By Sally Jenkins
Friday, November 7, 2008
Stephon Marbury must be so bored. Not to mention embarrassed. Brushing lint from the silk weave of his suit coat constitutes the sum of his action for the New York Knicks this season.
The biggest sideshow in the NBA is the psychological contest between the Knicks and Marbury, their extravagantly compensated failure of a point guard, who they deem so useless that they are paying him not to play. As Marbury sits there on the bench, his pride hurt, but his paycheck intact, ask yourself this question: Should we feel sorry for him?
The Knicks' new head coach, Mike D'Antoni, delivered his answer to the question the other night, during a season-opening victory over the Miami Heat, when some fans apparently took pity on Marbury and chanted "We Want Steph!" A TV camera caught D'Antoni as he mouthed, incredulously, "Are you ----- kidding me?"
Any discussion of Marbury starts with the stipulation that it's all but impossible to feel very deep sympathy for someone who makes $267,073 a night, guaranteed, for sitting and watching, while thousands are being laid off and the stock market drops like an elevator with a snapped cable.
"People look at what he's earning and say, 'What kind of problems can he have?' " said Robert J. Lanza, the former general counsel of the National Basketball Players Association, and now a partner at Hiscock & Barclay.
Still, it's difficult to watch someone of Marbury's youth and exquisite ability sit idle, and it's difficult to know how to feel about it. The Knicks have unquestionably taken a tough line with him. Marbury's contract is luxurious, but it's also made him a captive: He is so expensive that he is all but untradeable at the moment. So the Knicks are sitting on him until either Marbury renegotiates downward, or another team gets desperate for a guard and offers some decent return on him.
The bottom line is, Marbury's paycheck hasn't insulated him from a very common experience, one to which anyone who has ever worked in an office can relate: Marbury has a new boss in D'Antoni, and the new boss doesn't want him in the company. "He still has tremendous ability and he's in a position where he knows the people he works for don't like him," Lanza said.
It's easy to react viscerally to NBA salaries and deny Marbury sympathy because he seems so overpaid. But Lanza defends Marbury's salary as a form of executive pay. The number of people in the world equipped to play NBA point guard is exceedingly small. Marbury is simply taking advantage of the demand for his talents.
"NBA players are as unique as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies," Lanza said. "There are only 420 guys in the league, and there are 500 CEOS. Why should they be treated any different when they are uniquely talented? CEOs make a lot more than they do."
Marbury is a complex personality. While he's done a raft of good, charitable deeds, thrown money at Hurricane Katrina victims and distributed free sneakers to kids, he comes with a King Tut persona, a feed-me-another-grape entitlement and petulance. His career has been a series of dumb moves and unreasonable financial demands, unredeemed by his performance on the court, where he has been a fairly consistent loser.
He deep-sixed himself early when he announced he simply could not stay in Minnesota if he was going to be the second-highest paid player on the team behind Kevin Garnett. He's been a nomad ever since. In two seasons as the nominal leader of the New Jersey Nets, they cadged out 57 wins over two seasons and failed to make the playoffs. The Nets unloaded him to Phoenix, and went on to happiness and two NBA Finals with Jason Kidd. Meanwhile, Marbury pouted around in Phoenix, where he couldn't be content playing with Amare Stoudamire, either. He led the Suns to 84 losses in two seasons. As point guard of the 2004 Olympic team, he personified the American team's heartlessness and selfishness as it took only a bronze medal.
With the Knicks, he has been ungovernable, ranting and sulky, whether playing for Larry Brown or his ex-friend Isiah Thomas. Last season's embarrassments included the revelation that he had sex with an intern in his car. He turned on Thomas, and deserted his team during a road trip to Phoenix when Thomas threatened to take away some of his playing time, going AWOL and flying home in a fit of pique.
Marbury's future with the Knicks probably was over before D'Antoni was hired. Shortly after he got the job, D'Antoni, under whom Marbury played in Phoenix, reportedly interviewed several Knicks about whether Marbury was a divisive presence in the locker room. Marbury's real problem with the Knicks may be that he doesn't have the confidence of his teammates, much less his new management.
If the Knicks have taken a hard line with Marbury, he has with them, too. He has declared he won't take "one penny less" of his guarantee, which is $21.9 million this year, making it even harder to trade him. This is where sympathy for him fails. That someone like Marbury could demand such a sum for a record of unmitigated failure in the current economic climate is an astonishing fact, and yet there he is, the NBA's own living, breathing, bailout. He's the basketball equivalent of corporate welfare, he demands millions -- for what? Bankrupting everything he touches?
A player of Marbury's talent had to try awfully hard to lose his self-determination. Had he acted like a professional over the past few years, he would have no boss; no coach could set the terms for him. The NBA is a league in which the coaches get fired, not the players. But Marbury has been a fool of epic proportions, he has given so little in return for his recompense, been so disruptive, that he doesn't begin to be worth the trouble he causes. The Knicks aren't playing him because they simply can't, and keep a harmonious locker room.
There is only one legitimate reason to feel sorry for Marbury. Underneath his prideful demands, his perennial insistence on his self-worth, there is of course a vast insecurity. He radiates anxiety and lack of faith in himself. What Marbury has yet to understand is that a guaranteed contract only means he is guaranteed to be paid. It doesn't mean he's guaranteed to be happy, or secure.