Lin Who? Marbury red-hot on Chinese courts

Former bad boy of NBA causes a sensation in basketball-crazy China

By Nicholas Nehamas

Former NBA player Stephon Marbury in action against the Foshan Longlions of the Chinese Basketball Association. His bad-boy tactics have created a stir in China. (Ray Zheng/Huansong Pictures)

Jeremy Lin, the Asian American basketball phenom who plays for the New York Knicks,  isn’t the only American player turning heads here and in Asia. This season, former NBA star Stephon Marbury has revived his stalled basketball career with an unlikely team: the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA).

As much as the Chinese love basketball — they go crazy when someone like Lebron James passes through, and former NBA superstar Yao Ming  has godlike status in his home country — their lukewarm acceptance of American players joining the local ranks has proven problematic. Marbury seems to be changing all that. He has become a media sensation.

Thanks to Marbury’s two 50-point performances in the playoff semifinals against the Shanxi Brave Dragons, the Ducks are competing for their first championship match in the CBA’s 17-year history. But the 35 year old, who has a well-deserved bad-boy reputation, almost caused a riot when he bumped a Shanxi player late in the series’ fourth game.

Fans in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, China, attack a bus, with Stephon Marbury hunkering down inside with the rest of the Ducks team. (China Daily)

The Shanxi crowd went wild, throwing bottles onto the court and forcing the referee to suspend play for 10 minutes. Even though the Brave Dragons went on to win by two, it wasn’t enough for their fans, who surrounded the Ducks’ team bus for a full hour after the game, rocking it back-and-forth and pounding on the windows as the frightened players took cover inside. Marbury, meanwhile, denied reports that he had punched a fan in the parking lot.

Basket brawl

Violence is a common occurrence at Chinese basketball games: fans, for instance, often throw things at players. Last summer, an exhibition game between Georgetown University and a professional Chinese team ended up in a full-court brawl:

Chinese people are basketball crazy – an estimated 300 million people in this country of about 1.3 billion hit the courts regularly, reports Rege Behe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. While many American professional players have spent time in the Chinese league, few have had the star power of Marbury, who played for five NBA teams between 1996 and 2009 after being drafted fourth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. The two-time All-Star averaged 19.3 points per game, thanks  largely to his aggressive style of play. But after 13 controversial years in the NBA and countless fights with teammates and coaches, there wasn’t a single American team willing to take a chance on him.

Where next? A faraway place, as it turned out. His first two years in China, with the Shanxi Brave Dragons (the team his Ducks just beat, despite the fan riot) and Foshan Longlions weren’t much better. Though he brought back his sneaker brand, “Starbury,” with the marketing slogan “Love is Love,” some fans viewed him as a mercenary with no long-term interest in China, a common perception of American players who take their game to the CBA.

But in Beijing something clicked. Marbury started riding the subway and eating the local cuisine. With the help of an interpreter he became a vocal leader and team player. He even writes a regular column for the state-run China Daily. A Chinese filmmaker directing a documentary about Marbury claims that the American’s popularity in China now “rivals the ‘Linsanity’ in the United States.”

A court of tears

After the Duck’s semifinal victory against Shanxi, Marbuy wept unashamedly on the court. It’s the first time in his entire pro career that he’s made it to a Final. Wednesday night, in the opening game of the best-of-seven series, Marbury scored 36 points in a 108-101 victory over heavily favored Guangdong Hongyuan, champions for four years running. He was also at the center of another near-riot after a Guangdong player viciously knocked Marbury down while he was trying to shoot, and another player cursed at him. But this time the referees managed to restore order before things got out of hand:

While he’ll never escape his egocentric image — he recently declined to comment for a Sports Illustrated article because the magazine wouldn’t put him on its cover — Marbury finally looks like he might be playing for more than just himself, and he will undoubtedly help build the basketball fan base in China.

It’s a long, long way from where Marbury came from. For a portrait of Marbury as a cocky freshman on his high school team—and a chilling description of life in New York City’s Coney Island ghetto—check out The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams by Darcy Frey. But for now, the Chinese sky is the limit for this NBA bad boy turned Asian star.