On a cool October evening some five years ago, I was among the approximately ten thousand fans that flocked into the Wukesong Sports Center—now known as the LeSports Center—in Beijing for an exhibition game. I had moved from India to China just a few months before and this was my first chance to see my new “local” team, the Beijing Ducks, in preseason action. There was a special sense of electricity in the air: the visiting team was a troupe of retired and amateur American players, headlined by the almighty Allen Iverson and the ever-entertaining Jason Williams.
But even the presence of The Answer and White Chocolate himself wasn’t enough to steal the spotlight from the home team. The Ducks feature a rabid base of perhaps the Chinese Basketball Association’s most passionate fans and a few months before this game, these fans were rewarded with their first CBA title.
When the starting line-ups were announced, the biggest cheers were reserved for the new messiah of Chinese basketball. In my beginner’s Chinese, only three syllables stood out from the PA announcer: “Ma Bu Li”, the man who rose to heroic heights to deliver Beijing their elusive title, whose statue now stood by the parking lot outside the famous arena.
A pregame incident gave the first hint of true lore of Marbury in one of the world’s most populous cities. A few young fans were called midcourt to answer questions from the hype-man at the game, and a friend translated for me. One girl, aged around 10 or so, was asked who was her favorite Chinese player on the Ducks—each CBA team is allowed only two or three foreigners and the rest of the roster is packed with China’s finest. With little hesitation, the girl screamed out, “Ma Bu Li”.
Everyone laughed, then cheered, and there was no clarification or follow-up. Her answer immediately made complete sense. Born in Coney Island, Brooklyn, in another time, in another life, Stephon Marbury was once the quintessential great New York City player. At the height of his NBA career, he was a scoring superstar point guard years ahead of his time, and one of the most loved and complicated players of his generation. But now, he was here. He was in China.
And he was one of them.
I spent three more years in Beijing and during the course of this time, Marbury brought two more championships to the Ducks, made memorable playoff runs every year, and became a cultural icon in China. He was featured on Chinese national stamps, acted in a musical about his own life, became the first foreign athlete to receive a Chinese permanent residency (green card), named a ‘Model Citizen’ of Beijing, and a museum was built in his honor.
But after six years with Ducks, the 40-year-old is parting ways with the organization. Unlike some of his previous basketball breakups, the goodbye to Beijing has been congenial; Marbury was grateful for what the team and the city meant to him, and hopes to continue playing basketball elsewhere.
Beijing and Marbury forged a city-to-player relationship like no other. The playoff nights at the Wukesong in particular, were epic, where fans in those ubiquitous white and light-blue Marbury Ducks jerseys (I bought one, too!) roared for him pregame, chanted his name at every heroic moment, cried in joy alongside him when he shed tears over the championships.
“I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: I think they – Beijing – are the best fans on the planet,” Marbury told me in an interview I conducted with him for SLAM at his apartment in Beijing two years ago. “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. 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. You can’t really put a price tag on that or compare it to anything.”
Former NBA players had taken their talents to China before, including the great lockout journey to the East that included JR Smith, Wilson Chandler, Patty Mills, and Kenyon Martin, and during my time in the country, former All Stars like Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas. But none of them embraced the ‘Middle Kingdom’ like Starbury. He embraced the culture, food, language, and the people like none other, and they embraced him back. For him, China was not just a stepping stone, it was the destination. Later this year, he will even release a film called My Other Home about his journey East, from New York to Beijing.
This comfort in what he often called his ‘new home’ was evident when I met him. “Beijing is home,” he said. “I mean, America’s gonna always be home. But this is where I live at, this is home. This is where my life is at – here in China.”
“At first, it was a trying time because it was all brand new,” he said of his early years in China, when he played two losing seasons in for 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.”
“I understand the culture now. 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.”
Karan Madhok is a SLAM contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Hoopistani.
Images via SLAM China