Requiem for a Shooter
How did Steph get to where he is now?
I know, I know. Does the world really need another Stephon Marbury article? In the week and change since Stephon’s bizarre foray into the depths of Web 2.0, there’s not much we haven’t heard people say about Marbury. He’s desperate for attention. He’s having a nervous breakdown. He’s trying to make a difference. He’s found himself. He’s on the cutting edge of direct connection to the fans. He’s everything that’s wrong with new media. He’s just nuts.
But here’s the question that begs to be answered above all others: How did all of this happen? It was only two years ago that Marbury was a max-money starting point guard for the New York Knicks. How did end up spending most of his waking hours talking into a webcam, baring his soul to any of the increasingly few people willing to listen? It’s likely nobody really knows the answer to that question, including Marbury himself. But a look into Marbury’s journey to this point reveals reasons to believe that the factors behind Marbury’s fall from grace are more complex than they appear at first blush.
Stephon Marbury, at 32, is younger than both of the starting point guards in last year’s NBA Finals. Twenty-one of those 32 years have been spent in the national spotlight, as he was named the world’s best sixth grader by Hoop Scoop magazine at age 11. The first article published about him that received major circulation was written for Harper’s when he was 14 years old, a freshman at Coney Island’s Lincoln High School. The article would later be extended into Darcey Frey’s The Last Shot, for my money the best basketball book ever written.
When most people read The Last Shot, they’re struck by how arrogant the 14-year old Marbury was. Although the other three players in the book were seniors on the Lincoln team, Marbury, as a freshman, was easily the boldest of the quartet; he’d talk his game up without the slightest provocation, talk trash on the court, needle the seniors about their shortcomings and futures as players, and make decrees regarding his own future success. (After the article was published Marbury, furious about the way he was portrayed, reportedly vowed to change his ways and conduct himself in a more professional manner.)
What struck me more than Marbury’s arrogance, however, was how jaded he seemed at 14 years old — in a lot of ways, Marbury at 14 seemed more worldly than the man currently beaming his shirtless wisdom onto any computer screen that will have him. The three seniors were self-conscious in Frey’s presence, always insisting on paying for their own food when they went out, and faithful to the rules and promises of the recruitment process, wary of accepting any gifts and believing what visiting coaches told them their future could hold.
Marbury, on the other hand, was shameless about hitting Frey up for fast food and soda money whenever he could, and calls the three seniors ignorant for not asking for any illegal accommodations from the colleges interested in them; Marbury states at one point that he’s going to ask for a white Nissan Sentra when it’s his time to be courted by colleges.
Marbury’s final moment in the book is one of the most heart-breaking in the text proper. Marbury’s father, Don, confronts Frey and asks him how much the Marbury family should expect to be paid for the right to put Stephon in the book. When Frey answers that it would be against regulations, the elder Marbury furiously cuts off Frey’s access to Stephon, saying he’s just making another excuse to make money off of his son without having to give anything himself.
The moment is devastating not just because of the audacity of Mr. Marbury, but because the book provides more than a few examples that his worldview is the correct one. Tchaka Shipp, the most heavily-recruited of the three profiled seniors, was constantly promised the world by coaches unwilling to deliver it. He eventually signed with P.J. Carlesimo of Seton Hall behind a promise of playing time; after being buried on the end of the bench for two years, Tchaka transferred to UC Irvine. Before the season started, he was in a car crash which ended his basketball career. P.J.’s last documented job was as the Head Coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder; at the time of the afterword to The Last Shot, Tchaka was doing pipe fitting work for $8.50 an hour.
“Russell Thomas” (his name was changed for the book), the team’s starting shooting guard, on-floor leader, and go-to guy in the clutch during the team’s PSAL championship run, was all set to go to UC Irvine on scholarship because of his finely honed shooting stroke and tenacious defense, but was declined entry when he failed to make the requisite 700 on his SATs. Despite becoming one of the most prolific scorers in junior college history and eventually getting his degree, Russell ultimately ended up being the book’s purest incarnation of tragedy.
After basketball, Russell was involved in a domestic violence incident with his wife, attempted to find God, attended church regularly, and even made a run at becoming a preacher of some sort before eventually living alone and homeless on the streets of California. At 26, he was hit by an Amtrak train, which killed him instantly. Many believe he threw himself in front of it.
Two years after the book takes place, Spike Lee himself came to speak to the players at ABCD camp, which Tchaka had attended during his senior year. Lee’s words were: “You’ve got to realize that nobody cares about you. You’re black, you’re male; all you’re supposed to do is deal drugs and mug women. The only reason why you’re here is you can make their team win. And if their team wins, these schools get a lot of money. This whole thing is revolving around money.”
Two years after Spike’s talk, Lee made a movie which fictionalized the plight of Coney Island players, adding murder, an explicit three-way sex scene, a recruiting scandal, fictional ESPN pieces, and a lead performance from the player Marbury was traded for on draft night, at no point mentioning anything resembling an SAT requirement. It is among the highest-grossing movies of Lee’s career.
But Marbury didn’t need to see into the future of Tchaka, Russell, or Spike Lee to know the economics of Coney Island basketball. Stephon had three older brothers, all of whom showed NBA promise but failed to make it for one reason or another. Eric Marbury failed to graduate after receiving a scholarship from Georgia, and was cut after a tryout with the Clippers. Donnie went undrafted after a prolific career at Texas A&M. Norman “Jou-Jou” Marbury, considered by all one of the best point guards Brooklyn had ever seen, blew a scholarship to Tennessee when he failed to make a 700 on his SATs.
By the time Stephon came around, Don Marbury had learned the hard way how to make sure his son made it out of Coney Island. Not only was Stephon dribbling a basketball by the time he could walk and devoting every waking minute to improving his game, but Don closely managed all of Stephon’s activities and dealings, making sure Stephon studied for his SATs and didn’t fall into any of the traps his older brothers had. Stephon responded, and after a stellar high school career was off to Georgia Tech on full scholarship.
In many ways, Stephon bears striking similarities to a flashy guard from the days of yore, Pistol Pete Maravich. Like Maravich, Steph played point guard and possessed unworldly passing abilities, but preferred to score. Both players possessed a handle that qualified as borderline witchcraft, often using it to set themselves up for jumpers in 1-on-1 situations. Both have on-paper legacies of being high-volume scorers and passers with sub-par efficiency numbers and not much team success. Both of them preferred flash over fundamentals, with their on-court achievements living on in the memories of those who saw them instead of banners in the rafters.
Both were crafted from infancy into perfect basketball machines by their fathers, and both had an extremely long, strange and difficult search for meaning after basketball was gone from their lives; Maravich became a recluse for two years after leaving basketball, experimenting with different spiritual beliefs and philosophies, becoming enamored with UFOs, and finally finding his version of God, stating before his death that “I want to be remembered as a Christian, a person that serves Him to the utmost. Not as a basketball player.”
There was moment in Maravich’s life where Maravich’s father, Press, showed off his young son’s spectacular ballhandling routine to John Wooden, an old roommate of Press’. Wooden, being who he was, responded that the routine was wonderful, but wondered if Pete wouldn’t be better served spending the time he spent learning tricks on learning defensive footwork. Press told Wooden the following: “You don’t understand. Pete’s going to be the first million-dollar ballplayer,” to which Wooden replied “Maybe. But he’s never going to win a championship.”
When it was time for Marbury to unleash his Coney-honed game on the world, times had changed. The people were different. And there was a lot more than a million dollars out there for a ballplayer. But the principle remained the same.
At Georgia Tech, Marbury excelled, but the coaches continually attempted to convince him to play within the confines of their system and play a team game. Marbury’s brothers told him the best way to the pros was to keep right on shooting. Marbury listened to his brothers, and went fourth overall in the NBA Draft.
The rest is pretty much history. Marbury was successful in Minnesota when paired with a young KG, but wasn’t as involved in the offense as he wanted to be. In that situation, young players are supposed to fall in line, recognize who the stars are, do their part. Support the team at all cost, abandon all goals for those of the team, winning above all else. Steph had heard it from coaches his whole life. He’d also seen his friends, teammates, one of whom was murdered the summer before he went to Georgetown, and brothers do what their coaches told them their whole life, only to be discarded when they’d outlived their usefulness. From day 1, Stephon Marbury was going to get his. He got the trade.
After Minnesota, Stephon Marbury’s career had several constants:
1. He got a lot of points and assists.
2. He made a lot of spectacular plays.
3. His teams did not win all that many games.
4. He was handsomely rewarded.
In New Jersey, in Phoenix, on the Olympic Team, and during his first year in New York, Steph got the ball in his hands, made the plays, and watched the teams he’d just left outperform the ones he was on. All of Marbury’s life, he’d seen people use basketball to exploit the ones around him; by using the skills he’d learned over the course of a lifetime to make himself seem far more valuable than he was, Marbury used basketball to exploit them. A good point guard creates a false narrative with the ball to fool the defense; Marbury’s slick crossovers, ubiquitous step-backs, and elaborate no-looks created a false narrative — Steph Marbury, Franchise Player — that fooled everyone else.
Throughout his career, Steph had a knack for finding himself at the wrong place or on the wrong team at the wrong time over the course of his NBA career. Some of that was Steph’s fault. Some of it wasn’t. But everything came to a head on the ’05-06 Knicks, perhaps the most ill-devised team in the history of professional basketball.
Part of the reason for Steph’s decline is less than enthralling: the 2004 crackdown on hand-checks made Steph’s game less effective. Stephon had one of his best statistical years in ’04-05, but his skills instantly became far less valuable. The hand-check rules turned the NBA into a drive-and-kick game: point guards were now supposed to dive into the paint and get high-percentage opportunities or make the kick-out. Guards like Steph, who preferred to work 1-on-1 out on the perimeter, were no longer necessary to create quality offensive opportunities. Allen Iverson played in 57 playoff games before the new rules were passed; since then, he’s played in 14. Steph’s style of play was always less effective than advertised; the new rules rendered it nearly obsolete. The other major effect of the rules was to diminish the effectiveness of post-up play: the most effective bigs were now ones who could play and defend the screen-roll.
On a related note, the ’05-06 Knicks’ top-5 minute getters were three shoot-first point guards and Eddy Curry, who is absolutely atrocious at everything except scoring in individual post-up situations. And they paid Larry Brown, the ultimate slow-down fundamentalist, a king’s ransom to coach the team. Meanwhile, the Suns gave Steve Nash Marbury’s money, played fast-break basketball, and Nash won two MVPs.
Being the on-court leader of the NBA’s answer to Heaven’s Gate, during what should be your absolute peak year in terms of age, in the best basketball city on the planet, which also happens to be your hometown, dealing with a coach who clearly wants you gone, and having the whole disaster covered from every possible angle during every painful moment, will have an effect on some people. And it’s right around this period that the world began to see a different Steph.
Just before the ’05-06 quagmire, Marbury gave the world a hint that he was more than just a ballhog when he broke down and cried while announcing his $1 million donation to Hurricane Katrina victims. This did not buy him much favor with the public during the disastrous season. Neither did his launch of a discount shoe line after the season had ended. It was a year later, in the 2007 offseason, after the death of his father, when Steph’s public behavior started to get a little, well, off the beaten path. We all know the rest from there; the exile by Mike D’Antoni, godfather of the on-court movement that made Steph’s game out of vogue, the tattoo on the head, the buyout, the stint with the Celtics that failed to produce the free ride to a ring Sam Cassell had gotten a year earlier.
But here’s the thing; I don’t think it’s as simple as Steph going crazy. I don’t even necessarily think this is a bad thing. It’s weird, and a little concerning, but this is a different Steph. This isn’t the kid who didn’t believe in anything except his own skill. This isn’t the kid who never had a kind word for anybody else on the team. This isn’t the kid who took everything that was available to him without remorse, because he knew nobody would give him anything without getting something back. This isn’t the kid who found out too early how hollow the mantras of “all for one and one for all” could ring when his friends couldn’t produce on the court anymore. This isn’t the kid who’d lost faith in people at 14 years old.
His whole life, the only thing Stephon Marbury had control over was what he was able to do on the court, playing the game he loved. But the game turned him into a pariah in the same town where basketball had once made him royalty. Marbury’s life had been about taking advantage of the warped promises of basketball that entice inner-city kids into turning their lives into a Sisyphean struggle for a way to rise above their surroundings, to attain the glory the legends of the game have achieved. Steph saw the hypocrisy earlier than most, and set about making himself a legend by beating the system at its own game. He was self-involved because he was the only person he could trust. He was ignorant about the world because the only place that made sense to him had been a basketball court. But somewhere along the line, Steph found out that being Starbury on the court wasn’t the way to find the answers he was looking for.
Now, Stephon Marbury has looked at the life he’s led and found out that there’s no joy in beating a rigged game-the only way to win is to change the game itself. With his brass ring gone, Steph has started from scratch to try and make sense of his life, and, like sausage, a sense of self is not a pleasant thing to watch being made. But through the magic of Web 2.0, the whole thing is available to all. But as bizarre of the delivery of his message has been, the message itself is actually heartening. He’s trying to believe that his heart is more important than his crossover. There have been actions to go along with Marbury’s words, most poignantly meeting a child who recently lost a parent to cancer. He’s trying to help everybody he can, and make them believe in something, anything. To choose love over cynicism. To choose God over a game. To love others instead of yourself. It’s cliché, it’s clumsy, it’s ugly, it’s weird, and it’s often downright uncomfortable, but it’s better than believing in a White Nissan Sentra. He’s gone back to his neighborhood and tried to help his community. He’s trying to tell anyone who will listen about the power of God and Love. (And for all that’s changed about Steph, he can still make himself seem like more of a force than he is-he’s one of web 2.0′s hottest stories despite the fact only 800 people watched his last uStream show and he has half as many Twitter followers as Chris Crocker.)
For the first time, Stephon truly believes in something bigger than basketball, and people other than himself. As much as we fear that it’s a nervous breakdown, or a final desperate grab at relevance, or that he’s walking a gilded version of Russell Thomas’ path, the truth might be that this is a man who’s trying to find himself after 32 years of trying to find a brass ring that turned out not to be there. It’s strange, and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s not how athletes, or celebrities, or people, are supposed to act on TV. It’s real, and there’s no beginning, middle, or end, its schedule doesn’t match up with So You Think You Can Dance?, and there will be no grand payoff at the end, no championship or failure. Just Steph, inching closer or falling further away from realizing that he was the one who made it out. Watch if you dare. I might be more comfortable with Shaq Vs.
Author’s note: Other than Frey’s book, the following sources were utilized over the course of writing this article:
– Pistol, by Mark Kreigel
John Krolik is a Junior at USC studying creative writing and the author of Cavs: The Blog.