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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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Stephon Marbury pulls a Suzuki 4x4 into a parking lot in downtown Atlanta. He pays the attendant in advance, Brooklyn-dodges his way across the street, then ducks into Hasan's Atlanta's Finest Barber Shop.

Hasan's is a hedge against Atlanta's atrium creep, an antidote to all the Peachtree Thises and Perimeter Thats—an enclave in this Brave New City of the South that's timid and old and perfectly happy to be so. For Marbury, a Georgia Tech freshman who has been called the best guard prospect ever to come out of New York City, it's also a refuge from the indignity of the night before, when Tech lost 71-69 at home to Mount St. Mary's.

Here is Hasan's on a December afternoon with Christmas coming: An urchin in a green sweatsuit kneels in front of the barber chair where Marbury is sitting and flips open a leather briefcase jammed with video-cassettes; Stephon chooses Bad Boys and peels off a $10 from a fat wad of bills. Also sitting for a cut is Atlanta Hawk forward Ken Norman, a living reminder that for Marbury the NBA is the terminus of the road on which Tech is a mere way station. A 10-year-old, left here by his mom while she works in the beauty shop down the street, sits in one of the chairs, facing a mirror, pantomiming shot after shot, his hand and wrist describing a perfect cobra's head at the end of each follow-through.

At this, Marbury allows a smile to break over his face—cautiously, so as not to jeopardize the fade that Philly Mike, his regular barber, is in the midst of crafting.

"How can you not like that?" Marbury says.

For someone who has been considered a prodigy for more than half his 18 years, there could be no more serene and innocent scene. Georgia Tech sank thousands of dollars and man-hours into recruiting Marbury in the hope that, before he lights out for the pros, he'll at least lead the Yellow Jackets into the NCAA tournament that has spurned them the past two years. Meanwhile, Marbury's family has its own interests: It's counting on Stephon for deliverance from the Brooklyn housing project in which Jason Sowell, a high school teammate of Stephon's, was gunned down last summer. But here at Hasan's, in this hothouse of fellowship and easy badinage, Marbury is no one's ticket in and no one's ticket out.

"He got passes and he got shots and he got hops and he got game," Hasan says, casting an admiring eye from the register.

"But if the head grows," says Philly Mike, "I'll know."

For more than a quarter century now, Don and Mabel Marbury's five boys have been apprenticing for the NBA on the basketball courts of the Coney Island Houses. Eric (Sky Dog) Marbury was a 6'2" inside scorer at Georgia between 1979 and '82, only to be cut in camp by the San Diego Clippers in 1982. Six-foot-three Donnie (Sky Pup) Marbury went undrafted, even though he was a shooter of such unalloyed purity that he led the Southwest Conference in scoring as a senior at Texas A&M in 1985-86. Don Sr. calls his third child, 6'3" Norman (Jou-Jou) Marbury, "the purest point guard you'd ever want to see," but Jou-Jou failed to make the grade on the SAT, had a scholarship offer from Tennessee withdrawn and got exiled to the junior colleges. He played one season of Division I ball at St. Francis College in Brooklyn (1993-94).

As each Marbury brother has failed to stick, his professional aspirations have slid down to the next, until all have accumulated in the catch basin that is Stephon. Family members speak about the successive refinements in the Marbury game—of how Eric's raw desire set a tone, and Donnie added the sweet stroke and Norman the nose for the basket—and how these gifts have coalesced in the fourth Marbury boy. There is a fifth brother, Moses, a.k.a. Zack, who in the family tradition wears number 3 for Lincoln High, where he's now a sophomore guard. But Zack isn't the phenom that Stephon is, and that only serves to send the family's hopes rebounding up the line.

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