all photos: jamd.com
That’s right! I said it! STARBURY!
With 99.9% of the things recently written and said about the man in the mainstream media being negative, it’s time someone showed Mr. Marbury some love. And if the playground culture that nourished his dazzling game can’t nurture him when all else are hating, who will?
Lost in the sauce of the Knick debacle and the tabloid feeding frenzy is the fact that he’s STILL, at this juncture in time, one of the world’s best point guards.
And for those pundits who’ve called him every derivation of the word “Loser” that the English language can offer – the talking heads that hide behind their microphones and laptops who’d get laughed at for calling next at the Sheboygan Y, let alone never having played the game at its highest levels and on the unforgiving asphalt of NYC while an entire housing project, neighborhood, borough and city burdened them with the crushing weight of expectation, as a large extended family, simultaneously, thrust their hopes, dreams and financial stakes on their shoulders, all while having to navigate the treacherous underbelly of the ghetto and grow into adulthood under the unforgiving national media microscope – I offer up some simple advice.
In order to judge the man, not his game, but the mental machinery that’s been formulated through experiences that are as common to sports journalists as mud wrestling naked with one-armed, bow legged Cambodian midgets smack dab in the eye of a hurricane, you’d have to have walked in his shoes.
And until that’s been done, you’d be better served pontificating about the minutae of box scores, i.e. points, rebounds, assists, turnovers, etc. Because, although you may not understand who he is and why he does what he does, you have no authority to speak on that which you have absolutely no comprehension. People who are outside of the locker room and are not a part of the idiosyncracies of the dysfunctional family that can be a team and a franchise never know the full story. Now with that said, on with the show.
Stephon Xavior Marbury was born and raised in the Coney Island, Brooklyn projects. If one particular neighborhood deserves the label of basketball epicenter of the universe, it’s indeed Coney Island. Other than the Boardwalk, Nathan’s and a raggedy amusement park that’s a relic of past prominence, there are housing projects stretched along the peninsula as far as the eye can see.
And within this dizzying maze of high rise project buildings – all crammed within a radius of thirty seven streets by three avenues: Neptune, Mermaid and Surf – hoops is the currency that greases the local economy. The courts that dominate every housing development are all lighted. The game is THE thing, 24-7! And there is no name that represents Coney Island and the city’s rich basketball culture than the surname Marbury.
“The Marbury name is synonymous with New York City basketball,” former Lincoln High School coach Bobby Hartstein told the NY Times in 1994.
The joke around the city was that father Donald, who was known as the Mayor of Coney Island as well as by his nickname, “The Creator”, had D-I sperm. Oldest brother Eric, aka Sky Dog, was a 6′2″ scorer who balled at the University of Georgia from ‘79-’82. During one school break, he brought his good friend and college teammate, whose nickname was “Unique”, home to eat at the Marbury table and ball with him on Coney Island. Unique was actually Dominique Wilkins, who would later be known to the world as the Human Highlight Film.
Eric was invited to the San Diego Clippers camp, but got cut. Next in line was 6′3″ Donnie, aka Sky Pup. As a senior at Texas A&M in ‘86, Donnie, who possessed a lethal jumper, dropped 50 in one game and led the entire Southwest Conference in scoring.
When Donnie went undrafted, the spotlight shifted to Norman, aka Jou-Jou. Jou-Jou was touted by his father as “the purest point guard you’d ever want to see” and made All-City three years in a row. Yet Tennessee revoked his scholarship offer when he came up short on the S.A.T.’s. Banished to a nomadic junior college route, Norman played only one D-I season at Brooklyn’s St. Francis College in ‘94.
As each talented brother failed to reach the pros, the family’s NBA hopes cascaded down with resounding force, landing on the young shoulders of the wunderkind, Stephon. Steph seemed to inherit the best weapons in his older brothers’ aresenals – passion, the ability to finish, a sweet jimmy, night goggle vision and handles.
As soon as he could walk, Steph was handling the rock. He had to be bribed off the court with cash money as a shorty so the older players could run fulls at the O’Dwyer Gardens court, aka The Garden. He’d been told by his brothers that the little orange ball was powerful, it was to be valued above all else as it could one day take him around the world, and his family out of the projects.
“This is where I grew up,” Steph told the NY Times as surveyed the park in ‘94. “That’s where I got to be where I’m at. Playing with older guys. I value this court. We used to go out after midnight and just shoot a thousand shots.”
Under the watchful eyes of his older brothers, he sprinted on the sand of the Coney Island beach and up the steps of his building to fortify his stamina. Hoop Scoop touted him as the world’s best sixth grader when he was 11.
“The whole object was to teach the brothers under you to be better than you, to take this oath and accept this challenge,” older brother Eric told Sport’s Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff.
At Lincoln, the 5′8″, 140-pound Steph made a case for being one of the top freshman ballers ever in NYC. But outside of his exploits on the court, he was known as a narcissistic and arrogant young man. Writer Darcy Frey wrote an unflattering story for Harper’s Magazine that eventually became a book, The Last Shot.
He blossomed over the next few years into the nation’s top point guard recruit, averaging 29 points and 8 assists and became the first Marbury brother to lead the school to a city title. He copped the prestigious McDonald’s All-American nod before taking his skills to the college stage.
But before he left Coney Island, Steph’s Lincoln teammate Jason Sowell was gunned down, murdered a few steps away from the Marbury apartment. It was a cold reminder of the grim circumstances that would forever lurk if he failed, like his older brothers, to make it out for good.
During his one-and-done at Georgia Tech, he put up 19 points and 5 assists per game en route to ACC Rookie of the Year honors, leading the Yellow Jackets to a regular season conference championship and an NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance. In the ACC tournament final against Tim Duncan and Wake Forest, Steph dropped 27 in a nail biting 75-74 loss.
Picked with the fourth overal pick in the NBA draft, Steph, as a 19 year-old starting point guard, helped lead Minnesota, along with second year phenom Kevin Garnett, to the playoffs his rookie year. He put up 16 points and 8 assists a game and easily drove the lane against veteran defenses. In ‘97-’98, Minnesota finished with a winning record for the first time in franchise history as Steph upped his game to the tune of 18 points and 9 assists.
However, Steph’s homesickness, quirks and demands for a Garnett-like, $100 million plus contract extension got him traded to New Jersey. His supposed indifference at moving from a team on the come-up to a losing franchise in perpetual turmoil begged the question – was the dough or winning more important?
But the game is a business and no one, other than Marbury can speak to his personal happiness and motivations. Regardless, he still brought his A-game every time he stepped on the floor. In his first full season as a Net in ‘99-’00, he put up 22 points and 8 assists per game. The next year, he got his first All-Star nod. But Jersey couldn’t turn the corner and with Keith Van Horn’s untradeable contract, Steph was on the move again.
From there, it was on to Phoenix and later, the debacle that was his Knicks tenure. And the record seemed to show that every team he left got better. So let’s examine that.
His first year in jersey, Keith Van Horn is the only other weapon (if you can call Van Horn a weapon) and there’s no big man. Next year, it’s Steph and Van Horn again. Kenyon Martin is a rookie who rebounds and gets garbage buckets with no offensive game who avg’s 12 points and 7 re’s (that’s not exactly a full arsenal for Steph to work with).
Next year in 2001-2202, J Kidd hits jersey with a more mature K-Mart. Van Horn’s still there, but Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles and Todd Macollough (who gives you 10 and 6) are now in the mix. No doubt, Kidd makes everybody better and that’s when Jersey has its most successful run. But Steph avg’d 23 points and 8 dimes in Jersey playing with who? Jaime Feik? Evan Eschmeyer? Vladimir Stepania?
Steph’s 2nd year in Phoenix, they made the playoffs when all they had was him, Shawn Marion and a fading Penny Hardaway. Stoudamire was only a rookie and he gave you 13 and 9, but what else was in the cupboard? Joe Johnson was a pup, and you had Casey Jacobson, Jake Tsakalidis, Jake Voshkuhl, etc.
But Nash comes on board two years later and benefits from Amare, who has now matured into a beast, Marion, Joe Johnson who’s matured into a player, Quentin Richardson, Jimmy Jackson and Leandro Barbosa.
My point here is the saying works both ways – right place, right time and wrong place, wrong time. And yes, Steph has had his problems and his inflated sense of self has, at times, been detrimental to team chemistry. The man is human and has made mistakes.
And yet, don’t we live in a society that gives people second chances and the opportunity to redeem themselves? My goodness, if you’ve read anything about Marbury over the past few years, you’d swear he was in cahoots with the Son of Sam.
The human spirit, like a burned tree trunk, has the capacity to grow back from adversity and be stronger than ever. That time for Steph is now.
People seem to forget that he’s one of the best point guards to ever do it. If you’re shocked at that last statement, let’s look in the books. He’s the only point guard, other than the incomparable Big O, Mr. Oscar Robertson to average 20 points and 8 assists for a career. And when you factor in the sub par ending to his Knicks tenure, those numbers are even more shocking.
peep two of the greatest guards of this generation going at it
He has a golden opportunity to redeem himself during these last few years he has left. And, if no one else can get behind the man and wish him the best, the asphalt of NYC that birthed him can. Everybody, including me, is in love with this year’s rookie point guard sensation and first overall pick, Derrick Rose. But quiet as kept, his game is eerily reminiscent of Steph’s, minus the radar on the jumper.
And let’s allow the final chapters of the Starbury saga to be written before we hang the man in effigy. Who know’s, the ending could be worth waiting for. And say what you want. But what’s utterly undeniable is that Steph had, and still has, game on top of game!
Without the NYC playgrounds, Steph would never have shared his genius with the world and his family would still be stuck on the fourth floor of a project building in Coney Island. When it’s all said and done, that has to count for something.
THE PLAYGROUND IS NOT THE PROBLEM. IT IS THE SOLUTION!