The Sideshow

Illustration by Jules Arthur

Weeks before his coach benched him and his organization scapegoated him, before he deserted his team in Phoenix, I watched as Knicks point guard Stephon Marbury, sitting on a bed in a Charleston, South Carolina, hotel, demonstrated how he stays closer to God.

“I go like this,” Marbury said. He began weaving his hands in and out, rolling his shoulders, and casting his eyes skyward.

His assistant, Gaylord, chimed in. “Givin’ your praise to the Almighty Lord,” he said.

“That’s it,” Marbury said.

“That’s what it’s all about.”

“That’s how we live our lives.”

It was the eve of the first day of Knicks training camp. Marbury was registered at the hotel as “JCIMS.” The initials stand for “Jesus Christ Is My Savior,” which contrasted with the self-aggrandizing travel monikers Marbury used to give himself, variations on his “Starbury” nickname. He seemed genuinely excited about the Knicks and his own rebirth. “This is the most I’ve ever looked forward to playing a season in the NBA, by far,” he said. We spoke for two hours, and Marbury was by turns effusive, defensive, and simply bizarre. We talked about the day this summer he was born again, June 29. We talked about the Bible. “I’m in Genesis,” he said. “I’m reading from the front of the book. Genesis is hot.” He invited me to church with him in Canarsie.

We never made it. Marbury soon told me he was cutting off access because I’d contacted his assistant without his permission. Which seemed backward, of course, but given that he was apparently not really as happy about the Knicks as he indicated, maybe keeping me away was a good idea. Last week, just five games into the Knicks’ season, Marbury heard he was being benched. After confronting coach Isiah Thomas on a plane to Phoenix and allegedly telling teammates he couldn’t be benched because he had dirt on Thomas, Marbury skipped the Suns game. There was immediate speculation that the Knicks would get rid of him somehow, and it continued even as he rejoined the team in L.A. on Wednesday. He’s due to make the league-maximum $42 million through next season—but his skills are in decline, and there’s little chance another team will trade for him. It’s possible the Knicks could buy him out of his contract for a lump sum, which would allow him to sign a new contract with a different club.

The situation was unexpected, even given the Knicks’ turmoil-filled recent history. Marbury was Thomas’s first major acquisition as team president. Bringing the Coney Island product home had earned him instant credibility with Knicks fans, and Thomas stuck with Marbury over the ensuing years of disappointment. The two were further linked during the Anucha Browne Sanders sexual-harassment lawsuit. In testimony, Marbury described an extramarital tryst with an intern outside a strip club, admitted calling Sanders a “bitch,” and then left the courthouse singing.

The case revealed the Knicks to be an organization given over to nepotistic unemployables and the cast of Porky’s, and it appears Marbury is the fall guy. That’s too bad—he doesn’t deserve the blame nearly as much as Thomas and Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan, the very two people whose meeting Sunday night may have led to the decision to bench him.

That isn’t to say Marbury hasn’t gone around the bend. His courthouse performance and deteriorating play were only part of the problem. “I think he’s lost his mind,” says Jeffrey “Slice” Morton, an old friend who lived with Marbury during his rookie year in Minnesota until the two had a falling-out and who now speaks with him only intermittently. “He says he’s seen the light, but people that are saved don’t act the way he acts. I think he’s confused.”

Marbury may be crazy, but he’s no one’s fool. As Morton also observed, in reference to Marbury’s “Coney Island’s Finest” tattoo, “Stephon is gonna do anything in his power to be the finest, manipulating, destroying, conniving—whatever he’s gotta do.” It may be distasteful, it may be incredibly selfish, and it may be conveyed verbally via non sequiturs, but his style does get a certain kind of results. Marbury himself had admitted as much. In the midst of our upbeat Charleston conversation about religion and the new season, he raised the subject of his reputation for selfishness.

“If I didn’t play the way how I played, I wouldn’t have gotten no max contract,” he said. “They can talk about whatever they wanna talk about me, because I got maxed. I’m a max player. Don’t get mad at me, because I’m telling you what’s real. One plus one is two, all day long, and it’s never gonna change. And that’s factorial.”

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The Sideshow