Welcome to the Far Eastern Conference
Exiled from the NBA, vilified by the press, and ridiculed for a series of questionable YouTube videos (eating Vaseline? c'mon!), Stephon Marbury is seeking redemption—and vast riches—in basketball-mad China. Now, if he can just win over his Communist bosses, he'll be the biggest thing since Yao Ming.
On his first morning in China, former NBA point guard Stephon Marbury went to the lobby of his hotel to attend what his translator had described as a “banquet” thrown by the management of the Shanxi Brave Dragons, who’d brought in the player for a second consecutive season in the hopes of shedding their reputation as one of the worst outfits in China’s not very distinguished league. Enticing Marbury, the biggest celebrity ever to play in the Chinese Basketball Association, should have been cause for jubilation. Yet it was hard to detect much joy at the “banquet,” which was taking place in a room the size of a parking space off the hotel’s dining hall. The guest list consisted of two grimly perspiring middle-rung executives and a translator. No food was served, just tea.
One got the sense that the finer points of graceful living didn’t count much in the Brave Dragons’ hometown of Taiyuan, an industrial city variously described in the online travel literature as “gritty,” “smoggy,” and “a fucking shithole.” Outside, in the late autumn chill, the coal plants were going full tilt. Even with the windows closed, the air smelled like an emergency and had a salty chemical flavor you could taste with your eyes.
Still, Marbury seemed not to mind. “You get used to it,” he told me before the meeting. “Really, it’s not too bad, except this—” He gestured out the window at the unhandsome landscape of grease-blackened garages and industrial warehouses engulfed in the brown gloom. “And this—” He pointed at his mouth, indicating his distaste for the local cuisine. “When I first came here, for the first two weeks, I wanted to kill myself. But now I don’t think about it.”
Unlikely as it may sound to hear a multimillionaire athlete so emphatically resigned to a place like Taiyuan, it’s worth recalling that by early 2010, when Marbury first cast his lot with the Dragons, he had reached a place in life where options did not abound. After leaving the NBA at age 32, the two-time All-Star’s career had been defined not by his triumphs on the court but by what happened off it—a catalog of errors that included public spats with coaches, romancing a Knicks intern in his truck, and a series of candid webcasts in which he wept, burst into song, ate Vaseline, and generally volunteered grist for broad speculation that he had gone out of his mind.
But then, when things looked dire indeed, associates put Marbury in touch with Chinese steel magnate Wang Xingjiang, who owned the Shanxi Brave Dragons. Until last year, Chinese law limited teams from paying their American players more than $60,000 per month (a sum Marbury characterized to me as “a little change”). As further enticement, Wang promised to crack China’s growing market of 300 million basketball fans for Marbury’s Starbury brand of low-cost apparel and shoes, a business that had been on ice since 2008. Promising an initial investment of $2.2 million, Wang and his associates would facilitate the selection of factories, coordinate construction of a nationwide franchise, and assist with the beleaguered point guard’s rebirth in the fastest-growing economy in the world.
So Marbury left behind his family in genteel Purchase, New York, tried it out for a season, and found, to his great relief, a population of adoring fans willing to overlook his past. He drew record crowds to Brave Dragons games. At signings in Taiyuan within a month of his arrival, he moved 1,000 pairs of Starbury shoes in a few hours. He’d recently discussed with Shanxi a three-year contract and had not ruled out the possibility of retiring here.
“It’s been unbelievable,” he told me. “The fans there, they showed me so much love. They gave me a second chance.” Here, Marbury raised his sleeve to show me where he’d had the characters of his Chinese name—Ma Bu Li—and a heart beside the word CHINA tattooed on his arm. “Two years ago, no one would get near me,” he continued. “Now I got [a major American bank] wanting to invest $50 million in my company. Man, China has changed everything for me. Everything.”
With the season opener fifteen days away, Dragons management was eager to check in on the condition—physical and otherwise—of the team’s six-foot-two point guard. But Marbury had more immediate concerns. The previous season, he’d stayed at the five-star World Trade Hotel, which sits on the toniest strip Taiyuan has to offer, convenient to Rolex and Burberry shops, with a half-dozen restaurants and a spa on the premises. This year, to his displeasure, he’d been stabled instead at the Grand Metropark Wanshi Hotel, whose sumptuousness was a notch or two below what you’d expect at the Omaha airport Sleep Inn.
Upon arriving, he’d complained to his handlers, to no avail. Marbury did not fancy the idea of spending four months in this hotel, whose rooms were carpeted in cigarette-pocked low-nap the color of earwax and whose mattresses would have registered respectably on the Mohs scale of mineral hardness. Nor did he want to stomach four months of meals at the Wanshi’s restaurant, an undersea-themed eatery whose evening buffet included such dishes as Grab Stick, Intestine Duck, Best Thick Seam, Ear Rabbit, Black Fungus, Meat, and Duck Bloody Piece.
In the tiny meeting room, Marbury was ushered to his seat by the Brave Dragons deputy Mr. Song, an unsmiling man with close-mown hair gelled into tidy gleaming barbs. Through the interpreter, a nervous twentysomething who gave her name as Cindy, Mr. Song explained that he was in the process of finding a good factory to start minting Starbury shoes, but that many factories had powered down for the winter and production would likely have to wait until spring. “For now,” he said, “we want to concentrate on basketball.”
“The business stuff will work itself out,” Marbury said serenely. “I’m not worried about any of that. Right now I want to talk about my living conditions. I don’t want to be in this hotel. I want to be in the World Trade.”
This set off a long, hushed caucus among the Chinese parties. At last Cindy very antsily explained that due to a legal dispute between the team’s owner and the World Trade, the hotel issue was a matter of some delicacy.
Marbury offered another proposal: Perhaps the team could arrange long-term quarters. “A three-bedroom apartment,” said Marbury. “With TVs and a chef, and a maid to come every day. I could do that as well. I’m gonna be here for three years. It’d probably be cheaper to rent a place anyway.”
But Mr. Song pursed his mouth and nodded sourly, giving the impression that he was not in the habit of indulging fussy requests from players. Marbury’s Chinese teammates, by way of comparison, didn’t get to stay in a hotel at all. They lived by the team’s rusting gym on the outskirts of town, in a dormitory of pink concrete with a big pile of coal in the yard.
Mr. Song agreed to take up the hotel upgrade—a $14-a-night proposition—with his boss, then he turned the conversation to basketball. The Brave Dragons, he said, were promising this year, having recently acquired a second American player, Jamal Sampson, late of the Denver Nuggets. The most important thing, Mr. Song said through Cindy, was that the fourteenth-ranked team finish in the top eight.
Marbury gave him a straight look and held up his index finger. “Number one,” he said.
And Cindy went, “Yeeeeeeeeahh,” part weird cheer, part dubious meow. “So you will, you will lead our team to the top eight? You promise that?”
“Don’t worry,” Marbury said.
“Okay! We believe you! Ha! Ha!” said Cindy, in a tone of forced enthusiasm. “So, ah, now Mr. Song want to know, before you come to China, you maintain the trainings?”
She cast a nervous eye over Marbury’s middle, which was a tad softer and rounder than it had looked beneath the lights at Madison Square Garden. Marbury nodded.
“Listen,” said Marbury. “All you need to know: When December 10 comes, when they throw the basketball up, I’ll be ready.”
“Auch!” said Mr. Song, though whether he meant, “Auch—what a relief” or “Auch—this person is completely full of baloney” was not immediately clear.
“We believe in you!” cried Cindy.
“No problem,” said Marbury. “All love.”
Waking up in Taiyuan, a city of 3.5 million located 250 miles southwest of Beijing, was breathtaking in the literal sense. The city lay under an ochre fog of startling opacity. Even behind the panes of my hotel windows, the air had a dizzying reek you could faithfully reproduce by sealing your head in a sack of Match Light charcoal. A walk around the neighborhood turned up symptoms of an industrial economy in transition: lots of people driving Mercedeses and Lexuses, yet still more people carrying multiple offspring and lumber on mopeds that seemed to be made mostly of tape. Sephora stores and Cadillac dealerships verged on aged tracts of cratelike concrete buildings Pompeian with particulate grime. Not a single window you couldn’t have graffitied with a fingertip.
Inspecting the local firmament, I could see no birds in flight. “If you see one, let me know,” said Marbury when I told him this. In fact, during my week in Taiyuan, I would not see a bird, or a rat, or an ant, or a cockroach, or any living creatures at all, except for human beings and a substantial population of upsettingly adorable and horny stray lapdogs.
Still, in the city’s defense, “shithole,” with its connotations of biotic robustness, was an unfair epithet. It was more like an engine, which was how Marbury regarded his adoptive home. Riding through Taiyuan, he pointed out the gleaming condominium towers going up along the custard-colored Fen River, and the storefronts where he imagined Starbury outlets opening their doors a few months from now. “This is one of the richest cities in China, and I’m here to be a part of it,” he told me several times. The Starbury Corporation’s future projects here might range from skyscraper construction to lumber and cotton, to “anything that’s got anything to do with something being made.” Even in the coal soot itself, Marbury saw future riches. “You just gave me an idea,” he replied when I marveled at Taiyuan’s grime. “Mobile car washes. Give these people a taste for being clean. I’m gonna get the schematics on that immediately.”
Improbable as Marbury’s schemes of merchandising/real estate/mobile car wash/import-export magnatehood might sound, it’s worth considering that _(a) _Marbury is arguably the biggest star in the CBA, and (b) in China’s increasingly basketball-obsessed but notoriously stingy consumer population, it’s hard to imagine a product better poised for success than a celebrity-endorsed sneaker that sells for fifteen bucks. It is also important to note that behind Marbury’s lofty visions are three Starbury corporate offices (North Carolina, New York, Los Angeles) and a staff of eighteen—two attorneys, two MBAs, accountants, a designer, etc.—working full-time to make the dream real.
When I paid a visit to Starbury’s operations center in Morrisville, North Carolina, a village of office parks near Raleigh, I did, admittedly, half expect to walk into an empty room with maybe a big TV and a couple of guys playing Nerf hoops on the clock. Instead I found a ten-room suite full of business-clad people hard at work. One woman was busy designing a line of Starbury camisoles. The in-house attorney was straightening out some particulars of Chinese copyright law. The rest of the staff was dealing with the financial intricacies of Marbury’s real estate holdings, a $75 million portfolio leased to such disparate and unlikely tenants as a U.S. attorney, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Social Security Administration.
Starbury CFO Gustavus Bass told me that Marbury had so far sunk $10 million of his own pocket cash into Starbury Corp. Once production started in China, he said, the business was forecast to return profits within a year. Bass, a former Wachovia corporate banker, led me down a hall, past a boardroom with a table the size of a duckpin-bowling lane, into Starbury’s operations center. He showed me whirring servers, flat files full of blueprints and architectural designs for the Chinese retail stores, and a twenty-five-station call center ready to be staffed. “We’ve been in the planning stages for a very long time,” Bass said. “We’re positioned to go.”
In China, Marbury’s famously erratic personality, too, seemed newly conditioned for popular consumption. Despite his renown as an arrogant megalomaniac outstanding in a field of arrogant megalomaniacs, in person he came across as a warm, even earnest man guilelessly fond of almost everyone around him. “I love the Chinese people” was his reflexive response to complaints about flying sputum on the streets or the sharp elbows of the sidewalk throngs. One night at dinner, he summoned the chef from the kitchen to embrace him. More than once Marbury would tell me, with a nearly uncomfortable directness of emotion, how glad he was that I’d come to China with him and that he’d miss me when I left. Nothing in his manner smacked of PR gamesmanship. Rather, he gave the impression of someone desperate to forget all the haters back home and see only a world full of new friends.
And in Taiyuan, his friends were legion. At one point, I remarked that it must get irritating not to be able to take two steps without some stranger panting on his neck. “Nah,” said Marbury. “You never know when the day’s gonna come when people stop wanting your autograph.”
With no professional obligations pending this week, other than to ease himself through jet lag, Marbury designed his days around two points: meals at American fast-food establishments and spa treatments across town at the World Trade Hotel. To my mid relief, the massages were the opposite of the sort I’d been warned might be pressed upon me in China. For two hours, small, strong women tenderized our limbs and thorax, delivering a program of sensations that would have perfectly conveyed to a blind, deaf person the experience of being yelled at. Now and then the masseuses paused their assaults to take photographs of the point guard. My own attendant seemed put out that she’d gotten stuck working my unremarkable anatomy instead of Marbury’s famous frame. She repeatedly expressed her frustration by pulling my hair and jamming her fingers into my ears.
Somehow the thrashings seemed to put Marbury in a reflective mood. So while the ladies assailed him, we talked about his early life in Brooklyn.
Marbury grew up in a housing project in Coney Island, in a four-bedroom apartment his parents shared with their seven children. His mother worked in a day-care center. His father made his living “doing whatever he could to get money—construction, gambling, hustling.” Marbury’s three older brothers were all gifted basketball players who narrowly missed NBA careers. Shortly after Stephon’s birth, the elder Marbury brothers set about molding him into a pro athlete. “I was like a lab rat. I was a science project,” he said. “They put a ball in the crib with me. They said, ‘Okay, we’re gonna breed a point guard with Stephon, and we’re gonna kick the door down with him.'”
The hazards of life in Coney Island made the project an urgent one. Marbury recalled more than once hitting the deck during games when shots rang out. Three cousins died in gunfights over the years; another served time for killing a man. “We all knew me getting to the NBA was my family’s way out,” he said.
Doubts about Marbury’s future faded early. By the time he was 6, he could shoot and dribble with both hands, and when he was 12, The Hoop Scoop magazine listed him as the top sixth grader in the nation. College recruiters were scouting him at age 14.
After his freshman year at Georgia Tech, Marbury joined the Minnesota Timberwolves and began living out a career narrative the Greek tragedians would have liked. Marbury Agonistes: the story of a young and brilliant basketball player remembered for his bedeviling public contests with one after another of the deadly sins. First came the Parable of Envy of Kevin Garnett, in which Marbury, stricken, allegedly, by jealousy of his close friend’s $126 million contract, forced a trade from the Timberwolves, breaking apart one of the most thrilling on-court partnerships in the NBA. Marbury then wandered to unsuccessful seasons with the New Jersey Nets, the Phoenix Suns, and his hometown Knicks. “He only played street ball growing up,” says Tom Gugliotta, who teamed up with Marbury in both Minnesota and Phoenix. “In Minnesota, he struggled to find a balance between being aggressive and including the other guys. And in Phoenix, ironically, he had learned what he could and couldn’t do, but they asked him to be the guy he always wanted to be, and that’s a scorer.”
The Knicks years, as his detractors see them, paid him the wages of Anger and Pride, plus the better part of $100 million for five losing seasons. His quarrels with coach Larry Brown, the fans and the tabloid press, who called him “the most reviled athlete in New York.” In 2008, new Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni sidelined Marbury in the season opener against Miami, which caused him to weep in secret on the bench. The exile, apparently, was permanent, and the blow to his dignity was so grave that when D’Antoni surprised Marbury by offering to play him later in the season, the point guard declined and was punished with a $400,000 fine.
Let’s pass over, shall we, the Lust Parable about the intern and the strip joint and the sports utility vehicle? The New York Post has already chronicled those details under the cover-story headline KNICKS INTERN: MY SEX IN A TRUCK. That was in the autumn of 2007, when he was entering a period of unpleasantnesses of near bathetic excess. The Knicks tied a record for season losses that year, and in December, his father suffered chest pains while watching a game at Madison Square Garden. Marbury didn’t find out until after the game that his father had died. “It still upsets me that I didn’t get to see him,” he said. “And it was hard on my family—bringing my wife to his funeral when there’s reporters everywhere and the whole world knows I just fucked another woman. There’s nothing harder than that.”
The lone bright spot for Marbury was the Starbury brand, which in sixteen months on the market sold more than 10 million shirts, shorts, and $15 sneakers. The sports media briefly relented their hostilities to acknowledge Marbury’s decency in selling sufficiently inexpensive footwear that inner-city youths wouldn’t need to kill or rob anyone in order to own. And then, in 2008, Steve Barry’s, Starbury’s retailer, went bankrupt. Not long after, the Knicks released Marbury, and he was banished from the Garden. “People were saying, ‘The brand is over,’ ” said Marbury. ” ‘His basketball career is over. He’s done.'”
Marbury is so persistently haunted by the public version of his poetic decline that it isn’t necessary to ask him about it. Talk to him for more than five minutes and he’ll compulsively revisit the story’s details, like someone who can’t stop picking at a sore.
On Kevin Garnett: “They said I was jealous because he made $126 million, but the league changed the ceiling [of a max contract to $71 million, the price of Marbury’s extension]. How could I be jealous of that?”
On refusing to play: “I refused to play? After y’all said to the whole world y’all not playing me and embarrass me on opening night? Have me sitting there in front of my hometown? They exiled me!”
On YouTube-inspired reports of his insanity: “I was just having a good time, playing, yelling, screaming, enjoying my- self, and people took from that, ‘Marbury’s crazy. He’s losing his mind.'”
On the Vaseline-eating thing, specifically: “I had a sore throat. My friend’s grandmother said to take Vaseline. I did, and it went away.”
Crucified is the word Marbury uses to describe his treatment. And you have to wonder how you could possibly resist developing a Christ complex if you were born to a family who had, for decades, been waiting in faith for a magical child to come along and work miracles from way outside the three-point line, to make more money than God, and to shepherd his loved ones out of Coney Island and into comfortable homes in the suburbs.
Marbury, a recently born-again Christian, saw his resurrection as imminent in China, from which his name and brand would spread across the globe, to India, then through unspecified African nations, then possibly, back to the United States. When I asked him what anyone would do with so much money, he described a corporate vision inspired by the Rapture, not the Robb Report.
“I want to build my own city,” he said. The settlement, he explained, would be built on a 4,000-acre cotton farm in South Carolina he had his eye on. The citizens would be “all my family members. They gonna have their own businesses, companies that will feed off of my company. I want to build my own Walmart-style store. I want to build my own hospital and school system. I’ll take all the people where I’m from in Coney Island and tell them to leave everything they got inside their homes and move into our new homes. We’ll have all the people sign up to be Starbury employees before they move. This is my vision of what I want to do if this thing really pops off the way I think it will if we continue to stay on the path.”
And yet, so far, Marbury’s days in Taiyuan seemed curiously devoid of the meetings and factory tours you might expect of someone building a billion-dollar empire. Save a single one-on-one workout and a few treadmill sessions, Marbury didn’t seem all that concerned with getting in shape. So while the Chinese members of the Brave Dragons were off playing exhibition matches and training twice a day, the preseason stretch in Marbury’s entourage was a purgatorial study in petit-opulent torpor: usually emerging from quarters near the two o’clock hour for a meal at McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, or Kentucky Fried Chicken; then to the World Trade Hotel for another bruising massage; then dinner at said American franchises.
The only break in the monotony came one evening when the American members of the Brave Dragons coaching staff mounted a plan to go out on the town. In the lobby, I waited for the others with a young guy named Wes, a former player for Oregon State, who was picking up a few bucks as a freelance assistant coach of the Brave Dragons junior squad.
I asked him how the team was looking. “They got this one kid who’s good,” he said. “You don’t understand. They keep these motherfuckers in a dorm and make them lift weights three, four hours a day.”
If the Chinese were such rigorous cultivators of talent, I asked him, why had China produced only one international basketball star, the pituitary marvel Yao Ming?
“This next generation, they’ll probably have a few more. You don’t know. They’re probably breeding the motherfuckers from petri dishes.”
We were soon joined by Patrick Sellers, a former UConn coach who’d come to Taiyuan after being implicated in a recruiting scandal. “I got thrown under the bus, and here I am. It’s weird here and everything, but man, I think it’s a gold mine.”
At last Marbury came down, and—by coincidence—we ran into one of the Brave Dragons’ chief sponsors, “Brother Wong,” an elfin man in Gucci loafers. Brother Wong, who had supposedly amassed a fortune as a builder of local roads, was very pleased to see Marbury. He kept laying hands on Marbury’s arms and shoulders and seemed to want very badly to climb into the point guard’s lap. He insisted we go immediately to his favorite karaoke bar.
Marbury and I caught a lift in Brother Wong’s chauffeur-driven Audi SUV. “You starting to see the Starbury movement,” Marbury said. “Brother Wong’s like Mark Cuban without being the owner. He wants to buy the team.” Wong, said Marbury, was well connected with China’s Communist Party, pointing out large yellow O’s in the corners of the Audi’s windshield, evidently emblems of officialdom. Then, at Marbury’s prompting, Brother Wong hit a switch on the Audi’s dashboard and a siren on the roof blared and wailed. “Police! Police!” cried Brother Wong, laughing madly. Traffic scurried from our path, and the Audi made for the karaoke bar at a desperate speed.
No one sang at the karaoke bar, a place the term bar is inadequate to describe. It was a fantastic labyrinth of mirrored hallways, astrobe with neon accents and red and blue LEDs, generally creating the effect of inhabiting a giant article of robot lingerie. In a room twice the size of my New York apartment, a rotund older woman dressed in a plaid field-hockey skirt led in a cadre of young women and briskly directed them, singly and in pairs, to sit beside us on the couch. The girls wore an unhookerly mufti of jeans or miniskirts or T-shirts or Annie Hall style sweaters and, as far as I could tell, were not quite prostitutes but merely young women who drew a paycheck to ply lonely men with beer and grapes, and pinch them on the knee. The only hitch in the distribution came when the field-hockey lady ushered in a girl resembling an Asian Julia Child whose eyes happened to be crossed. There was no immediate clamor for her company. She stood before the room for a painful length of time. Finally, Marbury, who’d been obliviously drinking Sprite and BlackBerrying through the whole escort-disbursement procedure, looked up and invited the big girl to his area of the sectional, a quiet act of valor that put the rest of us to shame.
I was partnered with a girl in an ivory body sock who knew enough English to claim her name was Apple. Further attempts at conversation foundered. Apple, who seemed to have mistaken me for a basketball pro from the American mean streets, periodically flashed what looked like gang signs at me and put her mouth to my ear to murmur, “I love basketball.” At one point, Brother Wong grew concerned that things between Apple and me were not progressing at a proper clip. He crossed the room and reached out, as though for a handshake. Then he pulled the old grade-school stunt of clapping my palm to the girl’s breast and shrieking with laughter.
Mercifully we departed, honor intact, well before dawn. I, for one, was glad to escape, though Wes had sipped a few beyond his limit and was bereft to be going home empty-handed. “Can’t we get some bitches?” he kept saying. “Can’t we? Can’t we?”
The hired friends also seemed glum to see the last of us, or of Marbury, anyway. A few of them gathered by the exit. “Ma Bu Li, Ma Bu Li,” they were moaning as we made our way into the benzene-scented night.
In the days after our night on the town, something odd happened: Marbury more or less dropped out of sight. He hardly stirred from his quarters. He canceled appointments or simply did not show up in the lobby at the times we’d planned to meet. I got the clear sense he was avoiding me.
Then, after two days of near invisibility, he e-mailed me, asking me to come to his room. When I entered, he was on the phone with a travel agent, booking a hotel room in Beijing for the following night. “Yeah, sure, the Marriott. I’m just looking for the cheapest thing,” he said.
He hung up and gave me an unhappy look. “I’m leaving Taiyuan,” he said. “I been compromised.” Management, he told me, had informed him that his services as a player were no longer required for the regular season. “If they make the playoffs, then they’ll use me, is what they said. Otherwise, they want me to help coach.”
He was, in other words, being asked to recapitulate his humiliating final season riding the bench for the Knicks. It was hard to understand this “offer” as anything but a ploy to force Marbury to quit the Dragons, which, he told me, was what he had done.
The source of the trouble, said Marbury, was that the team had recently hired a new general manager named Zhang Aijun, who was cleaning shop. “He didn’t like me from the beginning,” Marbury said. He gazed out the window. A tatter of Hefty bag danced on the wind. “The Knicks tried to hold me hostage,” he said, apropos of nothing. “They fined me 400 grand and said that I refused to play! Refused to play? D’Antoni said I wasn’t playing! He said that to the world! What I refuse to do is compromise. I understand what’s right and what’s wrong.”
The old outrage wore on for a time and then exhausted itself. Marbury leaned back in his chair.
“It’s bullshit,” he said. “But you know, the good thing about this situation, at least I know it wasn’t anything I did. You know what I’ve learned in my trials and my errors in the last three years? You can’t let anguish derail you. People are gonna say, ‘Oh, Stephon went to China. He messed up, and look what happened.’ But I know the truth. This is a time of growth right here. This will work out for the best. I’m just gonna go to Beijing and find another team.”
But this seemed an impossible ambition. The season started in less than two weeks, and presumably all the contracts for foreign players had been settled months ago. Marbury’s position was, I felt, sad. Surprisingly so. Or, rather, it was really surprising to find oneself suddenly sickened with sympathy for an international sports celebrity with more money to his name than many American small towns.
Then again, it’s never pleasant to see anyone’s dream collapse, and Marbury’s dream of China was about the vastest, most ornately bespired cathedral of ambition I’d ever met anyone trying to build. It contained, so far, $10 million of his own personal cash, one year of his life, the adoration of some number of thousands of Chinese people, putative fame and wealth in India and unspecified countries throughout Africa, his own personal city in South Carolina, skyscrapers, and Marbury’s left arm, indelibly inscribed ❤️ CHINA.
When such an extraordinary volume of wishes comes abruptly to earth, you can’t help but feel the ground quiver the tiniest little bit.
There was little left to say. We sat awhile in silence. Then Marbury said he had to call his wife, Tasha. He hadn’t yet given her the news, and he wasn’t going to now. Their 6-year-old son was sick with impetigo. Tasha was exhausted, and he didn’t want to add to her burdens right now. He dialed. Through the receiver, I could hear the fatigue and anxiety in Tasha’s voice. “I know it’s hard, Boo. I know you’re challenged, but it’s gonna be all right, I promise,” said Marbury, sounding oddly calm and assured for someone whose ultimate hope to redeem himself in the eyes of the world had almost certainly fallen apart.
The following day, a platoon of solemn well-wishers gathered at the Taiyuan airport to say good-bye. Marbury posed for a few last photos. He told his fans how sorry he was to leave Shanxi but said little else. In the meantime, the Brave Dragons’ GM, Zhang Aijun, was handling the breakup with considerably less aplomb. Since the rupture had become final, Zhang made a spirited public effort to saddle Marbury with blame for the split. What helped poison the contract, Zhang said, was Marbury’s insistence on a $30,000 health-insurance policy for himself and his family and, and, his request for a $14 upgrade to the World Trade Hotel.
Before Marbury’s plane had touched down in Beijing, ecstasies of Schadenfreude at his failed Chinese experiment broke out on American sports sites: STEPHON MARBURY: WEARING OUT HIS WELCOME IN YET ANOTHER CONTINENT, one headline ran. “Hide yo Vaseline, hide yo webcams,” a blogger warned. “Marbury is on his way back to the United States of America.”
But as it happened, reports of Stephon Marbury’s professional collapse were premature. Within days of his departure from Shanxi, he secured a spot with a fledgling team in Foshan, on China’s southern coast. While not a stellar club, Foshan wasn’t much worse than the Brave Dragons. With Marbury, who in March made headlines scoring fifty-five points in a single game, Foshan took down Shanxi in both their matchups, helping to scuttle Shanxi’s hopes of a top-eight season finish.
Nor did the split with Shanxi deal a mortal blow to Starbury. To cover the $2.2 million promised by the owner of the Brave Dragons, Starbury Corp. briskly liquidated Marbury’s $75 million real estate business. They recently engaged Apple’s marketing firm to handle the build-out of their shops and, according to Bass, have already started churning out a Chinese line of shoes at a cautious volume of 5,000 pairs per month.
In Marbury’s opinion, the shake-up in Taiyuan could not have worked out better. Shortly after I’d returned from my trip, he called from Foshan. His enthusiasm was so forceful, I had to turn down the volume on my phone. “Man, you wouldn’t believe it!” he said. “It’s like Florida here! Grass! Sun! Blue sky. Did you see what they said about me? How I got exiled out of China? How I lost a second home? Man, they were just waiting for it. But it shall be well. I’m here, and I’m happy. I’ve landed. Both feet.”
This article was first published in GQ on April 17th, 2011, and it appears with permission from the author.
Photographer (Cover Image)
Fejz Sadiku (Fejzullah) Is a New York-based photographer and graphic designer. Fejz is a political refugee from Kosovo, known for doing only black and white photography, videos and also graphic design which he studied in college.