Welcome to #MarburyWeek, a celebration of Stephon Marbury ahead of the release of his documentary, “A Kid From Coney Island.” The film, presented by SLAM and RTG Features, hits select theaters on March 10.
SLAM founder Dennis Page recently reconnected with basketball legend Stephon Marbury, who was featured in the very first issue of the magazine (1994) as the high school diarist. Here, they speak at length about Starbury’s professional career, from his start in the NBA with the Minnesota Timberwolves all the way to the end of it in China.
DP: What was life like growing up, always being under the microscope as a player?
SM: It was really easy for me because of my brothers and because I had a good coach who experienced so much. I was never really able to get a big head or to put myself in a position where I felt like I was above. I already knew that I was capable of playing basketball so it wasn’t like I didn’t have an idea about what was going on. My brother was an All-American. My oldest brother played with Dominique Wilkins at Georgia. My other brother played at Texas A&M. All my brothers played at big time schools and they all played D1. For me, it was more learning how to do the things that they didn’t know how to do. It was never about the pressure. It was easy to play basketball. That was the easy part. The pressure came from trying to win a championship at Lincoln.
DP: You really felt that pressure to win that championship? You weren’t just thinking about the NBA?
SM: I already knew that I was going to make it to the NBA. I was better than a lot of the kids. I was one of the top players in my class and I didn’t play basketball the way I heard some of the kids who were publicized [did]. I knew the game completely different from how they knew the game. I wasn’t playing basketball. I was really trying to learn the angles and learn how to make people make decisions on defense, pulling up and stopping on a dime. I was working on things that [other] guys weren’t doing.
DP: Why Georgia Tech?
SM: I was a lock for Syracuse. I wanted to go to Syracuse probably more than they wanted me to come to Syracuse.
DP: How could that be? How could [head coach] Jim Beiheim not take you?
SM: So when Beiheim came to my house for my college visit, he sat down. He started talking and then he finished with, ‘I’m just going to tell you right now, I’m not going to promise you that you’re going to start.’ As soon as he said that, both of my brothers got up and walked out of the visit. And that was the end of the visit. Not even 10 to 15 minutes. He came in, he said that and I looked at him like, Why would you say that? It was kind of like he didn’t want me to go there. I don’t think he wanted me to go there.
DP: Every coach allegedly says that, but you’re the No. 1 player in America...
SM: Exactly. That’s why I say, I don’t think he wanted me to come to the school. I think that they didn’t think that I was going to be a good fit or that I was going to leave school early, I don’t know. But I do know that Syracuse came in and then Georgia Tech came in the night after. As soon as [head coach] Bobby Cremins came in, he sat down and said, ‘I’m gonna tell you right now, I’m gonna put the ball in your hand.’ And my mother said, ‘Now that’s what I’m talking about!’ We went into the conversation and the rest is history. That’s exactly what happened.
DP: So you go on to star at Georgia Tech. You guys made a tournament run, right?
SM: We went to the Sweet 16 and lost to Cincinnati. After that, funny story, we play, we lose and then we come back to Atlanta. When we got back, we went back to the arena where we practice and play at. I took all my stuff out of my locker. When I took all my stuff and was walking out, coach Cremins was walking in. He was like, ‘Stephon, what are you doing?’
DP: I’m going to the NBA, yo! [laughs]
SM: I said, ‘I’m going to the League!’ And kept walking to the car. He was like, “What about class?” I said, “What about class?” I ain’t even say anything [laughs].
DP: I was going to ask—did you even think about coming back for your sophomore year?
SM: Nah, I had no thought about that. We played against Virginia and I just destroyed Harold Deane. He had six points on national TV. Him and Iverson were the top guards. I just destroyed him, locked him down and busted his ass. He was on Twitter one day talking nonsense. I was like, ‘Come on, man, are you serious?’ He was like, ‘Y’all were doubling me.’ I said, ‘We was doubling you? Who don’t get doubled in college? You sound stupid!’ [laughs]. After we played Virginia, we beat them on CBS, Brett Musberger and all of them were talking about the game. Bobby Cremins brings me inside his office and says, ‘I hear you’re talking about the NBA.’ He was like, ‘Well, right now, Marty Blake has you going in the second round.’ I called my brothers and told them, ‘Yo, coach Cremins just told me Marty Blake has me going in the second round.’ They said, ‘After you just busted Harold Deane’s ass on national TV? Yeah, alright, we’ll see about that. Keep doing what you’re doing.’
THE SHOWBIZ & KG ERA
DP: Your NBA career started alongside your friend Kevin Garnett. That Minnesota squad made the playoffs back-to-back years and then broke up. What’s the story there?
SM: All of the stuff about how I was jealous of Kevin Garnett making $126 million, it really doesn’t make sense when you think about it. They put a salary cap the following year. You couldn’t make any more money than what the maximum amount was. If you could only make this amount of money, and I’m being offered the max from them and from whoever else would be offering, obviously it can’t be about no money, right? These are the rules. Second of all, when I made my decision to leave Minnesota, I went to [owner] Glen Taylor and I said to him, ‘I’m not going to sign for seven more years of my life here.’ Minnesota is not culturally diverse. It’s cold there. I don’t even want to tell you how many times I almost died on black ice. I was like, ‘Basketball is great, it’s all good, but I’m going to leave and I’m going to try to go back home.’ I was trying to get back to the Knicks, right? Or try to go back to the tri-state area. I said, ‘I don’t want to tell you guys that I’m going to sign here and then leave and then you guys can’t get another player. So I’m coming to you and telling you that I’m not going to re-sign here next year, so you can keep me here if you want to keep me here because it’s your right. You guys still hold the cards until I become a free agent.’
He said, ‘Stephon, I really appreciate you coming to me and telling me this.’ I said, ‘No problem, the organization has been great to me, but I just don’t want to spend the next seven years of my life here.’ That’s it. That’s all it was. Then Kevin McHale came out and said I’m this [and that]. I thought, Wow, you guys were just offering me the max, now I’m all of these different things? I don’t get it. He put dirt on my name. Kevin McHale was a legend. After he spoke, it basically put me in that space.
Everybody tries to make it into I was jealous of Kevin [Garnett]. If y’all think I’m jealous of Kevin, [go ask him]: Does he think in his brain that I’m jealous of him? Kevin would be the first person to tell you: Nah, Steph ain’t jealous of me or nobody else.
DP: Yeah, it didn’t add up because you guys were boys. I saw it first hand. It’s a business and you learned it early on. It sounds like you learned it when you were at Lincoln [High School] through your brothers.
SM: Of course. A lot of people don’t know my history. A lot of people don’t know anything about my brothers. I didn’t just play basketball and that was it. I really had a whole guidance package. I’m not your typical [player]. My family—we got five boys that played Division I basketball. That’s a story within itself.
THE 2004 OLYMPICS
DP: I want to talk about the Olympic team in 2004. What happened? That’s a movie by itself.
SM: To be honest, it is a movie. The best way to describe it without going too deep into it. That was the worst 38 days of my life playing under Larry Brown. It started from the beginning. The first day we had a meeting. We sat down and everybody said something. It came around to me, I’m probably like the eighth or ninth guy that they’re asking to say something, and all I said was, ‘Well, everybody’s saying a lot of things, the only thing we can’t forget to do is have fun.’ [Brown] was like, Oh, this guy, he’s talking about having fun. I’m like, What’s wrong with what I said about us going to have fun while we’re getting ready to go play these games? You got to have fun while you’re playing.
He tried to coach the team like it was his team. He forgot it was America’s team. It was always something. He was really trying to coach guys, like, you’re my player and this is what I’m telling you to do. You’re going to do this the way I do things. I’m like, you got all of these players playing that are good. You got us trying to play like how you coach George Lynch and Matt Geiger and all of these guys that you coach or coached in your past. You got a bunch of talented players. Because he tried to coach the team like that, it never really panned out and people [didn’t understand] what was expected of them on the basketball court. You had guys that knew how to play basketball that looked confused on the court while playing.
DP: So over-coaching is an understatement? He should have just thrown the ball out and just go.
SM: You didn’t have to do anything, to be honest. All you had to do was just let guys play. It wasn’t about playing that year. It was weird how he was trying to coach. Him and I, we were at it. It was so bad, they tried to send me home. They tried to send me home. Literally. I’m like, I’m not going nowhere. They were like, Oh, we can just say your knee’s hurt. We can just tell them that you got an injury. I said, ‘What? Nah, I’m not doing that. Y’all want to send me home, you’re going to tell them that you’re sending me home.’
I used to get on the bus in the hot ass sun an hour and a half before anybody got on and sleep on the bus just so I wouldn’t have to say anything to Larry Brown in the morning. Every practice… This dude was trying his hardest to break me and it wouldn’t work, and he used to get mad as hell about it.
DP: You eventually end up on the Knicks. I’m bugging out. You’re home. You’re going to rock the Garden.
SM: This is all I wanted playing basketball as a kid. I grew up a Knicks fan. Loved the Knicks. Cried when they lost. That type of shit.
DP: Was the situation ever good while you were there, other than just being home?
SM: When I first got there, it was great. [Overall], it was a rollercoaster. There’s no other way to put it. I think with so much changing, you never really got a foundation. Different coaches coming in and out. Different systems, different people, different ways of how people thought the team should play. We couldn’t find any consistency.
DP: It sounds just like the Knicks now.
SM: It is what it is. For my situation, it was all a learning experience. It was all supposed to happen—me going through what I went through to learn all of what I learned.
DP: What happened when Coach Mike D’Antoni came to New York?
SM: They bring D’Antoni in. I spoke to them. I spoke to [President of Basketball Operations] Donnie Walsh. He goes, ‘We’re going to give you a fair shot. Work your butt off this summer. Come back in shape. Be ready.’ I come back in the best shape of my life. I’m destroying everybody. I prepared myself to play in D’Antoni’s system and how he coaches. They’re telling me I’m going to have a chance, until Mike D’Antoni calls me in his office. He says, ‘I’m bringing in Chris Duhon and because I’m bringing in Chris Duhon, you’re not going to play.’ I was like, ‘I’m not going to play?’ Alright, well if I don’t play, it’s going to be a problem here.
When I was sitting on the bench [that first game], I’m saying to myself, Alright, I need to refocus my energy and figure out what are the next steps. If you’re not going to play me, I need to get out of this uniform and start speaking to them about trading me.
The next day, we go to Philadelphia, I think it was a back-to-back. I asked D’Antoni: ‘If you’re not going to play me, can you let me put on street clothes?’ You’re saying you’re not going to play me and you’re going to try to work out a trade or a buyout. I just said, ‘Can you put me in some street clothes?’ When I got out of the uniform, now they got to make a decision. Now everybody is like, Hold up, why is he in street clothes? It was all of the talk—me not playing in that game.
DP: How does that happen? Your job [as a team] is to win games. It can’t be personal.
SM: Either it’s personal or you don’t know basketball. At the end of the day, this is exactly what happened. I’m a straight shooter. I call it just how it is. I’ll tell you verbatim what was spoken about, what was said. If they lie or say anything different, I’m definitely going to challenge it and say that’s not true and you know it’s not true. I don’t have no reason to lie to nobody.
DP: It just blows my mind. I haven’t really seen anything like this with an All-Star player.
SM: When they made that decision to not play me the first game, and I was able to get out of the uniform, that was the best thing that happened, because I would’ve been going through it. They were like, You would have had a chance to play. I was like, I would’ve had a chance to play? First of all, I came into camp, I destroyed Chris Duhon. They put me on the third team. I was busting their ass so bad. Ask the media. Go back through the archives. I think I missed like two times the whole time I was in training camp [laughs]. They had no intention of playing me at all. It was all part of the nonsense. They just dragged me back there because of my salary and all of what was going on. They had no idea how to get rid of me and they couldn’t just give me the money.
END OF THE NBA
DP: Do you feel like you were blackballed from the NBA?
SM: I know I was better than a lot of the guards that were playing. If I’m better than a lot of the guards and I’m not playing, then there’s something going on. It’s a small community. It’s 30 people. You can fit 30 people in an apartment. They could get together any time they like. They can get on the phone any time they like.
DP: Looking back, nobody wanted to touch you. It’s so crazy.
SM: To be honest, I’m not one of the people like the others that they were used to working with. I wasn’t that type of guy. When you bring me to wherever you were going to bring me, you were dealing with a real-talking human being. I wasn’t a robot. You weren’t just going to tell me anything and that was just going to be what it was. If it’s right, I can take it, it’s all good. But if it’s some nonsense, some BS, I’m going to challenge it. I’m going to speak on it because it has something to do with me.
I really stand for something. I’m not going to conform to anything. Not basketball. I love basketball and it’s very important in my life, but nobody’s putting me in a box. That’s not going to happen.
DP: Yeah. From the day I met you, you’ve been like that.
SM: I’m a real human being. I mean, you can’t lose perspective about what’s going on in life because of a game and because of money. Once you do that, how do you look yourself in the mirror as a man? I can look at myself in the mirror as a man and be like, Look, I didn’t conform to nobody. I didn’t beg an NBA team to play. I ain’t do that and I wasn’t going to do that. That ain’t my style.
BIG IN CHINA
DP: What was it like your first year in China?
SM: When I came to China, it was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. I was depressed. I was down. And at that time, there were about 4-5,000 people at the airport waiting for me. I didn’t know that they were there for me [laughs].
DP: You thought they were there for someone else?
SM: I thought it was just a lot of people at the airport. I’m looking at the dude I came with like, ‘There’s a lot of people. Why’s there so many people?‘ He was like, ‘Nah, they’re here for you. All of them are here for you. They are all your fans. They are all happy that you’re coming to play basketball here.’ I was like, ‘Nah man, come on.’
DP: So you play for a few different teams and eventually end up in Beijing.
SM: I end up going to play in Beijing and the rest is history. That summer, I went super hard training. I came back and I was back to myself and better because the coach that I had was way harder. We practiced six hours a day, six days a week. It was completely different. No foreign player has ever practiced two-a-days like how he practiced. I was like, ‘I came here to do one thing and that’s win. I don’t know what y’all were told, but every year I played in the NBA, my goal was to win a championship. That’s what my only focus has been. I ain’t perfect. I don’t do everything right. But I go hard. That’s what I do.’ And the first year I got there, we won a championship…
In Beijing, when you win the championship, I can’t even explain it. You know how they have the parade? Just imagine it’s like a parade every day. That’s how it feels. They got the parade in Toronto and Oakland and all of that. It wasn’t a parade, but it felt just like that. They basically celebrated for a month. I couldn’t even leave for a month after we won the first championship. They made me stay for another month. We were doing so much stuff and going to so many events that they were like, ‘You can’t leave yet.’
DP: What’s the competition like? What would you compare it to?
SM: I can’t really compare it to anything back at home. It’s harder to play here than it is in the NBA, for me. The NBA is easier because it’s one-on-one. Here, they could play box-and-one, zone, trap—you really got to know how to score here. It’s not like in the NBA where it’s wide open, it’s one-on-one. Being that it’s not one-on-one [in China], it makes it way harder to do things like how you would in the NBA. For me, that was like going back to playing in high school and college.
DP: Are you playing for your own redemption? What’s your mission?
SM: After I won the first championship, the Rockets called me. It’s funny, Kevin McHale was trying to get me to come play for the Rockets. It’s crazy because right before he called me, that’s when they pledged to build the statue of me [in China]. I’m looking online and I’m reading the articles and I’m like, Yo, did I just read what I just read?
He called me right after they announced they were going to build the statue. I was like, ‘Nah.’ My family was like, ‘Man, what do you mean you’re not going to come?’ I was like, ‘You know what? It ain’t even about the money, man. I love playing basketball here. This is how it’s supposed to feel.’ And they’re about to put up a statue of me? It won’t even look right if I leave. These people did something that I would’ve never in my life imagined.
DP: So at that point, there’s just no way you’re going back to the NBA.
SM: At that point, nah. I’m good. I made China my home. This is where I’m going to play basketball at.
DP: It brought your love of the game back.
SM: All the way back… All of the challenges and all of what I’ve went through to right now, I’m blessed and I’m thankful for them all. I don’t have any hard feelings toward anyone. The Knicks—I went back to the Garden and they showed me love. Even Larry Brown. I’ll tell a story, but I don’t have any hard feelings for him. It is what it is.
DP: I don’t feel any bitterness in your voice.
SM: None at all. None toward D’Antoni. I saw him in Summer League, I said what’s up to him. It’s all good. It’s all water under the bridge. I saw Isaiah, we hugged and we talked. I texted him after… Some people are like, Oh, you got blackballed by the NBA. The situation was the situation. I started working with the NBA, doing stuff with them. I’m not that human being that people tried to make me out to be. I’m not perfect, I make mistakes, but I’m square. I’m straight up. There’s a lot of things that were done to me and things that happened that I didn’t care for and how people treated me. I also know that I wasn’t perfect in a lot of different things that happened. I’m able to take what went on and move on. Me being in the space that I’m in right now, in life, I’m thankful to God for me being able to have those experiences because that’s all life really is—the experience is your teacher. You don’t learn while things are happening. You learn after it happens and you either grow from it or you stay the same. I made a sacrifice leaving America to come play basketball here and look what happened. Green card, two statues, a museum. Come on man, I’m a black kid from Coney Island.
Photos via Getty.