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Caught In the Middle
Alexander Wolff
January 22, 1996
Stephon Marbury, Georgia Tech's heralded freshman guard, carries a heavy burden as the last, best hope of a Coney Island hoops dynasty
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January 22, 1996

Caught In The Middle

Stephon Marbury, Georgia Tech's heralded freshman guard, carries a heavy burden as the last, best hope of a Coney Island hoops dynasty

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Cremins is a devotee of Pat Conroy's novels—he loves the stripped-down honesty of those dysfunctional-family sagas—and he considers himself something of an expert on sprawling hoop dynasties. But he says he knows no family like the Marburys. Not the Prices, who raised former Yellow Jacket and current NBA star Mark; not the Barrys, who produced Drew and former Tech guard, Jon, now a Golden State Warrior. Cremins says he had "heard a lot of stories, a lot of war stories" about the Marburys, but none quite prepared him for what he came upon when he visited the family's four-room apartment in Coney Island, on West 31st Street between Surf and Mermaid. The unlocked door. The people everywhere. The comings, the goings. "They're extremely close," Cremins says. "It's amazing. Go see. I don't know what the hell makes it work."

What makes it work may be that Don, an out-of-work laborer, and Mabel, a daycare worker, know no other way. He's one of six kids, she's one of nine. You could start at 17th Street and go 20 blocks north and find kin, covering five generations, in every high-rise along the way. One of those comers-and-goers, Stephon's cousin Jamel Thomas, is an orphan whom the Marburys essentially raised. Thomas is now a freshman forward at Providence.

Despite appearances, Stephon didn't spring from chaos. From age three he has followed plans carefully laid by his older brothers, beginning with Eric, who would urge Stephon to run up and down the 15 stories of their building—three times per workout—and then run some more on the beach near the projects. "The whole object was to teach the brothers under you to be better than you," says Eric, "to take this oath and accept this challenge."

As a nine-year-old, Stephon would stage shooting exhibitions at halftimes of Lincoln High games. In 1988 Hoop Scoop, a recruiting newsletter, anointed him the best sixth-grader in the nation. As an eighth-grader he sneaked into a local camp for high-schoolers and played so well that the organizers pardoned his audacity. Up to that point, Marbury says, "I wasn't a very nice kid. I thought I was it. It was, y'all supposed to talk to me, I'm not supposed to talk to y'all. I'd just come out on the court, just talk junk, with this walk and this look."

Adults weren't spared this treatment. In CYO ball he woofed at opposing coaches: I'm just killing your guards. Get someone out here who can stop me.

But he had changed his demeanor by the time he entered his sophomore year at Lincoln. By then he had the tattoo of a panther etched into his right arm. "A panther is quick and smart and always alert to everything," Marbury says. "He's sitting on top of a mountain, with the sun and the clouds. That's where I want to see myself." And he had replaced his badass street act with self-discipline. "I learned to treat everybody with respect," he says. "I've learned to be focused, be a professional person, the kind who is always an honor to be around. When you're a good person, good things happen to you. The guy in the shop? With the tapes? He thought I was a star from the way I carried myself."

Scouts, he says, are always watching. "If you're on the bench, they're watching to see if you're picking your nose or playing with yourself. They want to know if you're into the game, what your attitude is when you're 20 down. Before they give out a million, they're gonna ask, Can we trust this kid?"

Marbury has so sanitized his attitude that he doesn't even talk smack anymore. According to McGuthrie, the guard from Mount St. Mary's, the only thing Marbury said to him was, "Damn, you're hot."

New York City can be unforgiving toward its phenoms. The starmakers ballyhooed former playground legend Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, who never lived up to his precious nickname while playing at Syracuse, and struggling St. John's sophomore guard Felipe Lopez, who sat for Richard Avedon's camera while still in high school, only to turn their backs on both when they turned out to be anything short of great. But about Stephon the older Marbury brothers are irrepressible. Even if Eric's example couldn't see Donnie or Norman safely through, Stephon is on course. He made his college boards, didn't he? And he won a public school city title with Lincoln, a first for a Marbury. Did it wearing that number 3 on his back.

"Eric picked that number out," Stephon says. "Says it's for a third eye or something. I don't know what that means. I gotta ask him that."

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