Posted: Wednesday March 21, 2012 10:53AM ; Updated: Thursday March 22, 2012 12:18PM
Bryan Armen Graham
Bryan Armen Graham>VIEWPOINT

In China, Marbury realizes most American of dreams: a clean slate (cont.)

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Marbury wept openly after Beijing defeated Shanxi on Sunday to advance to the CBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Marbury wept openly after Beijing defeated Shanxi on Sunday to advance to the CBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Wu Jiang/ChinaFotoPress/Newscom
POLL: Who will win the 2012 CBA Finals?
Guangdong in six 25.3%
Guangdong in five 20.4%
Beijing in seven 18.5%
Guangdong in four 16.5%
Beijing in six 9.1%
Guangdong in seven 6.0%
Beijing in four 2.9%
Beijing in five 1.3%
Source: Sina Sports

The cathartic tears after Beijing's victory have deeper meaning within the context of Marbury's 25-year odyssey through the basketball grinder.

At 11, Marbury was named the world's best sixth grader by Hoop Scoop. He inherited the No. 3 jersey worn by his brothers at Lincoln High at a time when the deification of high school ballers was coming into vogue. Near the end of his freshman year, Harper's Magazine ran a scathing profile that depicted Marbury as dangerously insolent and narcissistic. The mania surrounding Marbury's storied prep career was the inspiration for He Got Game, Spike Lee's 1998 film about a high-school basketball prodigy named Jesus.

Marbury played one season at Georgia Tech before jumping to the NBA, where he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves. Within three years, he'd fallen out with Timberwolves management and demanded a trade. After landing with the New Jersey Nets in 1999, Marbury's individual game blossomed but the team never made the playoffs. After another fruitless three-year stint with the Phoenix Suns, Marbury was traded to the New York Knicks -- the team he'd rooted for as a child -- and instantly preordained the homegrown savior of a franchise that hadn't won a title since 1973.

The made-for-Hollywood redemption narrative went sour quickly. He became a case study in Gotham tabloid cannibalism: a series of public spats with Larry Brown led the New York Daily News to declare Marbury "the most reviled athlete in New York." He became the central figure in a sexual-harassment suit against team president Isiah Thomas that ruled the back pages for months. Marbury, a married father, testified that he had sex with an intern in the back of his truck after a group outing to a strip club in 2005. "Money makes you do crazy things, man," he'd say to no one in particular in a crowded elevator after his testimony.

After the Knicks barred him from the practice facility and bought out his contract in February 2009 -- essentially paying him $20 million to walk away -- Marbury's behavior only grew more erratic.

He began documenting his offseason life on Ustream and Justin.tv. Highlights of the 72-hour, Fellini-like webcast included Marbury eating a finger-full of Vaseline, prancing around in white face while listening to Michael Jackson and breaking down in tears while listening to Kirk Franklin's rendition of "Lean on Me." He spoke of being crucified. What he wanted more than anything, Marbury told an audience that peaked in the thousands, was "a billion dollars so he could start his own TV network like Oprah." Mashable called it the dark side of live streaming.

He'd made an estimated $150 million in NBA salary but had little apparent satisfaction to show for it. After a brief stint with the Boston Celtics, Marbury was convinced by two Chinese journalist friends to consider the CBA -- as a place to continue his playing career while re-establishing his Starbury brand that had stagnated since exclusive retailer Steve & Barry's went bankrupt in 2008.

Marbury joined Shanxi at midseason, averaging 22.9 points and 9.5 assists, but failed to guide the Brave Dragons into the playoffs. He joined the Foshan Dralions in December 2010. Again, Marbury posted eye-popping numbers and made the CBA All-Star team; again, his team fell short of the playoffs; again, he was unceremoniously released. Both Shanxi and Foshan had reached the same conundrum: He's got enough left in the tank to sell tickets, but is he good enough to lead a top-tier team to a championship?

He is. In Beijing, it's all happening.

One of the most decorated high school players in New York City history, Marbury developed a national following as a teenager.
One of the most decorated high school players in New York City history, Marbury developed a national following as a teenager.
David E. Klutho/SI

"He hooked up with some good Chinese teammates and he also hooked up with a pretty good import [in Randolph Morris]," Pastuszek says. "This is his first situation where he can get to the playoffs. He's been really motivated to win in Beijing in front of his fans. All those things came together and have propelled him to this run."

* * * * *

Marbury didn't choose China any more than Napoleon chose St. Helena. Thus begs the question: Is it China itself that Marbury loves? Or is it the mythical tabula rasa -- the opportunity for a new beginning?

"Given that Marbury was going through a tough time in his career, I think he probably liked the idea of having a fresh chance in a totally new country," Pastuszek says. "The opportunity to completely reinvent yourself doesn't come often, if ever, for a 30-plus-year-old professional basketball player.

"But it's evolved into much more than just that. He wants to participate in the day-to-day life of Beijing and of China in general. That's ultimately what his appeal is. Chinese fans love Marbury not just because he's good at basketball, but because he has a genuine interest in the culture."

One of Marbury's most frequent refrains throughout his transformative season in Beijing is his desire to remain in China after he retires and one day coach the Chinese national team. "That's not going to happen," says Yang, who spent 18 days interviewing Marbury and those close to him for the SI China cover story. His lack of coaching experience -- say nothing of his inability to speak Chinese -- makes it a dream no less quixotic than his visions of market supremacy in a country dominated by Nike and adidas.

Still, Yang wouldn't fully rule out the idea of Marbury becoming a permanent part of Chinese culture. "He's an interesting case," he says. "Let's just wait and see."

Tickets for Wednesday's Game 1 at the 18,000-seat MasterCard Center sold out in eight minutes on DaMai.com, according to Sina Sports. Guangdong, led by former Houston Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks, is a traditional league power making its eighth consecutive trip to the CBA Finals and the lopsided favorite.

That only raises the stakes for Marbury.

"He'd be one of the most famous foreigners in Beijing history if he were able to get them a championship," Pastuszek says. "Not only because it would be their first championship and all that, but they would have upset this heavily favored juggernaut in Guangdong. It would be an incredible story."

Whether his team wins or comes up short in this week's CBA Finals, Marbury knows he's in the right place -- and his serenity is victory enough.

"He's got a fresh start," Morris says. "Nobody's trying to blame him for anything. Nobody's trying to cause a media circus. It's just straight business and about basketball over here. Nothing more than basketball."

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