Good. Bad. Indifferent… Stephon always left his mark.
by Casey Jacobsen
I recently read an article about Stephon Marbury signing a contract to play in China for the remainder of the season and it got me thinking. I hadn’t thought about him much since last summer when his strange behavior over the internet was the talk of the basketball world. Although our basketball paths crossed briefly, playing with Stephon Marbury was an experience I will never forget and I can’t say that about a lot of people.
“Starbury” was one of the most polarizing players I’ve ever played with, meaning that as many people admit to being a fan of his, you will find an equal amount of people who hate his game and claim he wasn’t a winner. I liked Stephon. We got along well and I thought his obvious skill and competitiveness helped us win more games than it lost. The problem was his personality was so overwhelming that, when mixed with other players who are also trying to establish themselves as star players (I.e. Marion and Stoudemire), it created a problem in the locker room. Everywhere Stephon played, it seemed like he struggled to share the spotlight with others.
He was the starting point guard for the Phoenix Suns during my rookie year of ‘02-03. He just signed a maximum extension during the summer (four years, $76 million), and was the face of the franchise. I heard some Marbury stories, but I wasn’t sure if they were true or not. I heard he was the most tattooed player in NBA history, that he couldn’t get along with a single coach in his career, and that Kevin Garnett wanted him out of Minnesota. A product of Coney Island, NY, he had an in-your-face aggressive style of basketball that many people loved to watch.
Of all the teammates I’ve had in my career, he was the one I was most nervous about meeting. He scared me a little. I didn’t want him to think I was some dorky white boy from Stanford, but I also didn’t want him to think I was an arrogant punk. After all, I was a rookie and he was Stephon Marbury! What I couldn’t really believe was that he was now my point guard and if I was going to contribute to that team, I had to develop a good relationship with him. That scared me a lot.
The first time I met him was in the training room inside the America West Arena in Phoenix. He was getting a massage on his calf when I went to introduce myself. He looked at me and with a big smile said, “Hey, Rook. It’s good to meet you.” I just stood there like an idiot. He made some joke about my hair and how I looked like a California skater kid but then the trainer joined in and the conversation went elsewhere. I was relieved when it was over, although I’m not sure why I was expecting worse. I built up this imaginary persona of what he would be like, but he was just a normal guy. Well, at least he was that day.
Three other stories came to mind about him….
1) After a game in Madison Square Garden, I saw Steph talking to a very “peculiar” looking girl. When we sat down on the plane that night (Steph sat right in front of me), I asked him who she was. He said it was a friend of his and that she happened to be a successful “adult film actress.” He then reached into his bag and showed me an autographed copy of her latest DVD project. “You want to watch it?” he asked me with a big smile on his face. “No thanks…. I’m good.” Then he put it on his computer and started watching it, as if it were just another episode of 24. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen that on a team flight.
2) During a morning shootaround/walkthough for a home playoff game against the Spurs in 2003, Stephon Marbury was talking with veteran teammate Randy Brown while head coach Frank Johnson was trying to give instruction to the team. I didn’t even hear him talking, but coach obviously did. The rest went as follows:
Frank Johnson: Steph! Is there something more important that you are talking about right now than our game plan? I don’t want to interrupt you. [sarcastically, of course]
Frank Johnson: I heard you talking…Is there something you want to say? [A little less sarcastic]
Stephon: [He had a crazy look in his eyes as he slowly started to walk toward Coach Johnson] Look… I’m not a little boy! If I want to say something to you, then I will say it right to your face!
The two were inches away from each other at this point, but that was the end of that conversation. You could have heard a pin drop for a solid 5 seconds before Randy Brown stepped between the two and we continued the walkthrough. I don’t know why Stephon was so mad, but I have never heard a player talk to a coach like that and get away with it like Steph did.
3) Leandro Barbosa, a rookie during the ’03-04 season, was trying his best to adjust to both the NBA and the American culture. It wasn’t easy, obviously, but Stephon really took his role of leader and mentor seriously. He could often be seen explaining plays and pick and role nuances to the young Brazilian. They developed a bond that went beyond the court, and Stephon helped advise him on what car Leandro should buy: a black Escalade, of course. One day, I pull into my usual parking spot under America West Arena for a day of practice and notice group of mechanics who have Leandro’s SUV jacked up and are putting on new 22-inch custom rims. My first thought was, “That’s weird. Why would Leandro have the rims put on here? Why wouldn’t he just go to the auto shop after practice?” When I got to the locker room, I said something about it to our strength coach, who then told me Stephon hired those guys to do it as a surprise gift to Leandro. Most of the team waited in the parking garage to see the look on LB’s face. He was so happy to get the gift, but it was Stephon who was most excited. It was a genuine moment of generosity, and it wasn’t the only one I saw from him.
You may have your own opinion about the kind of person Stephon Marbury is. You can base that opinion on his disturbing behavior that he broadcasted live online last summer, or you can base it on the fact that he donated more than $500,000 to victims of Hurricane Katrina, and he has been awarded The Sporting News “Good Guys in Sports” three times for his philanthropy. You may also have your own opinion about the kind of basketball player he is. You can make that decision based on his 19 ppg average over his 13-year NBA career, including two All-Star selections, or you can base it upon the fact that he never made it out of the first round of the Playoffs until last season with Boston. I’ll let you decide.
One thing I do know: Stephon doesn’t care what you think about him. He just doesn’t want to be forgotten. For me, that would be impossible.