In China, NBA’s Stephon Marbury is a hit

March 8, 2011

He doesn’t like Chinese food much, has to fly economy instead of by private jet and makes a tiny fraction of the $20 million he earned each year playing basketball for the New York Knicks.

But after alienating fans, the press and a string of coaches back home in America, NBA bad-boy Stephon Marbury is happy to be in a country where people clamor for his autograph. His new Chinese team, the Foshan Dragon Lions, doesn’t win much — it’s now fourth from the bottom of the league — yet local fans and media still applaud the biggest American name in Chinese basketball.

“China is a positive place, what can I say,” said Marbury, who during his time with the Knicks, from 2004 to 2009, became so unpopular that the New York Daily News called him “the most reviled athlete in New York.” The Chinese, unlike Americans — and particularly New Yorkers — “don’t fill their souls with negativity,” said the 34-year-old point guard, who is known here in China as Ma-bu-li.

China, where the ruling Communist Party likes to keep bad news at bay through the tight control of media, has long been a country that prefers to look on the bright side. Marbury’s popularity, however, flows more from the fact that while increasingly proud of their nation’s accomplishments, many Chinese still look to foreigners, particularly Americans, to validate China’s worth.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese play basketball and watch it on TV. China’s professional league, the Chinese Basketball Association, has 17 teams. The country’s national basketball squad, the best in Asia, delights Chinese fans with its aggressive play — and its rowdy fights with opponents, including an on-court brawl during a “friendly match” with Brazil in October.

But it is the NBA, whose games are broadcast widely here, that commands the most avid interest. This has sometimes stirred resentment in the CBA, which wants to become the main focus of attention, and revenue, from China’s vast legions of basketball enthusiasts. Chinese teams are now much more popular and richer than when the CBA started out in 1994, but fans still want to watch American players.

The Chinese league would “lose tremendous fan support if it dropped American imports,” said Bruce O’Neil, president of United States Basketball Academy, an Oregon-based outfit that has helped send Americans to China and also trained Chinese coaches and young players. For all China’s rising nationalism, he said, “they still love America.”

Luring fans, sponsors

Not everyone does, for sure, but even the most jingoistic Chinese measure themselves against the United States.

On most days, for example, the Chinese-language edition of the Global Times, a stridently nationalistic newspaper, features articles about America on nearly every page. Although mostly negative, they reflect an almost obsessive interest in the United States, which the paper paints as a spent force but also as the driving force behind turmoil in the Middle East and events elsewhere in the world.

In its editions last week, the daily didn’t mention China’s own basketball league, the CBA, but reported at length on the NBA. And China’s best-known basketball player, Yao Ming, became a megastar in China only after he made it in America.

Wary of being swamped by talent from the NBA and other foreign leagues, China imposed a salary cap of $20,000 a month and limited each team to two foreigners. But this meant it attracted mostly washed-up or third-rate overseas players.

The cap was later raised to $60,000 and has now fallen by the wayside, O’Neil said. China has started luring bigger foreign names, the biggest by far being Marbury. Others include ex-Washington Wizards forward James Singleton, who along with Quincy Douby, formerly of the Sacramento Kings, has helped propel his new Chinese team, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, to the top of the Chinese league.

Foreigners, especially former NBA players, are “definitely beneficial to our league” because they “draw fans and attract sponsorship,” Bai Xilin, a senior official of Chinese basketball’s governing body, said at a news conference in December, the start of the new season.

Feuds a thing of the past

Marbury won’t comment on how much he earns with the Foshan Dragon Lions, saying only that “it’s not $20 million.” But his NBA-honed talents, which far outshine those of his Chinese teammates, could bring a hefty payoff from a line of sneakers he’s hoping will take off in China.

He also rejoices at no longer being hounded by media reports of wayward off-court antics, such as an alleged fight on a team plane with his former NBA coach.

“None of that stuff is true,” said Marbury. True or not, Chinese fans don’t seem bothered.

“I don’t care about his reputation in the U.S. I only care about his performance on the basketball court,” said Lin Weichen, a basketball student at an all-sports high school in Foshan. “For us, it is a rare and precious experience to watch an NBA player play basketball.”

Late last month, the Dragon Lions played at home in Foshan, a sprawling industrial city north of Hong Kong, and got hammered by a squad from Hangzhou. The result didn’t dim the ardor of supporters. “We all love Ma-bu-li. He plays great, and he looks so cool,” gushed Yuan Tianqiao, a 15-year-old fan who with some friends waited excitedly outside a makeshift locker room in the hope of getting an up-close glimpse of the heavily tattooed former NBA All-Star from Brooklyn.

Marbury’s team, defeated Sunday by Fujian, has now lost six of its past eight games.

The Dragon Lions’ head coach, Jay Humphries, another recruit from the NBA, said he’s heard all the stories of Marbury’s past feuds and outbursts but has had “no issues at all” with his star player and praised Marbury’s team spirit, something New Yorkers never did. “Maybe he has matured,” said Humphries.

Marbury’s time in China hasn’t been entirely trouble-free. When he arrived last year, he played for a team in a grimy coal-mining center in the north of the country. But a partnership he initially described as “nothing but love” soured badly after a few months. He left the team late last year and moved to Foshan.

The CBA offers little of the glitz or glamour of the NBA. Marbury — the only player selected for All-Star teams in both the United States and China — carries his own bags and no longer rides to the airport in a limousine. He lives in a hotel suite paid for by the Dragon Lions and eats mostly through room service. The team also provides a Chinese-language teacher. On trips out of town, “I fly economy with the team,” he said. “Everyone flies private in the NBA.”

Nonetheless, Marbury thinks his own future and that of his sport lie here in China. “There is dark in everything. Nothing is all light,” he said. But China’s size and growth show “they are doing something right, and it ain’t the dark side,” he said. “This is by far the future. There are strength in numbers.” 

He’s hoping these numbers will translate into big business for a line of budget sneakers and casual clothing he launched back in the United States under the brand name “Starbury.” The goods were originally sold in an exclusive deal with Steve & Barry’s, but the retail chain filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Marbury said he’s now in talks with venture capital investors to relaunch his brand in China.

“I’m here to play basketball, and I’m here to build my brand,” he said.

He is also looking forward to the day when China’s league grows big and wealthy enough to offer players a bit more comfort.

“The conditions of how we travel and how we eat are going to evolve. One day, there will be private planes flying all over China” with basketball players.

higginsandrew@washpost.com

Researcher Wang Juan in Beijing contributed to this report.

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