The NBA I Grew Up Watching: Stephon Marbury, the Mercurial Superstar

Over the past few weeks, COVID-19 has driven the world to a near standstill. But Coney Island native Stephon Marbury has risen above and beyond the call of duty to help plug a critical gap in New York City’s recovery infrastructure.

From his base in China, Marbury is arranging a deal to supply the city with up to 10 million N95 safety masks. 

By the way, here’s a fantastic feature on other players and teams from around the league who stepped up to fight the crisis:

NBA Players, Teams Stepping Up During Coronavirus Pandemic 

The plan, however, just like the many tumultuous seasons he spent playing in the NBA, is not without its road bumps. As has been the case for much of his NBA career, Marbury has come through in the clutch, playing with heart, but not garnering the best response or even the right support, for that matter.

In a league full of iconic names during the late 90s and early 2000s (Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, and Baron Davis, to name a few), Marbury became somewhat of an anti-hero.

And this was exactly what endeared me to his game and persona.

In Marbury, I saw a kid with the weight of the world on his shoulders, taking the fast lane, learning from each mistake and maturing as he went. His story inspired me back then and continues to do so to this day.

Marbury’s game was undeniably stellar, characterized by speed and agility. He possessed an array of crossover moves that would not just keep defenders at bay, but would literally blow them off. A 6’2″ guard with uncanny strength for his size? Defenders were better off staying out of the way when he came barreling down the lane. 

Marbury’s knack for getting to the rim was backed up by a solid jump shot that gave him range all over the court—something that likely served as inspiration for some of the best guards of today like the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry or Portland Trailblazers’ Damian Lillard.

Starbury was also remarkably skilled at finding the open man:

But what gave Marbury the infamous reputation he carried through his NBA years?

The first of a series of image defining actions came midway through the lock-out shortened 1998-99 season. Marbury, the fourth pick from the 1996 NBA draft (selected by the Milwaukee Bucks but immediately traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Ray Allen), played the first two seasons alongside star forward Kevin Garnett.

And what an exciting duo they made! The two had some success during their time together, reaching the playoffs in both years, and fans were excited to see them develop further.

Marbury, however, wasn’t content playing second fiddle and was eager to explore a different situation: one closer to home in New York with a stronger financial incentive and somewhere he would be able to take on the mantle of superstar and team leader.

 

In a mid-season trade that sent him to the New Jersey Nets, Marbury would finally get his chance. (Sam Cassell was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in the deal, who flipped guard Terrell Brandon to Minnesota.)

Fans were miffed and were quick to label Marbury as a malcontent gold-digger.

I, however, saw a kid with some rough edges, for sure, but one that had come up fighting, eager to embrace stardom and carry his family’s pride forward into the next generation.

Marbury got a fresh start in New Jersey and the leash to become the team’s unquestioned leader. He excelled, averaging 23.1 points and 8.2 assists per game through two and a half seasons with the franchise and earning an All-Star selection and All-NBA Third Team that same year in 2000.

He did it with style, going hard at defenses each and every night:

Marbury, however, had joined a long disjointed roster that wasn’t able to add a good supporting cast around him. In excelling individually, he often alienated his teammates, further aiding the franchise’s poor run over the next few seasons (57-107 record through 1999-01).

Once again, league pundits and fans chided Marbury for his lack of leadership and poor ability to build relationships.

To me, it was clear that Marbury—still only 24 years old at the end of the 2000-01 campaign—played with heart but failed to gather the necessary support to make him a true winner.

At the end of the 2000-01 season, the Nets decided to move in another direction, shipping Marbury to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for passing maestro Jason Kidd. 

EMBRACING THE LEADERSHIP MANTLE

As the NBA grew in popularity around the world in the early 2000s, I remember having long discussions with friends about players they most identified with—either on the court or more generally in life.

Depending on your choice, you would fit in one of a few broad categories of people:

If you chose Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan or Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, you signaled a clear preference for the popular superstar— one that was well versed in taking over games by using a flashy array of moves. (This was also often a preference of the front-running casual fan.)

If your answer was Jason Kidd or Dallas Mavericks guard Steve Nash, you loved the facilitator and often enjoyed setting up others for success. If you chose to focus on Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson, it was clear that you rooted for the little guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and who wouldn’t go down without a fight. 

I was never the conventional type, and in choosing Marbury, I knew I was firmly supporting someone who couldn’t be so easily typecast, someone who had a complex set of underlying beliefs and was routinely misunderstood. 

However, this period coincided with a time when Marbury was really beginning to come into his own.

Having endured a rough few years in the league, Marbury joined the Phoenix Suns with a desire to really embrace the role of being a leader, facilitator and glue guy on the team. He made the extra effort to get to know his teammates better.

And the results soon followed.

After a relatively tough first year in Phoenix, the team was able to add bruising forward Amar’e Stoudemire in the 2002 Draft. An exciting trio of Marbury, forward Shawn Marion and Stoudemire led the Suns to a 44-38 regular-season record, setting themselves up for a memorable postseason series with the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs:

Even though the Spurs took the series 4-2, the season gave the world a glimpse of what a Stephon Marbury-led team could achieve. 

For Marbury, it was probably the first time in years that he was given the support he needed to excel as a member of the team. On an individual level, he was now averaging 20.5 points and 8.3 assists per game for his career, becoming only the second player in NBA history to achieve the 20 and 8 mark (Milwaukee Bucks guard Oscar Robertson being the other player).

While the success was short-lived, it was probably the highest point in his NBA career before things started to go downhill from there.  

I continued to follow Marbury closely through his next few seasons nonetheless. 

There was his much-celebrated return home to New York in a Knicks uniform. But after initially helping the Knicks reach the first round of the playoffs in 2003-04—they were swept by Kidd’s Nets in the first round—Marbury fell victim to a familiar circumstance: an injury-riddled veteran supporting cast that was never quite stable; multiple coaching and management changes; and the intense media scrutiny that comes with the Big Apple. 

It’s hard to measure the impact this had on Marbury, but it was quite severe from the looks of it. His NBA career spiraled following repeated run-ins with coaches Larry Brown and Mike D’Antoni, and he played his last game for Knicks during the 2007-08 season. 

After a brief stint (and reunion with Garnett!) with the Boston Celtics during the 2008-09 season, Marbury went on a hiatus from the game for some time before finally finding greatness again in China (where he has become a multi-time MVP and cultural icon). 

MARBURY, THE PLAYER AND UNTAPPED POTENTIAL

Marbury’s relatively short NBA career left a lot to be desired. 

As an individual player, his explosiveness, on-court vision, mad hops and bulldozer finesse style of play inspired many, including your’s truly. 

His on-court durability and reliability were never in question. Per advanced NBA Stats, Marbury averaged an astronomical 40.1 minutes over 81 contests for the Suns in 2002-03, 40.2 minutes over 81 games for the Suns/ Knicks during the 2003-04 season, and 40.2 minutes per game again over 82 the following year for the Knicks. 

A quick glance at his production in China, where he led the Beijing Ducks to 3 championships (2012, 2014 and 2015) in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), yields the following averages: 20.2 points, 5.5 assists per game on 49.5 percent shooting.  

And that becomes even more impressive when you factor in that Marbury was 40 years old when he played his last CBA season (2017-18). 

With all this in mind, you can’t help but wonder if the NBA lost out way too early on such good talent; if the perennial focus on reputation and age negated millions of fans an opportunity to see way more from him. 

When I look back on those times, I’m often confronted by a number of ‘what ifs’:

If Stoudemire hadn’t missed so much time due to injury during the 2003-04 season, would the Suns have doubled down on the roster, added a more solid defensive big alongside the trio and attempted another postseason run? 

What if the Knicks or Nets had able to surround Marbury with a healthy supporting cast and a less toxic atmosphere? In the former’s case, would we have seen more memorable Knicks seasons akin to their 1998-99 campaign or the 2012-13 season? Or in the Nets’ case, their two-time run to the Finals with Jason Kidd and Co.?

And, of course, what if Marbury had stayed in Minnesota all along to form one of the great PG / F combos of all-time with Garnett?

Alas, as is often the case, we don’t always get a second take. Marbury certainly played a part in the difficult situations he faced, though he often was saddled with far more blame than was fair in hindsight. Conversely, his late-career turn as a CBA superstar also showed how all the previous bumps, starts and stops had polished Starbury into a thoughtful, savvy and thoroughly entertaining player who still exuded passion for the game.

Few, if any, NBA players have ever had such a unique basketball journey.

Marbury’s inspirational story is now on display through a documentary titled ‘A Kid From Coney Island’

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