“You’re our best defender. You’re playing against a shooter. You gotta be attached to him!”
Just as Stephon Marbury delivers the instruction, a translator repeats it back in Chinese. He tries to match the level of intensity in Marbury’s tone and mimics his hand motions.
It’s around 10:15 a.m. at a gym in Beijing, China, and practice has already been going on for over an hour. Head coach Stephon Marbury is preparing his team, the Beijing Royal Fighters, for the start of the CBA season in November.
From here, he’ll will be off to Wukesong Stadium to watch USA play against Poland in the FIBA World Cup. Life out here is very, very busy. Marbury’s days are always full.
The lights were off when he pulled up to the facility, which is on the third floor of a larger sports complex, around 8:45 a.m. Two red, horizontal banners hang from a perch above the Royal Fighters’ floor. Translated, they say:
“When you pull out your sword, make it shine.”
“The more you sweat, the less you regret.”
Marbury leads a fast-paced and rigorous practice. The first hour consists of fundamental drills (shooting, passing, dribbling, rebounding, defense, transition) that incorporate a lot of cardio. Players get two-minute water breaks in between each drill, but otherwise there’s no downtime. Marbury strolls the sidelines twirling a whistle, his translator not far behind.
“You can’t play here if you’re not in shape,” Marbury later tells SLAM. “Because the game isn’t the same at home as far as the timeouts. You know how you get about nine timeouts in the NBA. TV timeouts, referee timeout… [Here], the games fly by. A game could be over in an hour and 40 minutes. You’re constantly on the court, so if you’re not in shape, it’s a wrap. And everybody knows when that team is not in shape.”
For the rest of practice, they go over the offense and do some live scrimmaging. Marbury is vocal during this period, constantly stopping the action to give feedback. He’s only been a coach for a few months now, but the job comes naturally to him. The team runs some 17s and huddles up at center court to conclude.
“We’re gonna be the best conditioned team in the CBA,” Steph says to the squad. “When we get on the court, we’re not gonna get tired in the fourth quarter. We’re gonna stay at a high level the whole time we’re on the court. If we do it now in practice, when the game comes, it’s gonna be easy. Great work. Together on three.”
After retiring as a player in February of 2018, Marbury didn’t anticipate returning to the game right away. This opportunity, though, was too great to pass up. The Royal Fighters allowed him to not only take over the program, but also to pick his own roster.
“It was a golden opportunity,” he says. “It’s rare that you get to do that. It was basically a clean budge to pick all of the guys that I wanted.”
His resume and fame in China made the usually difficult recruiting process much easier. As a member of the Beijing Ducks, Marbury was a three-time champion and the 2013 CBA MVP. He’s put together a team with good size (they signed former Seton Hall big man Angel Delgado), capable shooters and guards that can penetrate. They are embracing a free and aggressive style of play. Marbury emphasizes pushing the tempo and picking up full-court on defense, while also searching for opportunities to trap.
“When they first came, they weren’t playing together,” he says. “They were just playing helter-skelter basketball. Now they’re playing together, moving the ball, making the extra pass.”
It’s been nearly a decade since Marbury first came to China. On the day he arrived, around 4,000 people greeted him at the airport. He was in a dark place in his life and ready to accept something new. He wanted to keep playing basketball, but understood that that wasn’t going to happen in the United States. The immediate love that he felt from fans in China helped him heal. That love is the reason he’s still there, still involved with the CBA and embedded in the local culture.
“I was really depressed [when I first got here],” Marbury explains, seated outside a museum in the heart of Beijing dedicated to his career. “I was down from dealing with all of the different things that I was dealing with. From my dad dying, things going on with the Knicks, there were a lot of different things that were going on in my life at that time. But when I came here, and the way that they treated me and greeted me, they basically lifted my spirts up. And during that time, I needed it. I needed it badly.”
This is home now—almost 7,000 miles from where Marbury grew up in Coney Island, NY. The decision to come here in 2010 has changed everything. Basketball has been the one constant throughout his unpredictable journey. It was the force that initially bonded him to this new world, and with his head coaching position, it continues to today. He’s a major part of the growth of the sport in China and an inspiration to the millions of young players there, including those on the Royal Fighters.
“It’s a connection that has been formulated from basketball,” Steph says, when asked about his relationship to China. Our interview is periodically interrupted by people passing by who want to take a picture or simply stand by him.
“Playing basketball allowed me to interact and to melt into the culture and for me to be able to have the opportunity to learn a new way of life and implement that into my life so that it can continue to prosper and be better.
“For me to be here and experience all of what I’ve been able to experience has been nothing but life changing.”
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos via Getty.