In China, NBA's Stephon Marbury is a hit

In Foshan, China, Stephon Marbury poses with some of his fans, who say they're interested only in his performance on the court, not his behavior off it.
In Foshan, China, Stephon Marbury poses with some of his fans, who say they're interested only in his performance on the court, not his behavior off it. (© Chinafotopress/
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

IN FOSHAN, CHINA 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.

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