A big score

Updated: 2014-04-15 07:16

By Sun Xiaochen (China Daily)

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His reputation and NBA career in tatters, the struggling basketball star rekindled his passion and found a new life in Beijing. Sun Xiaochen chats with the capital's latest honorary citizen.

In 1990s, the popular TV series A Beijing Native in New York - about Chinese immigrants' love and struggles in pursuit of their dreams in the United States - was a sensation in China.

Twenty years later, a New York native's true story in Beijing of overcoming injuries, doubts and cultural differences en route to realizing his dreams of winning a professional basketball championship twice has won the hearts of the Chinese capital.

After helping the Beijing Ducks to recapture the Chinese Basketball Association title in March, Stephon Marbury, the team's former NBA All-Star import, has been rejuvenated after his 13 often-tumultuous NBA seasons with success on and off the court, while fully embracing the Chinese culture with a humble demeanor.

Marbury, a Brooklyn native, was recently named by the Beijing government as its 30th honorary citizen after the CBA Finals, joining notable figures like former president of International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge and Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing. He also received a gold key to the city, presented by Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun, as a tribute from the local community.

"Thank you Beijing for the key to the city. I'm truly blessed and favored for your love and respect. I will always give nothing but my all on and off the court in Beijing. Beijing will always be home!" Marbury, who joined the Ducks in 2011, tweeted on his micro blog after the award ceremony.

The excitement of reclaiming the title - Marbury helped the team win its first in the franchise's 19-year history in 2012 - after failing to defend it last year thrilled the 37-year-old. He cried like a baby in front of cameras after beating the Xinjiang Flying Tigers 4-2 in the best-of-seven CBA Finals.

Since the victory, whenever he has made a public appearance at celebration parties, TV interviews or even a recent Beijing Guo'an game at the Worker's Stadium, Marbury always wears the champion's T-shirt with the gold medal hung around his neck.

"That emotion will never leave, it will always be there," Marbury says during an exclusive interview on Wednesday. "Those were happy tears because I overcame something difficult again.

"People tried to tarnish my career because of my being injured, because I wasn't able to perform at the level I was doing before. It feels like someone kicked you when you were down. Being able to overcome that is rewarding and gratifying."

Vowing to bring Beijing another title at the start of the 2013-2014 season, Marbury soon suffered a major setback after hurting his left knee in a November game. He had to return to the US for surgery.

Although he stayed in New York for three weeks after the operation in December, Marbury's heart never left Beijing.

He almost lived in two time zones simultaneously, waking up early to watch live webcasts of Beijing games before spending three hours in a rehabilitation center.

Text messages connected Marbury with teammates in Beijing, delivering instant support and tips when needed.

"We are just brothers. It's easy for me and I love the camaraderie between us because we share something deeper than basketball," says Marbury, who maintains close ties with teammates by eating and hanging out with them on road trips.

Marbury returned to competition after the Spring Festival, but his under-par performance during the tune-up period fueled doubts about his age and the three-year contract extension that Beijing offered him last summer.

"It's understandable for people to doubt him as he needs time to regain his rhythm and work things out on court," says Min Lulei, the Ducks' head coach.

"But I never doubted him even for one second, as I believe he would come back strong once he is 100 percent (healthy)."

Marbury didn't disappoint his coach and the crowds of about 18,000 packing the MasterCard Center, the Ducks' home court, at every home game. He steered Beijing over the Zhejiang Lions, the defending champion Guangdong Southern Tigers and Xinjiang in the playoffs.

The pictures of him receiving fluid-pump treatments with needles stabbed deep in his left knee during the playoffs earned him respect from more than 3 million diehard followers on his micro blog account - more fans than active NBA superstar Kobe Bryant has on his Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter.

Fans have also conferred upon him the title "Ma Zhengwei (commissar)", because of the way he motivates his team and inspires younger players. They voted to erect a bronze statue of him lifting the CBA trophy outside the MasterCard Center.

Marbury's insistence on shunning many privileges demanded by other foreign players off the court and willingness to root himself in the local culture also won him acceptance by Chinese.

People sometimes spot Marbury, who calls himself the "Black Mandarin", in the crowded Beijing subway during his commute from downtown to the suburban practice court. He can also be found at cross-talk shows at local tea houses or in Chinese restaurants, using chopsticks comfortably.

He even borrowed primary school textbooks to learn Chinese, tattooed "Ma Bu Li", his name in Chinese, on his left forearm and made his older daughter Stephanie Marbury a transliterated Chinese name, "Ma Si Ni".

"After experiencing ups and downs in the NBA, Marbury regained peace and love in China, where people are prone to forgiving his past transgressions. So he just reinvented himself," says Yang Chen, Marbury's personal assistant and close friend in China.

It is, indeed, a sharply different narrative than the track Marbury found himself on five years ago.

Picked by the Milwaukee Bucks' as the overall fourth pick in the 1996 NBA Draft, Marbury was traded to the New York Knicks in 2004, expecting to shine at home.

However, he soon got tangled in public feuds with then head coach Isiah Thomas, who allegedly hid from Marbury the news that his father Don suffered a heart attack in the crowd during a game on Dec 2, 2007.

Don Marbury passed away after the game and his son was shattered by his father's death. He appeared on a live-stream website, weeping uncontrollably and eating Vaseline in July 2009.

He had suffered the humiliation of being called the "most reviled athlete in town" by the New York Daily News, during his stint with the New York Knicks.

"I was dealing with a lot when I was at the New York Knicks. I was really like going crazy (after my father died)," Marbury says.

"The way I was treated in America, it helped better me. If I hadn't have gone through what I went through back home, I wouldn't have been able to receive such a high honor here."

While Marbury was considering quitting from the game, an e-mail from the CBA club Shanxi Brave Dragons provided a chance to start again with a clean slate. Marbury hesitated but accepted, and his successful China adventure since 2010 has proven it was a wise decision.

"It's just a different world here, the peace, the love and the rich culture. Coming here, I was exposed to something that I needed for my life to continue," Marbury says of China's impact on him.

"Without those people (in America) telling you I was that type of person, no one here had any judgment toward me. Not being judged from baggage I created somewhere else, and not being treated the way I was treated there, how can you not embrace that?

"It's easy to do, I just took it in."

Contact the writer at sunxiaochen@chinadaily.com.cn.

 A big score

Stephon Marbury cries in front of cameras after beating the Xinjiang Flying Tigers 4-2 in the best-of-seven CBA Finals in March. Photos by Zhu Yi / For China Daily

 A big score

Marbury holds the CBA championship trophy with his teammates.

(China Daily 04/15/2014 page19)