April 18, 2011
So, wait, you mean happy endings are real? That not all basketball players end up in Atlanta, arguing over expired tags on one of their Lamborghinis? That you can get it right, without having to work as a member of the Washington Wizards?
In a stunning GQ portrayal, an absolute must-read from Wells Tower, the former All-Star and current Shanxi Brave Dragons point man appears to have completely and fully acclimated to his jarring new surroundings. Marbury might not enjoy every bit of protein that ends up on his plate in China, and his back and forth with his employers might still result in quite the cultural divide, but he's clearly in a better place than what we saw nearly two years ago. If you're expecting Steph to pine for Twitter replies while gobbling Vaseline on a web cam, then you're just going to have to wait.
Because, while he has reservations regarding his new home, Marbury appears to be loving life:
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."
While Marbury is working well under what he would make as a minimum-salaries NBA player working stateside, his commitment to playing in China goes well beyond merely showing up for games as the Brave Dragons' starting point guard. This is a business opportunity for Marbury as well, though after reading Tower's piece, whatever cynicism you might rightly boast entering the discussion will be quickly quashed, a result of Marbury's unending optimism.
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.
Does any of this make sense? Wasn't this the guy that flamed out, never to be heard from again, two years ago? Wasn't the trip to the Chinese league supposed to be a laughable attempt at making things right, spun some 20 years before the sort of GQ profiles and documentaries that usually show a man in his 50s lamenting a career gone wrong?
Well, unless Tower is on the take, our dour assumptions are way, way off. Because Marbury, in his inimitable (and still forcibly well-heeled) style, is making things work. Even if he's still making everyone around him a little uneasy. Or a lot, even.
It hardly matters. Because, for now, Marbury appears to be happy. And this GQ piece is a well-written must read. Do with that what you should.