An interview with the hottest player in Chinese basketball

By Li Ying Source:Global Times Published: 2016-3-9 19:48:01

Before heading back to the US for a short vacation, Marbury visits his private museum in Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT

The day before he was to fly out of Beijing for a short vacation in Hong Kong before making his yearly trek back to the US, Stephon Marbury spent an afternoon with more than 500 of his fans at his private museum. 

His off-season leave came earlier this year than it has since the former NBA all-star player joined the Beijing Ducks in 2011. That's because on February 21, the Beijing Ducks - the China Basketball Association (CBA)'s defending champion - lost Game 4 against the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in the quarterfinal series of the playoffs, bumping them out of the running for this year's championship.

"I didn't realize how hard the whole season was until it was over with," says Marbury. He is sitting in front of a traditional Chinese-style wooden desk in the study of his 300-square-meter museum in Dongcheng district. Hanging on the wall behind him is framed calligraphy that he wrote himself. The Chinese characters read "Mabuli Zhijia" - literally, "the House of Marbury."

"It feels better when you go back with the championship," he said, grinning with regret. "But it's OK. I understand why we lost. The most important thing now is to prepare for next season."

For millions of Beijing Ducks fans, Marbury is more than just a hometown player - he's an out-and-out hero after leading the team to three CBA championships in 2012, 2014 and 2015. Yet there's a dark cloud hanging over the Ducks' prospects in future seasons - Marbury will be 40 next year, an age at which most professional basketball players are thinking of retiring, if they haven't already. A case in point is the status of other members of the so-called "NBA 96 golden class" still striving on court: Allen Iverson retired from basketball in 2014, while Kobe Bryant has said he will end his career after this season.

Any doubts that may have been floating around about Marbury were banished on February 22, when he posted the following message on his Weibo account: "I'm playing next season, 100 percent."

Marbury meets his fans in his private museum. Photo: Li Hao/GT

A hero for his fans

By the time Marbury arrived at his museum, it was already packed with hundreds of excited locals, ranging from kids to senior citizens, all jostling to get an autograph or, if they were lucky, a photo with the basketball star.

Unveiled in January, the museum, which was sponsored by the Beijing Post Office, traces Marbury's career, from his early days with the Minnesota Timberwolves, through his stints with the Nets, Knicks and Celtics. The walls and cabinets feature early American magazine articles on him as well as displays of his jerseys from each of the different teams he's played for. At the door stands a life-sized wax figure of him wearing a Beijing Ducks jersey, a project that was completed thanks to a crowd-funding initiative from his fans.

That's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his fans' dedication. So beloved is Marbury that he's been unofficially christened "Commissar Ma," a military title that references his leadership and dedication to the team. Miles away at Beijing's Wukesong Basketball Park is another gesture usually reserved for political heroes - a bronze statue of Marbury in a pose of victory. The bronze statue was presented to Marbury in 2012 by a Chinese sports news website after gaining more than a million fans' support for the idea.

As for next season, Marbury says his plan "is to give everything that I have to try to win a championship."

As part of his efforts, Marbury says he'll be diving full-force into summer training to prepare for the next season, and also plans to take up several new habits, including yoga. "I feel like it fits me, works for me," he said. "I just try to do everything that will help position myself to play the best I can play." 

He adds, "You know, it is pretty incredible to play basketball at 40 years old at a high level." 

Controversy on the court

It hasn't been all fanfare and brass statues, however. Though Marbury has received praise not only for his performance on the court but for helping expand the CBA's popularity, he's also become a magnet for controversy, with some fans of opposing teams complaining that he gets special treatment from the referees. Marbury, however, doesn't see it that way - he's been known to complain that he was unfairly fined by the refs. The latest conflict took place on January 4 when Marbury received a one-game penalty from the league after posting an "inappropriate statement" on his Weibo.

The post addressed a recent game against Guangdong, in which Marbury received a technical foul after trying to argue with the ref. "How do you get a technical foul asking what did I do?" the post read, but was later deleted.

"I think different fans have different opinions, because they cheer for different teams, so they'll have different feelings about what goes on."

So far, though, Marbury has taken any bumps along the road in stride. These days, he's more concerned with pushing the popularity of the CBA, not just in China, but around the world.

"For myself, I believe that helping the league become stronger and having people around the world recognize the CBA is what I'm supposed to do in life." He adds, "It is good for people to watch other leagues, not just the NBA or Europe or other leagues such as Malaysia and the Philippines. China has put itself in the position to be seen on a big scale."

Next season and beyond

Beijing isn't just Marbury's new home - it's the place where he's turned his life around. After  earning himself a reputation as a difficult player in the NBA, Marbury came to China to play for the CBA in 2010, since which time he's rehabilitated his image and then some.

Due to his great contributions to the sports industry here, he's even been granted a green card by the Beijing government in December last year, meaning he no longer has to apply for a visa to stay in China. It is considered a high honor: only 5,000 foreigners in China have been approved for permanent status since the policy was introduced in 2004.

Marbury laughs a little when asked about what suggestions he has for foreigners who want a Chinese green card of their own. "I mean, try to live a positive life - try to do, you know, to help. I don't know."

"It was difficult for me when I left America, and I came here," he adds. "[In the US] people thought of me in a certain way, because they didn't know me, they didn't understand me, so they went for what was written in the newspapers. But eventually, they will see the truth, because the truth is the defense itself; you don't have to fight the truth."

The softer side of Marbury will presumably be on display in an upcoming, Chinese-made documentary about him called My Other Home, Beijing, which he will shoot after returning to China, but before he goes back to the US for summer training.

Another of Marbury's plans for this summer is taking Beijing Ducks center Zhang Songtao to the US for special training with Marbury's former assistant coach at the Knicks to help him develop his talent.

"I know Da Shu [Zhang's nickname] will be able to become an even better basketball player," Marbury says. "He will have someone working with him individually, as well as have the opportunity to play with some NBA league players."

Marbury sees a lot of potential in his teammates. As for who will replace him once he retires, he said, "I think everybody's role will change and everybody will have new opportunities."

So occupied has Marbury been with his new life in China, that when being asked about the biggest news in his home country at the moment - America's upcoming presidential elections - he can only shrug that he hasn't really being following it. "But I like Hilary Clinton," he said.

Newspaper headline: Beijing all-star

Posted in: Metro Beijing

blog comments powered by Disqus