When Stephon Marbury came to the Chinese Basketball Association in 2010, it appeared to be a last-chance money grab for an NBA castaway whose skills -- and options -- were in precipitous decline. Those suspicions seemed to be confirmed after the Brooklyn, N.Y., native exhausted his welcome with his first two CBA teams.
But since joining the Beijing Ducks last year, Marbury has completely transformed his image in China by availing himself to the public like no athlete before him. Even more improbably, he's inspired a perennially mediocre team into a title contender.
Led by Marbury, the Ducks have advanced to the CBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, where the four-time defending champion Guangdong Southern Tigers await. Game 1 of the best-of-seven series tips off Wednesday at Beijing's MasterCard Center.
Now Marbury -- Coney Island folk hero, McDonald's All-American, ACC Rookie of the Year, fourth overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, two-time NBA All-Star, member of Dream Team IV -- finds himself on the brink of his first championship in a mercurial pro career that's spanned 16 years, eight teams and two continents.
Seven thousand miles away from the O'Dwyer Gardens court that spawned him, Marbury has managed to realize the most American of dreams: a clean slate.
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Marbury's relations with the American press remain as frayed as ever -- he turned down multiple requests to speak with SI.com unless he was guaranteed the cover of Sports Illustrated -- but he's never been more popular among the fans in China.
Ma Bu Li, as he's known in Chinese, eats at local restaurants. He rides the Beijing subway, taking the 1 line from the five-star hotel where he lives to the team's practice facility. He interacts around the clock with his nearly 250,000 followers on Weibo, China's state-monitored counterpart to Twitter, where he posts candid photos and personal messages of encouragement -- none more frequently than the tautological expression of compassion that's become his mantra: love is love.
"He's aligned himself closely to Beijing fans," says David Yang, a staff writer for Sports Illustrated China whose feature on Marbury was the cover story of the March 10 issue. "He's trying to project an image that's very friendly to Chinese people. And it's worked. People like it.
"No athletes have ever done this before, trying to get through to the Chinese fans. Stephon is the first in history I'd say. Not even Yao Ming. Not even Liu Xiang, the hurdler."
Marbury, who turned 35 last month, isn't the first wai yuan -- or foreign player -- to bring his talents to the Middle Kingdom, where the 17-team CBA has struggled for credibility since its 1995 inception. But previous American imports -- such as Bonzi Wells, Ricky Davis and Rafer Alston -- had always been regarded as highly compensated mercenaries only there for the short term. Not until Marbury did the Chinese fans allow themselves to become emotionally invested in a foreigner.
"In this country, especially with foreigners, if you show a desire and you show a real want to try to get to know this culture and interact with its people and just try to immerse yourself a little bit, people really like that," says Jon Pastuszek, a Chinese basketball insider based in Beijing and founder of NiuBBall.com. "He came here and he needed a second chance, but China's showed him some love back and he really appreciates that."
Marbury, whose public reinvention includes a regular newspaper column for the English-language China Daily, says he will retire in China. He wants to learn the language. ("I'm like a baby trying to learn," Marbury professed on Weibo. "One day I will speak Chinese. I promise that.") He's embedding himself in the city's culture. "I think it's also, of course, about [selling] shoes," Yang allows, alluding to Marbury's visions of establishing his Starbury brand of affordable sneakers in the world's fastest growing economy. "But things change."
Indeed, cynics allege Marbury is only on his best behavior because he hopes to build an apparel empire in China -- that to act out would be to undercut his investment. Yet the earnestness of Marbury, the impish grin, the persistent desire to endear himself to the culture, is magnetic.
"He is a down-to-earth person," says Randolph Morris, a Beijing forward whose 23.9 points per game ranked second on the team only to Marbury (26.2) during the regular season. "If I could describe him in one word it would be genuine. He means everything he says, there's nothing fake or phony about him."
Marbury's effort alone is enough for fans disillusioned by American imports whose arrogance dwarfed their work rate. But it's the Beijing team's improbable success that's helped Marbury raise the profile of a league that's always run a distant second domestically to the NBA.
Since the Ducks opened the season with a team-record 13 consecutive wins, the demand for tickets to Beijing games has soared, leaving many fans at the mercy of the secondary market. Playing off Morris, a former Kentucky star and fellow NBA veteran, Marbury shot 56.1 percent from the field and averaged 6.3 assists per game in leading Beijing to a 21-11 record during the regular season. He shouldered the extra load offensively when injuries struck key players Lee Hsueh-lin and Chen Lei. "He's just like a second coach really," Morris says. "He has so much insight. He does all the plays, all the scouting, all the strategy. He's brought our team a long way."
Beijing overcame a late-season funk to enter the eight-team playoffs as the No. 2 seed, where the Ducks made quick work of the Zhejiang Lions in the opening round. Marbury capped Beijing's quarterfinal sweep with a two-handed breakaway jam -- his first dunk in two-and-a-half CBA seasons -- that's since been replayed endlessly on Chinese television.
"He understands what he needs to do in order for them to be successful," says Jim Cleamons, a longtime NBA assistant who coached Zhejiang this year. "He doesn't worry about scoring, but he scores when he has to. He's at that stage of his career [where] he now embraces understanding how to play. He understands when he's going good, when he's not going good, when someone's hot I'm going to get them the ball. He's matured into a very good basketball player."
After Zhejiang came a contentious semifinal matchup with Shanxi, Marbury's former team. When Beijing dropped the best-of-five series opener, Marbury roared back with successive career-highs of 52 and 53 points to pull the Ducks within one win of their first CBA Finals appearance.
Game 4 on Shanxi's home court was by all reasonable accounts a farce. With Beijing leading 100-97 with 43 seconds left, Shanxi's Marcus Williams knifed into the lane and appeared to draw contact, but no foul was called. Cigarette lighters and water bottles rained on the court and the benches cleared, leading to a 10-minute interruption. When play resumed, the referees called a phantom foul on Morris (that gave Shanxi the tie) and a nickel-and-dimer on Beijing's Chen Lei (that gave Shanxi a two-point lead) and the Brave Dragons held on for a 102-100 win that leveled the series.
In the aftermath, a mob of around 300 hometown fans trapped the Beijing team bus in the parking lot for more than an hour and attacked it with stones and debris. A 21-year-old Shanxi supporter named Cao Lei accused Marbury of hitting him in the head with a bottle -- news that made for a juicy headline on Deadspin. ("I don't think Stephon would do something like that," says Yang of the allegations, which Marbury vehemently denies. "I just don't. It doesn't make sense to me.")
"After the game it carried over into the parking lot," Morris recalls. "The fans were surrounding our bus, throwing bricks at our bus. Even the bus driver was scared. He didn't want to move. He tried to get out of his seat and walked to the back of the bus."
The controversy only heightened the drama surrounding Sunday's winner-take-all showdown in Beijing, for which the CBA flew in three foreign referees and enacted a ban on lighters, water bottles and all throwable objects. With hundreds of police on hand -- and several busloads outside in full riot gear with helmets and shields -- the Ducks sprinted out to a 29-13 lead in the first quarter and never looked back, coasting to a 110-98 victory. Marbury finished with 30 points, eight assists and nine rebounds, and sobbed openly after the game, calling it "the best feeling I've ever had playing basketball."
"It was like an NBA atmosphere: very loud, very intense," says Dustin Lane, a reporter who covered the game for the China Daily. "Beijing sports fans in general feel like they haven't had a lot of success in any [sport]. People are getting into the idea they could actually have a championship here in town."
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The cathartic tears after Beijing's victory have deeper meaning within the context of Marbury's 25-year odyssey through the basketball grinder.
At 11, Marbury was named the world's best sixth grader by Hoop Scoop. He inherited the No. 3 jersey worn by his brothers at Lincoln High at a time when the deification of high school ballers was coming into vogue. Near the end of his freshman year, Harper's Magazine ran a scathing profile that depicted Marbury as dangerously insolent and narcissistic. The mania surrounding Marbury's storied prep career was the inspiration for He Got Game, Spike Lee's 1998 film about a high-school basketball prodigy named Jesus.
Marbury played one season at Georgia Tech before jumping to the NBA, where he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Within three years, he'd fallen out with Timberwolves management and demanded a trade. After landing with the New Jersey Nets in 1999, Marbury's individual game blossomed but the team never made the playoffs. After another fruitless three-year stint with the Phoenix Suns, Marbury was traded to the New York Knicks -- the team he'd rooted for as a child -- and instantly preordained the homegrown savior of a franchise that hadn't won a title since 1973.
The made-for-Hollywood redemption narrative went sour quickly. He became a case study in Gotham tabloid cannibalism: a series of public spats with Larry Brown led the New York Daily News to declare Marbury "the most reviled athlete in New York." He became the central figure in a sexual-harassment suit against team president Isiah Thomas that ruled the back pages for months. Marbury, a married father, testified that he had sex with an intern in the back of his truck after a group outing to a strip club in 2005. "Money makes you do crazy things, man," he'd say to no one in particular in a crowded elevator after his testimony.
After the Knicks barred him from the practice facility and bought out his contract in February 2009 -- essentially paying him $20 million to walk away -- Marbury's behavior only grew more erratic.
He began documenting his offseason life on Ustream and Justin.tv. Highlights of the 72-hour, Fellini-like webcast included Marbury eating a finger-full of Vaseline, prancing around in white face while listening to Michael Jackson and breaking down in tears while listening to Kirk Franklin's rendition of "Lean on Me." He spoke of being crucified. What he wanted more than anything, Marbury told an audience that peaked in the thousands, was "a billion dollars so he could start his own TV network like Oprah." Mashable called it the dark side of live streaming.
He'd made an estimated $150 million in NBA salary but had little apparent satisfaction to show for it. After a brief stint with the Boston Celtics, Marbury was convinced by two Chinese journalist friends to consider the CBA -- as a place to continue his playing career while re-establishing his Starbury brand that had stagnated since exclusive retailer Steve & Barry's went bankrupt in 2008.
Marbury joined Shanxi at midseason, averaging 22.9 points and 9.5 assists, but failed to guide the Brave Dragons into the playoffs. He joined the Foshan Dralions in December 2010. Again, Marbury posted eye-popping numbers and made the CBA All-Star team; again, his team fell short of the playoffs; again, he was unceremoniously released. Both Shanxi and Foshan had reached the same conundrum: He's got enough left in the tank to sell tickets, but is he good enough to lead a top-tier team to a championship?
He is. In Beijing, it's all happening.
"He hooked up with some good Chinese teammates and he also hooked up with a pretty good import [in Randolph Morris]," Pastuszek says. "This is his first situation where he can get to the playoffs. He's been really motivated to win in Beijing in front of his fans. All those things came together and have propelled him to this run."
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Marbury didn't choose China any more than Napoleon chose St. Helena. Thus begs the question: Is it China itself that Marbury loves? Or is it the mythical tabula rasa -- the opportunity for a new beginning?
"Given that Marbury was going through a tough time in his career, I think he probably liked the idea of having a fresh chance in a totally new country," Pastuszek says. "The opportunity to completely reinvent yourself doesn't come often, if ever, for a 30-plus-year-old professional basketball player.
"But it's evolved into much more than just that. He wants to participate in the day-to-day life of Beijing and of China in general. That's ultimately what his appeal is. Chinese fans love Marbury not just because he's good at basketball, but because he has a genuine interest in the culture."
One of Marbury's most frequent refrains throughout his transformative season in Beijing is his desire to remain in China after he retires and one day coach the Chinese national team. "That's not going to happen," says Yang, who spent 18 days interviewing Marbury and those close to him for the SI China cover story. His lack of coaching experience -- say nothing of his inability to speak Chinese -- makes it a dream no less quixotic than his visions of market supremacy in a country dominated by Nike and adidas.
Still, Yang wouldn't fully rule out the idea of Marbury becoming a permanent part of Chinese culture. "He's an interesting case," he says. "Let's just wait and see."
Tickets for Wednesday's Game 1 at the 18,000-seat MasterCard Center sold out in eight minutes on DaMai.com, according to Sina Sports. Guangdong, led by former Houston Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks, is a traditional league power making its eighth consecutive trip to the CBA Finals and the lopsided favorite.
That only raises the stakes for Marbury.
"He'd be one of the most famous foreigners in Beijing history if he were able to get them a championship," Pastuszek says. "Not only because it would be their first championship and all that, but they would have upset this heavily favored juggernaut in Guangdong. It would be an incredible story."
Whether his team wins or comes up short in this week's CBA Finals, Marbury knows he's in the right place -- and his serenity is victory enough.
"He's got a fresh start," Morris says. "Nobody's trying to blame him for anything. Nobody's trying to cause a media circus. It's just straight business and about basketball over here. Nothing more than basketball."