April 6, 2015

The Mighty Duck

This article was first published with the cover story of the 143rd edition (2015 - No. 4) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version.

Stephon Marbury’s evolution has helped create a basketball dynasty in Beijing

It’s a rare moment when an icon and a community find perfect resonance with each other, a bond that eventually offers unconditional love from one to another. Watching a Beijing Ducks game in Beijing – especially during the playoffs at the MasterCard center – provides a glimpse of that type of resonance. On nights when Stephon Marbury is heroically carrying the Ducks to victory, pushing the team forward with big performances every night, the city parallels his passion and intensity off the court. Both of them feed into each other, until they make a monster that few in the CBA can conquer.

Last week, Marbury led Beijing to their second consecutive CBA title and their third in fourth years, deservedly winning the Finals MVP award. He’s now 38, and has played for nearly two decades professionally in Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix, New York, Shanxi, and Foshan. But it was in Beijing that the star point guard finally found fulfilment, and in return, the city made him a basketball deity.

“This is home,” he tells SLAM a few days after celebrating the title victory – his third – in Liaoning, “Beijing is home. America will always be home. But this is where my life is at, here in China.”

Marbury has shown Beijing and China love, and China has showed him love back. After over five years playing and living in the country, he has also overcome the early trials and tribulations to find peace, both on and off the court.

“It was a trying time because it was all brand new,” he says of his early years in China, when he went from being an NBA star to a point guard from Shanxi and Foshan, “I was ready to do something different and be a part of something different. I wanted to evolve to a new area in my life and in basketball. It was a trying time because of the culture barrier and not being able to speak the language and not being able to communicate. But for the most part it was cool, because I knew it was just part of the experience.”

“I understand the culture now,” he adds, “I love the food. I now know why people do what they do when they do it. Even though I can’t speak the language as well as I would like, I know a little bit more than when I first came here. It’s just growth.”

The growth off-the-court corresponded to success on-court, and with the Ducks, Marbury found a clique that finally brought him championship success. Part of the reason is team continuity, as the Ducks have had the same two foreigners (Marbury and Randolph Morris) and much of the same roster over the last four years.

When I ask him what the secret is to the team’s success, he says that it has always been about looking ahead. “[It’s about] our preparation from the beginning of the year. So now, our focus is on the next year. Everyone is aware of what we have to do for next year. We’re enjoying the championship but in the back of our mind we know that we have more work to do. We know where have to get better, where we have to improve. No one is relaxing right now. Everyone loves this feeling. We like winning. For the most part, everyone is conscious of living in the moment of now, but knowing in the future what we have to do to continue to stay stable as one of the top teams.”

And of course, having a city that resonates and encourages him and his teammates every moment of every game helps, too. “I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again,” Marbury stresses, “I think they – Beijing – are the best fans on the planet. The energy that they bring towards the players and the atmosphere in Wukesong is different and it’s rare. And it’s consistent throughout the whole game, not in spurts or just the fourth quarter, it’s all throughout the whole game. They’re very knowledgeable, they understand the game, they know when someone’s shot isn’t going, and they know when someone needs to be encouraged. All of that contributes to why they are the best fans. You can’t really put a price tag on that or compare it to anything. I know the energy that they gave me from the way that they go about cheering for us.”

NBA and foreign players have played in China before Marbury, and they’ll come to play in China after he retires, but there may never be anyone like him again, an individual who embraced the culture and a city and they embraced him back. And as he basks in the afterglow of another CBA title, Marbury sets his eye ahead for more success in China and with Beijing in the future.

“I wanna win more championships here,” he says, “It’s fun right now. It’s fun to be winning, and you’re driven to continue to work hard to keep winning”

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