Stephon Marbury is now a point guard for the Brave Dragons of Shanxi, where writer Anthony Tao finds Ma-Bu-Li trying to preserve his star among the coal heaps of a modern Chinese city.
Taiyuan, provincial capital and industrial sprawl often shrouded in fog, is more cosmopolitan than its northern neighbour Datong and a decent place to await onward connections. — Lonely Planet: China, 2007
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THE CAPITAL CITY OF SHANXI PROVINCE, in north-central China, is a golem of a metropolis called Taiyuan, population 3.5 million, which lurches awake each morning to a skyline dotted with smokestacks and construction cranes (the national bird of China, as the joke goes). What culture might exist here, after centuries of serving as the dynastic capital for multiple emperors, is buried somewhere beneath a retreating pile of bituminous coal. Taiyuan is the archetypal modern Chinese city, which is to say it is unapologetic about its devaluation of human worth, its embrace of commercial mercenaries, and its worship of high-rise infrastructure. This is a city for fans of right angles, inflatable arch gates (red, of course), and block calligraphy. You would have to be a little crazy, in other words, to love the place.
Stephon Marbury landed last Tuesday and immediately became the Chinese Basketball Association's biggest star. Eight days later, I am unable to say whether he loves Taiyuan.
HE ARRIVED on carrier MU5300 from Beijing at 11 p.m. after an 18-hour flight from the U.S. on the night of Tuesday, Jan. 26, as the neurotically detailed Chinese press told it. Hundreds of media and fans awaited him. A man handed him a bouquet at the airport, and a woman did the same on the bus. "I like it. I like it a lot," he said. "I mean, from what I've seen at the airport, the airport is nice. It's big."
Four days later, he is holding court in front of a small group of journalists and locals. It's the day before his CBA debut.
Is he jetlagged, someone asks. This is not the first time Marbury has gotten this question, yet he answers like a professional, stretching it out so the reporter has enough for a sound bite.
"I mean, a little bit, not as bad, not as bad as the other day. It's better, it's better now, I mean, every day. Every day it's better," he says.
Chinese journalist, in English: "So do you got some plan for tomorrow's game?"
Marbury: "Do I have a plan?"
Journalist: "Yeah, do you think about tomorrow's game, like look at other team, how they're playing, know something about them?"
Marbury: "No, not really."
Journalist: "Tomorrow coach will tell …"
Marbury: "Yeah, coach will tell us tomorrow."
THE COACH is Wu Qinglong, a guard for the national team during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics who was hired away from archrival Shaanxi after last season. (The locals of either province would be annoyed if you confused the two; Shaanxi is the one with the terracotta warriors.) The Shanxi fans want him fired because his team, as of Saturday, stood at 4-13 with 15 to play. He is big-bellied and fiery, quick to rip into his players and fond of cursing both under his breath and at the top of his lungs. He also has a sense of humor and is, without a doubt, one of the CBA's bigger personalities.
"I'm not the kind of coach who cares about what's happened in the past," he says a few days later. "What you did in the past, how you got along with coaches in the past, is the past.
"What I'm most pleased about (regarding Marbury) is, of all the foreign players I've coached and all that I've seen, I think he is one of the best team players. From the very beginning, he's attended all the team activities. You've seen it. He's not like former foreign players who care only about themselves. In everything, from warm-ups to post-game, he's always with us. I think that helps team chemistry.
"My understanding is his life in Taiyuan is very good. People have done well in arranging his housing and accommodations. He's quite happy."
WHEN I INTRODUCE MYSELF AS ON ASSIGNMENT FOR DEADSPIN, Marbury says, "Oh, I'm cool on Deadspin, I'm cool." For a split-second I think he means he and Deadspin are cool; then I realize he's more or less saying "no comment." The athlete most in tune with Generation 2.0 knows all those snarky, not-nice things you funny people have written about him, and he is not interested in replying.
HE SIGNS AUTOGRAPHS, POSES FOR PICTURES, and it so happens that he does this from the comfort of a courtside sofa inside Binhe Sports Stadium, home to Shanxi Zhongyu. A system larger than him, larger than us all, has transformed him into a showpiece who must smile when men and women snuggle up to him for pictures and autographs. "I like doing this" is what he has to say, and he does. "Makes me happy."
They call him "Lone Wolf" in this country. They know about his reputation as a shoot-first point guard, about his rows with his coaches, about his total disregard for how others perceive him. Asked about his nickname at the airport, Marbury laughed and said, "It's an honor," which is true enough: the Chinese gravitate toward those who are unbowed, individualistic, niubi — the literal translation for which, I am embarrassed to tell you, is "cow cunt."
The popular opinion here is that he's changed: he is no longer Starbury; he is Lone Wolf in nickname only. "Everything that's happened to him, like his dad passing away during that game, has made him a different person now," says a reporter for a Beijing-based basketball magazine.
"The big media companies are all praising Marbury," says David Zhu, the CBA beat writer for Sohu.com. "And because he wants to sell shoes and broaden his appeal, he won't cause any disruptions. It would be like undercutting your own investment. If he wants to make money, he has to be on his best behavior."
If it's the old Starbury you're looking for, he will not be found on his Sina-hosted microblog, whatever the hell a microblog is. He will not be Twittering or YouTube-ing; both are blocked by the Great Firewall, anyway (though someone must have told him about VPNs). Marbury will no longer be the batty, unpredictable, devil-may-care professional weirdo that we've come to know and, in our own way, love, because battiness is a luxury for those on the fringes of established order, like David Stern's NBA; he's a weirdo in a weird place now, and it makes him seem, well, perfectly sane. Stephon Marbury, sixth overall pick in the 1996 draft, two-time NBA all-star, member of Dream Team IV, is no longer of our world. He belongs to Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, BFE, a decent place to await onward connections.
ONE OF THE FIRST QUESTIONS MARBURY ASKED UPON ARRIVAL was whether Taiyuan had a McDonald's. "Of course," a reporter told him. "And a Starbucks, too." (That last statement is false.)
"I don't drink coffee," Marbury said. "McDonald's is enough."
Soon afterward, he asked to be transferred from the five-star Grand Hotel because the food wasn't to his liking. He is now at the five-star World Trade Hotel down the street.
HE HAS NO IDEA WHAT TO EXPECT, and maybe that's for the best.
I ask Roxana Ciceoi, a Romanian on a walnut research grant (don't laugh), about Marbury. "I cannot imagine why such a famous guy could choose Taiyuan," she says.
She recalls how someone in Taiyuan once opened her backpack and tried grabbing her wallet as she stood in line at the train station. She turned and looked and asked what he was doing, and he replied, "I'm sorry, I want to eat."
The province has borne the brunt of China's rapid industrialization. Shanxi has four of the country's 10 most polluted cities — including Linfen, the most polluted city in the world — and the country's highest birth defect rate. "It is sad for a foreigner that comes here to discover that here, a single person has no power to change something," she says. "Has no power to dream. And living in an environment that kills dreams is like living in a place with dead people.
"If a foreigner needs to work here, in China, the only way to go is silently accept what is and hope that time will solve these problems. And, also, wait for the time to pass so that he or she will go back home."
I ask a local schoolteacher/entrepreneur named Jia Binjie.
"You know, Shanxi had an NBA player," he says, meaning Bonzi Wells, a middling NBA guard who averaged 34 points over 14 CBA contests and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated China. He was cut for essentially not returning from vacation.
"He couldn't get used to life here," Jia says. "The fans welcomed him though."
"People couldn't believe Wells came," says Wen Shaohua, a park administrator. "And now they're saying even bigger names are possible. Iverson, (Steve) Francis…"
"We should be able to make the playoffs," says Fan Qiang, echoing Marbury's words that "it doesn't matter to me scoring or assists. I just want to win. I just want to help the team make the playoffs and try to win the championship."
"Shanxi people are very welcoming and friendly," says Shi Laidi. "More NBA players should come. We welcome them all."
BEFORE WELLS THERE WAS GOD SHAMMGOD, a former Providence standout. "It's their country, their league and their game, and you can't change it," he told The Wall Street Journal's Alan Paul. "The sooner you understand that the better off you'll be. I've seen so many guys come over here and fight the system instead of making peace with it."
Before him was Rashid Byrd, who left soon after telling Paul, "I can't handle this situation. This is my first time outside the U.S. and it might be my last after this."
In my time in Taiyuan, no one has mentioned Shammgod or Byrd or Tim Pickett or, for that matter, Lee Benson, the man whose roster spot Marbury has taken because the league allows each team to carry only two foreigners.
TAIYUAN. On the advice of a dated post on an online forum, I debouch into the night in search of a club called Chinatown. There is no such thing. Thirty minutes later I backtrack, dejected and sober, and on the paved tributary leading to my 10-dollar-per-night hotel, all that glows are convenience stores and a row of brothels crammed with women in heels and skimpy dresses. Seeing my approach, they wave at me, furiously, from behind sliding doors. In the first room a woman, sitting next to another, asks me over in an even, hopeful voice.
I have no idea what to say, so the first thing that comes to mind comes spilling out. "Where can I find a bar in this city?"
I'm an asshole.
"Come inside, let me talk to you," she says. Up close, close enough to touch, I see she is slightly older than I imagined, and is not at all ugly but also by no means attractive. I hesitate.
"Won't you come in? I'm cold."
I look away. "I don't think so," I say. She understands, and closes the door.
The city is not so seedily entrepreneurial during the day. It's almost pleasant, even. There are street vendors who display their wares, hawk sausages and jianbing cooked on open hot surfaces, sweet potatoes sold out of coal-heated iron barrels, socks and snack foods laid out on blankets, and all manner of golden baubles and motorized gewgaws. Inside the charming Yingze Park near the center of the city, people practice wushu and taichi, play pipas and Chinese horns.
But what I keep coming back to is the advertisement I saw plastered on a wall that night in Taiyuan, a city that floats on the ever-distant promise of trickle-down prosperity — where colliery bosses give their daughters bagfuls of cash to buy luxury cars while spouses of miners send their kids to the streets to beg. The poster had an image of a smooth-skinned, barely covered Occidental woman. It read: "No need imagine you are in aristocracy potential."
ON SUNDAY EVENING I MEET MARK STRAND, an American who has lived and worked in Taiyuan for 18 years, which makes him, unequivocally, the Western expert on the city. He had just purchased five tickets for himself, his wife and three kids from a scalper at 200 yuan apiece, or about 30 dollars, which was only 50 yuan above face value. (The club's general manager, Zhang Beihai, had told Chinese reporters earlier in the week that the team would not raise its ticket prices. Most ticket prices have doubled.)
A crowd has gathered around the front gate to the Binhe Sports Stadium Complex.
"It's people who are standing on the precipice of globalization," Strand says. "They see it on TV, they hear about it, and they never get to touch it. And suddenly, it's sort of like, Okay, globalization came here. Somebody in the world knows we exist. Somebody cares about our little place, we now get to be a part of it. The NBA came to Shanxi."
Does Stephon Marbury care about Shanxi?
"Of course not. And I'm not persuaded there's a handful of people in America who do."
THE STARBURY SHOE was created for inner-city kids to have access to the footwear of their idols — the idol, in this case, being Stephon Marbury. Currently it is selling for $15 in the U.S. and 156 yuan ($23) in China.
It has entered a market saturated with local brands such as Li Ning, Anta, Peak and 361 — whose commercial uses a popular and patriotic song in which a bold, handsome male voice booms, "We are flying up" — and in addition faces competition from fake Nikes and adidases that aren't always fake ("real" Nike and adidas shoes, after all, are made in China).
Strand says, "If somebody would have been able to snag this store" — he points to a Fenjiu store nearby, Fenjiu being a brand of a popular baijiu (i.e. Chinese vodka, firewater, grain liquor, that which will fuck you up) and the official sponsor of Zhongyu — "and call it the Stephon Marbury Store, and had a thousand pairs of his shoes in there by three o'clock in the afternoon, would he have sold any shoes?" I don't know the answer, though I suspect it would have drawn a huge number of window-shoppers.
"I don't think so," he says.
I'm still not so sure.
THE 4,500-SEAT ARENA IS JUST ABOUT FULL AT TIP-OFF, and soon it's beyond capacity (guanxi — connections — can get you into a sold-out house). I am told Anthony Peeler, the former NBA journeyman currently traveling through China on vacation, is sitting in the upper deck. However, CCTV-5 — China's ESPN — is not in the house, and a connection problem renders the game unavailable on a popular online streaming site. The journalists on press row shake their heads and proceed to badmouth CCTV, Chinese media, Chinese planning, Shanxi, and the CBA. Everyone around me seems amazed and confused that I am scribbling notes in English.
Marbury comes off the bench and his first touch is a fast break in which he scoop-passes to the trailer for an assist. The crowd is mesmerized. Courtside, a fan says, "Marbury's ball-handling really is beautiful, huh?" I move to the press section, where the local journalists are cheering loudly. Late in the second quarter, Marbury re-enters and the home team scores five quick points to draw even; it's uncertain whether the fans are more excited about the points or their new favorite player. At halftime, the gym briefly fills with a Ma-Bu-Li chant — quite possibly started by the Strands, who have unfurled a "You can fly, Stephon!" sign.
Two minutes into the fourth quarter, upset by a series of blown calls — I can honestly say CBA referees are no better than their NBA counterparts — fans begin to toss objects onto the court. A few minutes later, they make it rain, hurling anything close at hand that's replaceable or inexpensive. The floor is soon peppered with lighters. The PA announcer — a guy who has alternatively started "Fenjiu team, jiayou! (add fuel)" chants and asked fans to "please sit down, please sit down, there're lots of people today, please sit down" — futilely tries to maintain order. Marbury saunters about, not quite sure what to do. He pats the air with his hand as if to say, Calm down, but for the first time tonight fans are not under his spell. They chant, Heishao, heishao! — "black whistle," a reference to the mafia — and while point-shaving and match-fixing is not uncommon in Chinese sports, the chant itself is banal.
If this happened in the U.S. it would lead off 80 ESPNNews segments and make a magazine cover. Here it is just another day at the old ballgame. Either Marbury realizes this or he appreciates, for the first time, what it means to be in China, because he smirks, just a little.
The game resumes, and with five seconds to go and Shanxi down by one the ball is inbounded to Marbury. When he drives right the defense collapses on him, so he zips a pass to Maurice Taylor at the top of the arc, whose buzzer-beating three-pointer is just short.
Fans are too shocked to react. The Dongguan team celebrates on the court. Marbury kicks a water bottle as he leaves the floor, grabs his stuff from the locker room, blows off a small group of fans and journalists, and bee-lines it with his assistant into the night.
THIRTY MINUTES LATER I'm standing with fans outside the home team's locker room, waiting for the local players and coaches to appear. They don't seem disheartened that Dongguan just nudged ahead of them for 15th place in the 17-team league.
"There's not a point guard in China that can play like that," says Feng Jianjun, a middle-aged season-ticket holder. "Even if (Shanxi) lost by 10 points, it was worth it to have watched him play."
"Liu Wei is pretty good," says Dai Donglin, referring to the national team's guard, "but he doesn't have that speed."
"Shanxi players aren't used to that speed and that level of passing."
"Not just Shanxi players —"
"Not just Shanxi…"
"— No one in our country is used to that speed."
"Fans definitely got their money's worth."
A third guy butts in and says, "Correct!" He then ticks off Marbury's credentials with amazing accuracy. The fans lament that the guard, who scored 15 points in 29 minutes, along with eight assists, four rebounds, and four steals, went 0 for 6 from three-point range. They all agree he will improve.
"To be able to see a real NBA player, ah!" says Feng. "It was worth it. We usually support the team win or lose, we don't care, but losing tonight was especially beside the point."
"You're lying!" says Dai. "If we beat Guangdong" — one of the best teams in the league, which visits Shanxi on Wednesday — "we'd be going out right away to celebrate."
"Ah! You've said it, you're buying then!"
The friends talk fast, grunting affirmations, and in between breaths take long drags on cigarettes.
I APPROACH MARBURY ONE MORE TIME, after Tuesday's practice.
I sit next to him as his knees are being wrapped in ice. "I feel like maybe we got off on the wrong foot the other day."
"We didn't get off on the wrong foot."
I try to explain that while I'm on assignment for Deadspin I'm not actually Deadspin, that I'm a journalist more concerned with Chinese issues, with Taiyuan, specifically. He's nice about saying "No comment" to my questions. We both speak quietly, and for some reason I use the phrase "you're not being fair to me," to which he laughs, slowly and sarcastically, as he should. He says I can write whatever I want. "You represent who you represent."
Someone from the team comes over and demands to know who I'm working for. Soon, the team manager is tugging at my sleeve, too. Who said you could be here?
"Wang," I say. Wang Jianguang is an amiable journalist currently moonlighting as Shanxi's media director, in which capacity he sometimes shepherds visiting reporters like me through official resistance.
"Well I didn't say it was okay," the manager says. "You have to leave."
I tell Stephon that if he'd give me a chance…
"They did me wrong," he says. "I never did anything to them."
"Was there anything in particular?"
"Doesn't matter. They did me wrong."
And here, for the first time, I think maybe he's less angry than hurt.
He poses for one more picture and signs one more autograph, of a Knicks jersey. I didn't see if it was his Knicks jersey, or if it was authentic. Not that that matters.
As he walks away I want to wish him good luck.
Anthony Tao is a freelance writer in Beijing who blogs at http://heartofbeijing.blogspot.com.
See more photos from Anthony's time with the Brave Dragons here.