There are eight seconds left in a tied game between the Foshan Dralions and Jilin Tigers, Chinese Basketball Association rivals. Foshan's biggest star, Stephon Marbury, has the ball at the top of the key. The fans at Foshan's stadium are nervous, having watched their 33-year-old point guard lead his Dralions (an amalgam of dragons and lions) to a 21-point first-half advantage but then, with a string of errant jumpers and an untimely technical (for shoving a pesky defender), allow the Tigers to get back in the game. Marbury stares down his man for a couple seconds, then goes hard to his right. His defender keeps up, but the former NBA All-Star bumps his way into the key, throws up an off-balanced, falling-away, high-arching floater that caroms off the backboard through the hoop with three seconds left on the clock. One defensive stop later, and the Dralions, one of the youngest teams in Asia's premiere basketball league, are celebrating a victory that pushes their record to 4–6. The fans are ecstatic, chanting "Ma Bu Li" — Chinese characters for "Marbury" — and the hero of the night stands center court, soaking in the love.
Six thousand miles away on the same day, the New York Knicks — Marbury's childhood favorite team and former employers — would pull off a similarly tight victory against the Indiana Pacers. "The Knicks are looking good," Marbury says, watching the game from a suite in the Swiss Hotel, which is his home for the year. "They got some players now, unlike before."
It's been a lonely, isolated life for Marbury since he took his talents to China a year ago. He started with a team in Shanxi, a dusty coal-mining town in the country's interior. After a contract dispute, he signed with Foshan (a coastal city about 550 miles north of Shanghai) last December, just days before the 35-game CBA season kicked off. Known for being surrounded by family and friends, Marbury has none of the former and just a couple of the latter in China. When not practicing or playing basketball, he rarely leaves his hotel for two reasons: One, the average citizen of Foshan does not speak English (when he does go out, he's usually accompanied by Cyril White, his manager, who speaks Mandarin); and two, he can't stand the food.
"The food is, by far, the toughest adjustment for me living in China," he says. "Everything else is all right. I mean, I come from New York; if you can make it there you can make it anywhere." Clichés aside, the Coney Island native has indeed "made it" in China in ways many former NBA players have not. Just last month, Ricky Davis, Steve Francis, Javaris Crittenton, and Mike James were all cut by their respective Chinese clubs for various reasons. "Those guys weren't cut because they couldn't play," White says, pointing out that Crittenton averaged 25 points a game with his club, Zhejiang Guangsha. "It's because those guys wouldn't, or couldn't, adjust to China. Steph is not making China adjust to him, he's adjusting to China."
Many see Marbury's China stint as a result of karma for a selfish athlete who burned one too many bridges with NBA ballclubs. It's easy to assume he's in basketball purgatory: playing for a salary that, by NBA standards, is a mere pittance (reportedly $25,000 a month) and living a detached existence, speaking through translators and eating hotel food on a daily basis. But Marbury argues that his journey east is less a last resort than a choice. Considering his uneventful integration into a role as a backup guard for the Celtics in the '09 season and a relatively injury-free past, it does seem possible that he could have continued playing in the NBA. And it's true that if he had to go overseas, he could have chosen to play in one of many beautiful European cities, where the cultural divide is smaller and the distance from home shorter. He's not trying to recapture his days as an alpha player: He's averaging a healthy but modest sixteen points and six assists a game this season while sharing the ball and frequently letting teammates dominate the action.
He says he simply wanted to go to China because he sees playing there as a smarter financial decision. "Why go someplace if it's not going to put you in a situation where you can continue to grow?" he says. "There's definitely going to be a lockout in the NBA after this season. The owners do not want to pay older players, and the players will cave, because they're only focused on now. The owners, they're looking at this long term, like a fifteen-year business investment."
Aside from the potentially imminent NBA salary chaos, he's attracted, like many basketball hustlers, to China's estimated 300 million basketball fans, hoping to infiltrate its $6 billion dollar athletic-shoe market with his sneaker/apparel line, Starbury. Launched five years ago in a joint venture with retail clothing chain Steve & Barry's, the Starbury brand was meant to offer affordable apparel for those who couldn't afford to pay $150 for a pair of Nikes. Since Steve & Barry's filed for bankruptcy two years ago, Starbury has been dormant. Marbury's goal is to find an investor to help distribute the line, then open standalone stores across the country. He says he'd reached a preliminary agreement with his previous employers in Shanxi to do just that, but the deal fell through, which helped lead to his departure.
His partner in all this is White, a 36-year-old Houston native who's lived in China on and off for over a decade and is a jack-of-all-trades helper for Marbury. Having played in the CBA himself, he understands life as an African-American expat in China. Marbury got in touch with White last summer and he has been the Worldwide Wes to Marbury's Lebron James since — White is at every game, practice, and event and seemingly knows everyone in the league from players and coaches to security guards.
The next morning, as we're watching the Lakers play the Grizzlies in his hotel suite and discussing NBA matters ("I don't know what Kobe's going to do when he hangs them up; that man is all basketball," he quips), Marbury talks about his media-circus departure from New York. "You know, I know everybody thinks I'm crazy," he confesses out of nowhere. "But I don't mind that. It means I'm doing something different from y'all." He says he doesn't regret his Knicks tenure. "It was an opportunity to play basketball in my hometown. It doesn't bother me what that supposedly did to my image. Image is the reflection you see in the mirror. I stayed true to myself throughout my whole basketball career, so when I look in the mirror, I can see myself."
Marbury says he expects to stay in China for decades. He's got a new Chinese-character tattoo of his name on his left arm — just below his famous "Coney Island's Finest" inking. "I'm not looking to come here, make a quick buck, and go home," he says. "I'm looking to be here for the long haul. I'm not expecting Starbury to blow up in the next year, we're going to infiltrate the market slowly. My kids are learning Mandarin; one day they'll be running this company."