Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Strong Second Half

Somehow, three years after an unceremonious end to a once promising NBA career gone ignominious, irrelevant, and finally ignored, Stephon Marbury's story has turned around to become, for me personally, the most refreshing narrative in sports this year. Two weeks ago, in his third season playing in the Chinese Basketball Association, the former New York Knicks point guard led his Beijing Ducks to their first ever championship, also his own first championship of his professional career.

When Marbury announced that he was taking the 2009-10 season off, following several tempestuous seasons with the New York club he had grown up watching and loving, and which ultimately exiled him while he was still technically on the team, I figured, as did a lot of people, that he was finished. His career demise appeared confirmed when, in 2010, he returned to play, not in the NBA, but in China instead.

It seemed a pathetic end to one of the NBA's more tragic stories. Drafted in the first round in 1996, this was a guy who had been a starter right out of the gate, and quickly grew into a two-time NBA All-Star and one of the league's top point guards. It was all downhill, however, after Marbury was traded to his beloved New York Knicks in 2004. Marbury publicly feuded with his coaches, while the team continually underperformed as one of the league's losingest over the next several seasons. New York fans, the press, coaches, and teammates pointed fingers at Marbury (and everywhere else) to lay blame for the team's embarrassing descent into becoming the biggest joke in the NBA. An overpaid, ineffectual star on a non-contending large-market team, Marbury surely deserved his share of criticism, though I doubt that made it any easier to take. Even in the face of the millions he was making, I don't imagine life was anywhere near as sweet as he might have dreamed the NBA should have been. But his hard days must truly have hit a low point on December 2, 2007.

Although it was a home game, the crowd at Madison Square Garden may have been more hostile than any other arena to Marbury. Knicks fans were booing him even during the pregame introductions. Perhaps the only person on his side was his own father, who was in attendance. At least for the first half. Around halftime, Marbury's father suffered a heart attack, and he was declared dead at the hospital before the game was over. Marbury stayed in the game and played on, however, unaware that his father had even been taken to the hospital. Marbury had no idea until after, because apparently his own family felt he didn't need the "distraction" while he played this meaningless regular season game, which the Knicks ended up losing to the Phoenix Suns anyway.

After that, thinking about Stephon Marbury just made me sad. I could no longer laugh at him, not even as he decided to get in front of a webcam to host a 24-hour live stream/meltdown, whose bright spots included scenes of him smoking marijuana and swallowing Vaseline, amid far more aimless stretches of him responding to viewer questions or even just taking his meals. This was during his break from basketball, after no NBA team would pay him his asking price, and before he set sail for China.

I expected that move to a foreign league to be just another sad stunt in a protracted flame-out. I expected that to be the last I would hear of Stephon Marbury, barring the possibility of some "Former NBA star arrested" story somewhere down the line. I didn't expect a happy ending. I didn't expect him to turn his life around. I certainly didn't expect his story to inspire me. But he has.

At the age of 32, his game clearly in decline, his life seemingly having unraveled, Stephon Marbury left to play for a Chinese league that most Americans remain unaware of. At age 35, Marbury, playing on his third Chinese team in three years, after having failed to make the playoffs with the first two, was still sticking with it, while guys like Bonzi Wells and Rafer Alston apparently hated playing in China so much that they just went AWOL in the middle of their contracts. Not only that, but Marbury seemed happier than he had ever been in the NBA. He was growing accustomed to the climate, the cuisine, the culture, maybe not the language. Chinese basketball fans were far quicker to embrace him, and maybe that made all the difference for Marbury. After having endured the boos of his fellow New Yorkers for five seasons, he was now met by a people that didn't know or didn't care how badly he had screwed up before. Ironically, he had had to leave America to get a clean slate, in a land that allowed him the second half to his life that he needed, and he was determined not to waste this one. He broke down in tears after leading his Beijing Ducks into the championship series against the favored Guangdong Southern Tigers, a team that had played in the last nine CBA finals, winning seven of them. And then came the exultation when he finally got to hoist that trophy over his head, his expression to be immortalized with a statue that over 1 million Chinese fans campaigned for online.

Admittedly, the level of competition in China is not comparable to the NBA, despite a temporary influx in the CBA this season of American players who turned to China during the NBA lockout. This is a league where the points-per-game league leaders list is completely dominated by imported players. And I'm talking guys you've never heard of, like Marcus Williams (32.0), Charles Gaines (29.1), and Josh Akognon (28.2). This is a league where J.R. Smith, always a good shooter but perennially a backup in the NBA, was able to score 60 points off the bench in one game this season, en route to leading the CBA with a 34.4 points-per-game average, before bailing to sign with the New York Knicks, once his Chinese squad failed to make the playoffs.

But that's not really the point, as I see it. No, Marbury isn't champion of the world. His victory probably won't inspire any Coney Island kids to set their sights on playing in the CBA. Maybe New York, the NBA, the United States never even deserved Marbury. Or maybe he didn't deserve them. Whatever. For me, what I'll take away from this story is that the game is not won or lost in the first half, or even the first three quarters. It's a story of second chances. Of getting a clean slate in your 30s, when you're not sure even what your life has been. Of becoming what you were meant to be, when you feared your best years were already lost to you. Of having to wake up after the dream has died, finally to find a life that is better than the dream.

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