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Stephon Marbury encourages Kobe Bryant to ride off into the sunset … in China

Marc J. Spears
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The NBA has been celebrating Kobe Bryant since his announcement last month that he is retiring after this season – his 20th in the league. But former NBA player Stephon Marbury says China’s basketball fans would far exceed the adulation Bryant is receiving in the NBA if he were to wrap up his career in the Chinese Basketball Association.

"They love him here. It is a little bit past love. It would be like the biggest thing ever in basketball here,” Marbury told Yahoo Sports in a recent phone interview. “It would be beyond huge. Beyond big. I would definitely encourage it. …

"They love basketball here. You can't control the excitement."

Marbury and Bryant are the only two members of the storied 1996 NBA draft class – which included Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Peja Stojakovic, Steve Nash, Jermaine O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Derek Fisher – who are still playing professionally. Bryant regularly takes off-season promotional trips to China and was the most popular member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

'They love him here [in China]. It is a little bit past love,' Stephon Marbury says of Kobe Bryant. (AP)
'They love him here [in China]. It is a little bit past love,' Stephon Marbury says of Kobe Bryant. (AP)

Marbury was a two-time NBA All-Star who played 13 seasons after being selected fourth overall in 1996. The 38-year-old has found greater success in China, winning three titles since arriving in 2010. He is averaging 19.3 points, 6.5 assists and 4.9 rebounds through 17 contests with the Beijing Ducks this season.

With games only on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays and no back-to-backs, Marbury believes Bryant could be effective playing in China and would enjoy the overall experience. But it is different.

“I try to tell people that it's not easy playing here because you are always on the court playing,” Marbury told Yahoo Sports. “You still got to put the ball in the hole. You still got to [succeed]. Guys say, 'Oh, it's not competition.' It's not the competition in the NBA, but it's still competition.

“You still have a defense trying to stop you, and they're really trying to stop you because they know you are one of the best players. It's basically how it is at home [for stars].”

Considering how hugely popular Marbury is in China, it would be interesting to see how Bryant would be received.

There is a Marbury statue in front of an arena in Beijing. There was a play based on his life, starring himself. Countless Marbury sneakers have been sold. There was a postage stamp made in his honor. A Marbury museum is also scheduled to open – a first for an athlete in Beijing – on Dec. 21, just blocks from Tiananmen Square.

“That’s pretty cool for a kid from Coney Island,” Marbury told Yahoo Sports.

There is, however, one major catch to playing basketball in China. CBA teams fly on commercial planes. In fact, it’s common to see the 6-foot-2 Marbury, the CBA’s most popular player, sitting in the coach section of a commercial jet.

"It's old school. You get up early in the morning. I don't fly first class. I fly with everybody else,” Marbury told Yahoo Sports. “I can fly first class. The team pays for guys. But it's not really a big deal for me. I get the exit row.

Kobe Bryant was a hit at the 2008 Olympics. (AP)
Kobe Bryant was a hit at the 2008 Olympics. (AP)

“It's a challenge sometimes. When you've flown private most of your career, and all of a sudden you're flying commercial, it's a little bit different.”

Marbury last played in the NBA during the 2008-09 season with the Boston Celtics. In January 2010, Marbury became the first high-profile NBA player to join the CBA by signing with Shanxi.

He says he has no regrets about not returning to the NBA and says the CBA allows him to be himself.

"Playing in the NBA was easy,” Marbury told Yahoo Sports. “It was more about the other things. My personality was a little too strong. I stood for something, and I didn't allow myself to be a mute when I was told to follow what was being said when I felt different. I had my own opinions about it. It was a struggle and a battle for some people.

“I give my vision [in China]. I give my thoughts. I am honest and I am real with what's real."

With two additional seasons on his contract with the Beijing Ducks, Marbury says he will live in China once he is done playing. He overcame knee surgery two years ago and has had no physical setbacks, but the question remains: How much basketball does Marbury have left?

"I want to play until my body tells me to stop,” Marbury told Yahoo Sports.

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