As he walked the court of Quicken Loans Arena, wearing a bright blue suit and looking as if he could still cross over an opposing guard or run the pick-and-roll with Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury had the look of a man who is at peace with his rather unusual basketball journey.
New York City-bred with swagger and game, Marbury was tabbed as potentially one of the league’s great point guards when he entered the NBA, but he had to travel 7,000 miles to find appreciation and adulation on the court. He was 31 when he left for China. His numbers were impressive but he wasn’t a winner.
He asked out of Minnesota because he wanted to be closer to home. He was dealt by New Jersey to Phoenix for Jason Kidd, who led the Nets to two NBA Finals. He then spent some miserable seasons with the Knicks and a rather apprehensive stretch with the 2008-09 Celtics.
Marbury needed rejuvenation. He needed to be appreciated. So he became the highest-profile player ever in the Chinese Basketball Association. In his seven years there, he has won three championships, was a six-time All-Star, and earned an MVP award.
And in Beijing, where he led the Ducks to three titles, a statue of Marbury stands outside the team’s arena, a testament to his impact. So at age 40, with his NBA days well behind him, Marbury gleams with pride about his global impact, changing China’s basketball culture and his life at the same time.
“I grew a lot, I grew as a human being, I grew as a basketball player, I had opportune times to soul search,” said Marbury. “I had to continue to see where I wanted to go, which direction I wanted to head towards with my legacy as far as basketball. I found a niche and I found something that worked for me, which was most important.
“Basketball is so big, so huge where you have venues like this [in Cleveland] going on in China. The game is the same way, same feeling, same thing. So being able to get to that level and seeing that before it got to that point and you could see basketball is starting to grow all over the world.”
Marbury’s success in China made it a popular destination for other former NBA players. J.R. Smith, Delonte West, Sebastian Telfair, Greg Oden, and Al Harrington have played in China to resuscitate their careers.
Marbury even became a dual citizen.
“I started to recognize it when I started to see that press in America was speaking and talking about another league other than the NBA,” Marbury said. “I think they started to take notice because you can’t stop 160 million people watching the game from China. Knowing that existed and this was happening, you could see how things were changing in the minds of the NBA.”
The NBA has opened an office in China and also is broadcasting more games to the country. Marbury is credited with helping create that branch to the NBA.
“The things that I’ve spoken about, the things that I’ve said I wanted to see, they happened,” he said. “It’s something that’s good for basketball and sometimes that’s happening and needed.”
Marbury was released by Beijing after this past season but said he wants to play one more season as sort of a farewell tour.
“I’m going to retire in China, and I’m going to leave it there,” he said. “It’s been a blessing for me. The NBA is the foundation but [China] allowed me to become what I was able to become in playing basketball and winning championships. They gave me that. I feel like it’s only right for me to finish it here. It’s not really about going to win another championship, but the focus is like a victory lap, letting everybody know how appreciative I am.”
Marbury said his primary goal is to increase China’s international basketball brand. China went 0-5 in the Rio Olympics and the NBA currently has no Chinese players.
Said commissioner Adam Silver recently: “It frustrates me that there are no Chinese players in the NBA right now. There’s probably more basketball being played in China than anywhere else in the world. And more basketball is being watched, more NBA basketball is being watched in China than anywhere else in the world. And it’s something I talked to Yao Ming a lot about, and I think ultimately that we all collectively have to do a better job training the best players in China. Sort of relates to the earlier question even about American players. But how we can train Chinese players to ultimately compete at the highest level in the NBA.”
Marbury said the Chinese talent pool is increasing.
“It’s grown drastically; it’s taken huge steps,” he said. “This is the best style of basketball [in the United States], but it’s man-to-man [defense]. There’s no man-to-man in China. It’s like high school/college rules. It’s hard to score when you have a big man standing in the lane. Me seeing the development of it is great, being able to actually be part of the NBA and then be part of a league that’s completely different, it’s challenging but it’s fun.”
Marbury’s final NBA stop was Boston. Acquired in February 2009, he averaged just 3.8 points in 23 games. Marbury notched two double-digit scoring games during the playoffs but decided to pass on a one-year, minimum contract for the next season.
“It was tough as far as basketball was concerned because when I came there, I wasn’t really in basketball-playing shape because of my situation in New York,” he said. “When I went to Boston, I tell people all the time, being able to be in that arena with those banners hanging up, it excited me. You are immersed in the spirit of winning, and seeing that and going to China, I was able to take what I learned from Boston, even playing under Doc [Rivers’s] tutelage.
“If I started out in training camp [with the Celtics], it would have been completely different. I came in in the middle of the season. I was coming off a lot of mental stress. I figured it out and by the time the playoffs started, I started to get my timing back and then it ended. But I was able to leave off on a very good note. It was a great experience and a great time, because it was the most adverse time that I had. It was a really good time for me.”
Marbury said he doesn’t have a relationship with former teammate Garnett. Perhaps if he had remained in Minnesota, he and Garnett would have become one of the league’s more prolific duos.
“We don’t really keep in contact, but if I see him it’s still love,” Marbury said. “I wouldn’t be where I am with all of the different things that have happened in my life [if I had stayed in Minnesota]. I just look at that as a blessing — the statues, museums, green cards. I can’t complain about that. There’s no other player that’s playing basketball on this earth that has accomplished some of the things I’ve accomplished and it’s all through showing love and winning championships.
“For me, I love the path that I have taken on. I take all of my experiences, I eliminate all of the bad and take all of the positive.”
SEEING THE BIG PICTURE
James doesn’t resent Warriors
LeBron James is a student of the game and understands the league’s politics and the salary cap rules. He, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh took pay cuts to join together in Miami and make a run of four consecutive NBA Finals appearances (with two championships).
Several things occurred in Golden State’s favor to make its run happen. The organization drafted well, signed Stephen Curry to a bargain extension because of his surgically repaired ankles, and then capitalized on the increased salary cap to sign Durant.
James was asked about this year’s Warriors team coming together for its title run.
“They drafted a lot of their guys,” James said. “Three of their best players were already drafted, so they were able to hold on to them because they own the Bird rights, if everybody knows the CBA. So they’re able to keep Steph, Klay [Thompson], and Draymond [Green] and be able to go out and sign someone else like they did this past summer by just getting rid of a couple pieces.”
The Heat had to essentially clear their roster to create a Big Three and sign several others to below-market contracts to remain under the salary cap.
“My case, going to Miami, we had to clear a lot of space because they didn’t have anybody as far as guys that they wanted to keep as far as Bird rights besides [Udonis Haslem] and D-Wade,” James said. “They had the opportunity to go get two of us, and they did that in me and Bosh, and then we were able to finagle a way to get Mike Miller because some of us took pay cuts, and got some other guys. We had [Mario Chalmers] because he was drafted. But it was a different situation. Totally different.”
James said he has no issue with the Warriors.
“Is it fair? I don’t care. I mean, I think it’s great. It’s great for our league,” he said. “Right now, look at our TV ratings, look at the money our league is pouring in. Guys are loving the game, our fans love the game. Who am I to say if it’s fair or not?
“No matter who I’m going against, if I’m going against four Hall of Famers . . . or if I’m going against two or whatever the case may be, I’m always excited to play the game. And I’m not one to judge and say if it’s fair or not if guys are adding players to their team.
“Is it fair that the New York Yankees in the 1990s were adding piece after piece after piece after piece? Is it fair that the Cowboys added Deion Sanders? It happens. It’s sports. You have an opportunity to sign one of the best players, and you can do it, go ahead and do it. Why not? If I become an owner, I’m going to try to sign everybody.”
It may be a few years before James, 32, becomes a team owner. He is arguably in his prime right now.
“I haven’t really thought about it, how long I want to stay around,” James said. “I definitely want to compete. I want to compete for championships every year, and so we’ll see what happens.”
Curry is tougher than he looks
In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Stephen Curry got into an interesting exchange with Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert, who appeared to purposely foul Curry on a reach-in. Curry had issue with the contact and confronted Shumpert.
Curry said that his off-court persona as one of the league’s nice guys has perhaps prompted opponents to test his fortitude on the court. Curry is definitely a celebratory player, sometimes yanking out his mouthpiece and screaming after 3-pointers, or against the Celtics in March when he shook his head at rookie Jaylen Brown after an impressive shake move caused Brown to lose his balance.
“I mean, I smile and laugh and have fun and play with joy and all that,” Curry said. “It’s kind of who I am, but yet I have a killer instinct in me. There’s a toughness about me that I’m out on the floor, you can’t really just try to push me around or try to be physical. That really doesn’t get under my skin at all.
“[With Shumpert], it was much ado about nothing, to be honest with you. It was a situation where you just are talking. And at this point you know that when two guys kind of get into it, chirping around a little bit, there’s going to be a reaction out on the floor from refs and from teams and all that kind of stuff. But I don’t trash-talk much. I’m not afraid to talk back if I need to, but I try to stay out of those situations and not get distracted from what I’m trying to get done on the floor from an execution standpoint and just doing my thing.”
Curry knows he’s a target, and he’s accustomed to opposing players challenging him with physicality and words.
“I’ve seen that since I was 9 years old playing AAU basketball,” he said. “But that probably has helped me kind of understand that expectation and just let it happen and, like I said, if I need to say something, do something, whatever the case may be. But at the end of the day, I’m just trying to play basketball, and that’s never changed.”
For those thinking the Finals have lacked much intrigue because of the Warriors’ dominance, the television ratings say different. Wednesday’s contest was the most-watched Finals Game 3 ever on ABC and up 22 percent from last year’s Game 3 between the Cavaliers and Warriors. The question for the NBA is whether playoff interest will decrease over the next few years if the Warriors continue to dominate . . . The Warriors do have some work to do this summer to stay intact. Kevin Durant has a player option for next season, which he is expected to exercise. Curry is a free agent but will re-sign for the maximum. Andre Iguodala is finishing up a four-year, $48 million contract and wants to return, but for how much? He has proven to be valuable and the Warriors could use their Bird rights to bring him back. Shaun Livingston is also a free agent and could be marketable as a reserve who can defend and score. Golden State will eventually need to give more playing time to guards Patrick McCaw and Ian Clark. The Warriors’ core will return but their bench could be different . . . The Celtics have three-second round picks this month but don’t expect them to keep them all. With the 37th overall pick they could land a player who slipped out of the first round, potentially a center or rim protector — draftexpress.com has Boston taking Indiana center Thomas Bryant. The Celtics have lacked a rim protector since the days of Kevin Garnett, but this draft lacks true centers. For example, slight Gonzaga freshman Zach Collins is the draft’s highest-rated center and he’s projected to go into the top 15. UCLA’s Ike Anigbogu is a projected first-rounder but he barely played during his freshman season. Look for the Celtics to target a center prospect at No. 37 and perhaps stick him in the NBADL.
Spurs guard Manu Ginobili has stated that he will take his time in deciding whether to retire or not. The 39-year-old just completed his 15th season and remains a threat off the bench. In his career, Ginobili is one of just three players to average more than 13 points per game and fewer than 26 minutes per game while playing in at least 900 contests.