You know, the first time I ever contacted Aaron was when he wrote something about hating Stephon Marbury last winter. Mostly, Aaron would not forgive Marbury for forcing a trade to the Nets. I couldn't hardly blame Gleeman for being bitter. Built like a hockey puck, Marbury is powerful, has hops for days, and has a keen basketball mind. As much as I understood Marbury's reasoning for wanting to play closer to home at the time, I knew he would have to live with the consequences of leaving an absoluetly great situation in Minnie. After all, part of why he left was because his ego couldn't stand being the number two guy to Garnett.
A short while ago, Marbury was traded to New York, and he has made the Knicks worth watching again. The Brooklyn native is one of top three or four point guards in the NBA, and is the best guard the Knicks have had since Clyde Frazier. I've followed Marbury since he was a senior at Lincoln High and am a big fan, as well as one of his toughtest critics. I loved it when he was paired with Garnett on the Timberwolves, and was even happier when I could watch most of his games after he came to New Jersey. Like the man he replaced on the Nets, Sam Cassell—currently making T-Wolves fans forget they ever knew Stephon— Marbury developed a reputation as a shoot-first point guard. Some of the criticism was unfair, but some of it was true. In big spots, Marbury would tend to lose confidence in his teammates and consequently force the action too much, taking his fair share of lousy shots along the way.
It wasn't until Marbury was traded to the Suns that he finally became an All-Star. (If he had played with the likes of a healthy Kenyon Martin, and Kerry Kittles, not to mention Richard Jefferson in New Jersey, chances are he would have been an All-Star as well.) Now he's back in New York, the place he's always wanted to be. In the the place to be: MSG.
So far, so good. Although he still can dribble the ball too much and take some questionable shots, Marbury is a nifty passer who does in fact make his teammates better. I also think he recognizes the importance of this moment in his career. He's not a dumb guy. If he blows it with the Knicks, it would likely bury his career. But if he does well here, it'll be a life-long dream come true.
Marbury's older brothers—Spoon, Sky and Jou-Jou—were all schoolyard talents in Brooklyn, but they never made it through college. From an early age, the family's expectations rested on Steph's durable shoulders. He was built to be the savior of the Marbury family. Now, he's the Knicks' savior.
In Darcy Frey's fine book about basketball players at Lincoln High school, "The Last Shot," the young Marbury comes across as a shrewd operator. Marbury enters the first scene of the book a seventh grader riding a Big Wheel onto the basketball court; it ends after his freshman year at Lincoln. But from the start, Marbury was expected to be the next great point guard to come out of Brooklyn, out of New York.
A cynical kid, Stephon was somebody who was going to take full advantage of his situation. He learned from his brothers' failure. He learned to ask: "What's in it for me?" Marbury's father refused to talk with Frey unless Frey paid him.
Toward the end of the book, Frey, a white journalist, gives a ride to three of the main characters after a practice. Along the way, they convince him into buying them McDonalds. Marbury's father wasn't the only parent who didn't agree to speak with Frey. Another boy's mother had declined to comment too. When Frey asked the kids why they thought both parents had refused to talk with him, Stephon offered the following advice:
"Just greet Russell's mother at the door and hit her with a hundred. She'll change her mind." He snickers knowingly. "She's no different than my father. He wants to make sure he gets some of that loot."
At first I think Stephon is missing the point–that Mrs. Thomas's suspicion of me and her desperation to get Russell out of Coney Island are entirely different from Mr. Marbury's demand for money. But Corey [another one of the boys] sees the connection. "Damn," he says, "your parents must have had a hard life."
"Still do," Stephon replies. "Your father got himself a whole plumbing business. My father and Russell's mother got nothing." Stephon looks at me out of the corner of his eye and says, "You're thinking, What a bunch of niggers. Right?"
The word hangs in the air. I can't think of a thinkg to say. For months I 've heard them call each other than, but by putting the word in my mouth, Stephon means something far more corrosive by it now.
"You've got to think like a black man," Stephon goes on. ""Got to learn how to say, 'Fuck it, fuck everybody, fuck the whole damn thing.' Now that's life in the ghetto.:
"It's true!" Russell exclaims, his mood improving for the frist time all evening. "My motheris a nigger! She's a black woman who does not give a damn."
..."Man, I'm tired of all this shit!" Stephon slams his hands down hard on his book bag. "Somebody's got to make it, somebody's got to go all the way. How come this shit only happens to us Coney Island niggers?" He shakes his head wildly and laughs. "My father and Russell's mother—yeah, they're crazy, but it's about time there was a little something for the niggs."
"Something for the niggs!" Russell repeats the line with a hoot. "Yeah, Steph! Time to get outspoken!"
"You got it," Stephon says, and laughs again. Then Corey joins in. And they're all three whooping and slapping their knees—laughing at their parents and, I imagine, at me and the absurdity of this whole situation.
It was the wise-beyond-his years sensibility that drew me to Marbury. I don't know that it makes him more likable but it makes him more interesting, and sympathetic. It also has helped me forgive Marbury of his more selfish moments on the court. He's still got room to grow—I remain one of his toughest critics—but he's just about in the prime of his career now and is a terribly exciting performer. He's made it this far, how much better can be get? While the Knicks are still not a very good team, at least they are fun to watch again. And Marbury makes them matter once more.