Cast Aside by the NBA, Stephon Marbury Finds Stardom, and Peace, in China

Jared ZwerlingNBA Senior WriterAugust 11, 2015

B/R via Getty Images

Stephon Marbury was born and raised in Brooklyn, played 13 years in the NBA, but something feels foreign to the 38-year-old during a late July dinner in Santa Monica, where he's living this summer to train.

Marbury starts chowing down on his ahi tuna entree with regular utensils at Hillstone restaurant, but the process has now become strange to the former two-time NBA All-Star.

"I got so used to using chopsticks that using a fork and knife is weird," Marbury tells Bleacher Report during an exclusive wide-ranging interview that spanned two days in Los Angeles. "In China, [the restaurants] cut the steak up into pieces."

Indeed, "Beijing's boy," as some locals call Marbury, is fully embedded in China's culture.

"He is the hero in Beijing; he is an icon in China," his Beijing Ducks head coach, Min Lulei, says.

Having won over one of the world's most populous cities, Marbury has visions of becoming a global brand, beyond his Starbury apparel and sneaker products found in thousands of stores across the country, beyond having his own movies and museum.

Success has come full circle for Marbury—from first winning the New York state championship as a teenager to winning three out of the last four titles with the Ducks 20 years later—and he's surrounded by unconditional love from the Chinese. He's gravitated to that, a feeling he did not have when leaving the NBA.

Stephon Marbury being bombarded by fans and the Chinese media at a 361 Degrees store to promote his products.
Stephon Marbury being bombarded by fans and the Chinese media at a 361 Degrees store to promote his products.Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

This isn't the Marbury of five years ago, with a world caving in around him in the NBA—dealing with the death of his father, Don, in 2007, struggling with dysfunction and depression while with the Knicks, and seeing his product line fold under the bankrupt retail clothing chain Steve & Barry's.

This is the Marbury who says he "took a leap of faith" to China in 2010, when the only things he knew about the country were Yao Ming and the Great Wall.

This is the Marbury who says China's basketball market of 300 million players opened his eyes when he first arrived. "I said, 'I can play basketball and build my brand,'" he says.

This is the Marbury who sees a chance to remake his legacy.   

"This is where people go wrong with me: They want to do a story on me, but then they want to talk about New York and what happened," Marbury says. "I'm like, 'Dude, it's almost 10 years, man. Let that s--t go.' I'm touching 40 and you're still talking about what happened when I was 28. The New York Daily News called me the most reviled athlete ever in sports history in New York. I don't listen to them."

That lack of perception Marbury feels about his success in China is the biggest reason why he doesn't engage with a lot of American media. He's careful about his image, an overseas life 7,000 miles away from the States that has inspired local companies, his own coach and government officials, and Americans coming to play in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).

 

Success Breeds Opportunity

How connected is Marbury to China? He was recently approved for a Chinese "green card" to grant him permanent residency, which has only been given to about 5,000 foreigners since 2004. For 10 months, except for mostly July and August when he's training in L.A., Marbury lives in a serviced apartment at Beijing's Grand Hyatt hotel, with his family going back and forth between the States.

"Nothing can compare to my experience in China," says Marbury, who is referred to as "Ma Zhengwei" meaning "Political Commissar Ma" and "Lao Ma," a way that Chinese people address their close friends. "My situation is fortunate because I actually love it there and I love it because of the people. For what they did to me, I'm forever invested into that country. Living there has been great for me and great for my life."

A cartoon depicting Marbury's recently acquired Chinese "green card."
A cartoon depicting Marbury's recently acquired Chinese "green card."Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

Last year, after winning the first of back-to-back championships with the Beijing Ducks, Marbury became the 30th honorary local citizen and received a key to the city from Mayor Wang Anshun. Earlier, in 2012, a bronze statue of Marbury was erected on the lawn of the MasterCard Center, with the Chinese words "the moment the trophy was held" celebrating the Ducks' first-ever title. He personally has the Chinese words meaning "Beijing Dynasty" and "I Love China" engraved as tattoos.

While Marbury played well in Shanxi, his first stop in China, and at his second, Foshan, the Ducks presented a deeper team and a chance to partner with arguably the best big man in China, former NBA player Randolph Morris. This past postseason, Marbury averaged 24.6 points, 6.6 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.1 steals and was named Finals MVP.

"His legendary status didn't happen until Beijing and the championships," says Matt Beyer, China's first foreign sports agent given a government license. "He wasn't playing on good clubs or in a big city. He's continually looking for angles to portray himself as being one of the people, especially in Beijing, and people in Beijing really like him as a result."

Marbury at a ceremony for his own Chinese stamp.
Marbury at a ceremony for his own Chinese stamp.Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

Marbury is so popular in Beijing that he can't take the subway anymore. He did during his first season with the Ducks, even riding it for one month straight to conduct interviews with different reporters. Marbury, who's a big fan of the Beijing Guoan soccer club and will practice one day with the team this season, is given access to sit in the stadium's special section for government officials. At local events joined by Beijing's entertainment stars, he's the one who gets the loudest applause, and he adores the media and fans—sometimes taking an hour out of his day to take pictures and sign autographs.

Al Harrington, who played in China last season and is considering a return, recalls what it was like eating dinner with Marbury.

"Everybody comes out and starts watching him eat—even the chefs," says Harrington, a longtime friend of Marbury's. "They all came and stood right there in line and just watched him eat."

The notoriety has allowed Marbury to become the pitchman his prodigious talent once promised. His clothes and sneakers (selling for around $60 each) can be found in about 3,000 361 Degrees stores throughout China, including major cities like Shanghai and Guangdong. He has a major endorsement deal with Red Bull, as well as others with Casio and G-Shock.

Marbury, with the Chinese tattoo meaning "Beijing Dynasty" down his left side, getting soft tissue work by massage therapist Rachel Saydak.
Marbury, with the Chinese tattoo meaning "Beijing Dynasty" down his left side, getting soft tissue work by massage therapist Rachel Saydak.Jared Zwerling

"When I got [to China], I'm watching commercials with all the top Chinese players and Steph," Harrington says. "My first road trip, I went to Chengdu and we were in a nice mall, and I'm walking through and Steph has full-size posters of him all over the mall. I'm taking pictures and sending them to him and he's like, 'You have no idea.'"

The list goes on and on for Marbury's brand, which he mostly handles himself with free advice from two basketball journalists in China, Yang Yi and Wang Meng, who work for CCTV and Titan Sports, respectively. Marbury has his own Chinese stamp and different postcards, a basketball school in Beijing and rehabilitation center in town for kids.

Last year, a musical based on his life called "I Am Marbury" featured him actually on stage in front of 2,000 people playing a God-like figure. Next year, the China Post, the country's postal service, is opening up his own museum in Beijing to celebrate his career with the Ducks.

Marbury has partnered with United Family this year to have his own youth rehabilitation center in Beijing.
Marbury has partnered with United Family this year to have his own youth rehabilitation center in Beijing.Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

Marbury, who's expanding his Starbury line into the Philippines and is in talks to reach into other parts of southeast Asia, is relentless about his brand and basketball, taking business calls while driving around L.A. in his red Range Rover and even late into the night because of the time difference. While he trains, he yells out "It's just work!" during different drills.

While Marbury says he's not making the equivalent of his NBA salary in China—"To me, NBA money is $20 million a year," he says—he believes that day is coming because of his potential reach.

"You can't stop the masses. At the end of the day, they have the most people on Earth, period, 1.6 billion," he says. "They've got the most people on the globe and I'm not just talking about in China; I'm talking about everywhere, all over the world. And more people are becoming aware of it because of social media. The world is shrinking because information is faster."

One of the signage posters for the Ducks highlighting Marbury at Beijing Capital International Airport.
One of the signage posters for the Ducks highlighting Marbury at Beijing Capital International Airport.Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

 

Beyond the Brand, Commanding the Court

Five years ago, Marbury found himself with few places to turn in the NBA. The Knicks had exiled him, and the Celtics had offered him a one-year deal for the veteran's minimum. Now half a world away, Marbury has become an indispensable piece of the Ducks' fortunes, assuming an unofficial player-coach role with the team.

With the approval of his coach, Min, Marbury arranges most of the team's defensive and offensive plays that are NBA-centric (for example, stack action, different pick-and-rolls, and elements from the Spurs' motion-oriented system and Eddie Jordan's Princeton sets). According to CBA scout Lukas Peng, head coaches who listen to and communicate with their import players are more successful. "Stephon is at the point where he's got so much respect," Lukas says.

"He really understands basketball, he knows the game," Min says. "The details make a big difference in China. No one can stop his pick-and-roll, and he brought attitude to our defense. We always play hard and get stops on the defensive end. He helped me to build up the spirit of the team by setting a good example himself."

Because of his close relationship with the Ducks and the government, which owns the team, Marbury has a unique contract. He re-signed last month for two more years of playing (until he's 40) for almost $2 million per season, with bonuses for wins and scoring titles, according to Beyer. Marbury says the deal includes coaching the Ducks after retirement, and he would also like to one day head up the Chinese national team. He already occasionally works with junior-level players.

Marbury and his teammates in March after winning back-to-back championships, and their third in four years.
Marbury and his teammates in March after winning back-to-back championships, and their third in four years.Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

Making that jump, though, won't be as easy for Marbury as flashing his knowledge of the game.

"The X's and O's, he's great," Wang says. "It just still takes time to learn the language, to learn the culture better. His teammates already view him as an assistant coach, so I'm very confident he's going to be a good head coach."

Lukas adds, "It's going to be hard I think for him to really make that jump because things are really different once you're on the other side. It's just the political aspect. Once you stop being successful and your team starts losing, it's not really the Stephon Marbury factor anymore."

Marbury's take: "You've just got to win in China—that's it. Winning is like good deodorant. When you don't win, it's like you stink, you smell."

Harrington compared the environment of the CBA to "like playing at Wichita State or a mid-major." Travel isn't first class, neither are the hotels. Teams don't have doctors on staff, and not all of the arenas have concessions or player amenities. For the first time next season, Marbury's Ducks will be playing full time in the 18,000-capacity MasterCard Center. The other venues for teams hold only a few thousand fans.

"For most of the teams, I'd go to the bathroom at halftime and there would be fans there waiting in line," Harrington says.

An advertisement promoting Marbury and the MasterCard Center, where his Ducks will play full time next season.
An advertisement promoting Marbury and the MasterCard Center, where his Ducks will play full time next season.Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

Some of the teams also face financial issues. Even though many of the CBA owners are billionaires working in real estate, "the market is cooling off in China and there's a credit crunch, and a lot of the owners' liquidity is really strapped recently," according to Beyer.

But things are expected to improve as far as competition, arena expansion and the Chinese players, who are the focus of the CBA in order to make the national team a better contender for Olympic play. "[The league] has the resources," Marbury says. "The growth and the development will continue to take place at a fast speed."

One big boost for the league has been the growing number of standout American players following Marbury to China, who are, in turn, improving the skills of the Chinese players. The NBA lockout in 2011 was a game-changer for the CBA with its bigger elite class of imports, featuring Aaron Brooks, Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, Patty Mills and J.R. Smith. These days, each CBA team is allowed two foreigners, while the bottom five teams can have a third player from any other Asian or Middle East country.

Marbury's own postcards that showcase his accomplishments with the Ducks.
Marbury's own postcards that showcase his accomplishments with the Ducks.Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

While Marbury doesn't recruit any players because he knows China isn't for everybody, he's a helpful guide for the Americans, getting their phone numbers through his different contacts. When they come to Beijing for road games, he recommends restaurants and assists them with booking tables at nightclubs.

Beyond the Beijing entertainment, Marbury has provided key perspective for different players to ease their Chinese transition. For some, like Smith, that meant telling him about the expanded number of practices in lieu of a shorter game schedule. For others, like Harrington, "He told me, 'You've got to be in top shape because they're big on that," he says. "For me, that was a huge hurdle. He said, 'Don't complain. Just do your s--t.' So it was easy for me; I was ready to go. If I didn't know all that, I don't know how I would've made it."

Adds Wilson Chandler, who spent the 2011-12 season in China like Smith: "A lot of players when they go see it as a paycheck; [Marbury] embodies the whole culture. That alone showed me that the CBA was a place I could go to work on my game."

Marbury after cutting the net as this year's champion, while being named Finals MVP.
Marbury after cutting the net as this year's champion, while being named Finals MVP.Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

Former NBA player Bobby Brown, who's been suiting up in China since 2013, noted how influential Marbury's brand development has been to him and other Americans playing there, like Pooh Jeter and Lester Hudson, who are committed to staying in the country.

"His impact is crazy," says Brown, who's secured a couple of local endorsements. "He's been a real positive model for all of us, like me, Pooh and Lester, who want to continue to play in China, and hopefully win championships and build our brand and just start something special over there. He's definitely helped pave the way for us doing what he's done in Beijing."

 

Branding Never Stops

Summer finds Marbury living a few blocks from the beach in Santa Monica, enjoying fish at places like Water Grill and Blue Plate Oysterette, and he always asks for a hot towel and lemon before eating. It's an act of pre-meal cleanliness called oshibori that happens in China and Japan. He hikes up the Santa Monica Stairs with Harrington and they also run Runyon Canyon together in Hollywood, in between his daily training sessions at a private gym in El Segundo, tucked away on a slope behind an animal hospital.

When Marbury isn't working out or entertaining friends and business partners for ocean-view meals, you can also find him taking acting classes in town. That's because Marbury will be starring in his own movie in China about his life story. In addition, he's working on a separate American version about his journey with the producers of the feature film Dope.

Marbury attended this year's fifth annual Beijing International Film Festival to pitch his upcoming autobiographical movie in China.
Marbury attended this year's fifth annual Beijing International Film Festival to pitch his upcoming autobiographical movie in China.Courtesy of Stephon Marbury

Despite all the projects, Marbury says his goal is to win another championship in China. "That's the only thing I'm preparing for these days," he says.

While in China, Marbury has battled through toe and shoulder injuries, as well as pain in his left knee that required him to get it drained many times during the 2013-14 season. Last summer, Marbury had PRP treatment, which helped him play pain-free this past season. Now, he says, "I feel great. I feel better than I felt the last three years." On playing past 40? "I'll let my body tell me if I'm going to stop playing," he says.

Still, the effort to expand the Marbury brand is never too far away. Following his playing days, he has his sights set on the global basketball market. His big idea: a paid Olympic-style league that not only crowns a world champion, but also enables teams from around the globe to find top talent.

"Just imagine the Drew League in different areas of the world, and the people who win the championship in that league will play against all over," Marbury says. "I'm not trying to compete with any other league. I'm just creating access for hoopers to play ball around the world—that's it. They're going to play under my brand, and they'll be able to be viewed by coaches. It will be like a farm system. It's the pick of the litter.

"I'll take the initiative once time permits. It's just right now a thought in what I foresee in the future of what I want to do. It's something that I want to do when I'm done playing and a little bit older, and after I've invested my time in coaching."

But China is where Marbury seems content to stay. Clearly, he has been embraced by the country. But just as clearly, he has not gotten past his departure from the NBA.

As Marbury talks like a seasoned businessman, there's an anger in him to still prove his doubters wrong from the States, due to his fallout with the Knicks. He won't even touch the topic—"We're not going to do that," he says—and he still has distaste for the NBA, which, he says, called the Knicks and asked him to wear a headband over his Starbury brand logo tattooed on his head. Even with one of the league's global offices in Beijing, he says he's focused on his own business.

"I'm not working with the NBA," he says, "but if there's something that I feel like they can help me, I think I will listen."

For now, Marbury is a man on a solo mission to have his brand stenciled across the basketball planet.

"Leaving the NBA was the best thing to ever happen to me," he says, "for my brand and for my life and for my career."

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.