbury would be playing in China or how deeply he is committed to growing his brand there.
"I may come again next season," Marbury said, "depending on how this season goes." His compatriot Smush Parker, another Brooklyn native, joined Guangdong Hongyuan midway through last season and was instrumental in the team's winning back-to-back championships. A year later he is still a starter for Guangdong, which beat Shanxi 113-104 in Marbury's second game.
Perhaps only after Marbury has led his team to the playoffs in March and returned next season to produce a similar result, can he talk seriously about achieving success in the world's most promising -- and equally challenging -- business territory. Winning a few games is one thing; building a championship contender, much less an empire, is another. Marbury, whose back is against the Great Wall, knows that all too well.