After being shunned by pretty much everybody in the United States, his hometown, his hometown team, the NBA and even a family member, Marbury had finally found somewhere where he belonged.
China was always going to be an unlikely destination for a two-time All-Star; the dusty, dirty city of Taiyuan even more so. But, it was working. Flourishing, even.
Signing on in the middle of the season for the last place Brave Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association last year, Marbury transformed from an unwanted NBA vagabond into China’s biggest basketball star as soon as he stepped off the plane. His 15 games for the last place Brave Dragons generated arguably the most domestic and international interest in Chinese basketball since Yao Ming was playing in Shanghai as the world’s most sought after big-man prospect almost a decade ago. CBA nightly highlight packages led off with Marbury and the Brave Dragons, with his stats and best plays receiving the most airtime out of any other player — Chinese or foreign — in the league. The effect on the city of Taiyuan and the province of Shanxi was felt too. Seen previously as a dreary dead-end for wandering professional basketball players, the area became an unlikely spot on the worldwide basketball map, yet another Chinese city to be on the receiving end of unlikely sources of globalization.
Embraced by not only a city, but a country chock full of basketball-crazed fans, Ma Bu Li, which is his name in Chinese, or Du Lang, “The Lone Wolf,” as he is called by the media, had found a pack to run with.
“Being in a place where they show nothing but love to you,” said Marbury in an interview to Bruce Beck in August, “its the best thing in the world.”
And on his Twitter feed, he even hinted he may finish his career in the CBA: “I may be there until I hang the shoes up. Retiring in CHINA that might be kinda dope.”
Keen to build off of their new found momentum, the two sides announced that they had signed a three-year contract in the summer, complete with business cooperations to let Marbury sell his low-cost Starbury brand shoes, and a clause that would allow him to become an assistant coach after his playing days were over. Forget being just a basketball player, Marbury was a pioneer, an American running not only the point, but his own business venture in the fastest growing economy in the world.
Guys took notice. Rafer Alston tried (in vain) to negotiate a deal similar to what Steph had worked out. Steve Francis, who just signed with Beijing, was hung up for several weeks about “business provision”clauses. James Singleton, Ricky Davis, Mike James, Quincy Douby, Randolph Morris and Josh Boone, no doubt based on Marbury’s short-term success in the PRC, have all made the jump from the NBA to the CBA this year.
In half a year, Marbury had changed himself, the city of Taiyuan, the way basketball players approach China as a whole, the CBA and at least in some part the caliber of foreign players teams are able to attract. Last Feburary, Chinese basketball merely wanted the Lone Wolf. This season, as the league steps through uncharted territory, it needed him.
And that’s why the news that Shanxi has suddenly decided not to bring Marbury back this for this season is particularly shocking to anyone who’s really followed this story throughout.
According to NetEase, Shanxi management notified Marbury that the team will not be signing the 13-year NBA veteran to a contract this season after he arrived in Taiyuan to link up with the team for training camp on November 24th. The team announced that they have signed Jamal Sampson instead.
Specific reasons as to why the team abruptly changed its plans have not been reported, but whatever events have transpired in the last few weeks were serious enough for Shanxi to tear up whatever the two sides had agreed upon this past summer. A source speaking anonymously to NiuBBall.com said there were unresolvable issues surrounding final salary and business cooperation arrangements. According to the Wall Street Journal, Starbury Corp. was all set to manufacture, sell and market his affordable brand of sneakers to the Chinese market, with a goal to open three stores in Taiyuan by later this year.
Early reports that Marbury had offered to take a pay cut in order to stay with the team have been refuted by associate editor of Titan Sports and close friend of Marbury, Yang Yi, who spoke with Sina Sports yesterday.
“This whole thing is completely shocking to Marbury because this summer, Shanxi said they were signing him to a contract,” Yang said. ”Plus, he had already arrived in Taiyuan. But, the day before yesterday, the general manager Zhang Aijun and the team’s owner all of the sudden notified him that they weren’t going to sign him. To an athlete, thats just irresponsible.”
The timing of Shanxi’s decision is most problematic. With the new season quickly approaching, every team has signed their limit of two non-Asian imports, so Marbury is essentially stuck without a team.
“If they said they weren’t going to sign him a month ago, then Marbury still would have had a lot of other opportunities because there are still some teams who are quite interested in him. But now, every CBA team has already signed their import players, so it’s going to be real tough for Marbury to find a team to play with.”
“He’s dissapointed in Shanxi. This is treachery. Marbury isn’t strapped for cash, he doesn’t need to play in China because he needs money. He just feels really sad because he loves Shanxi. This summer he was working out and keeping his body in shape. He feels really hurt by the team.”
Shanxi Zhongyu’s sponsor, Shanxi Fenjiu, a company that produces rice alcohol, had invested about $1.2 million in the team this year in anticipation of Marbury’s return for a full season of basketball. However, now that word has gotten out that the team has ended its relationship with their import point-guard, Shanxi Fenjiu, other investors, and the league office itself are all highly dissatisfied with the the Brave Dragons’ decision.
“Investors and the the league are all giving the club a lot of pressure. But, Shanxi has already signed its maximum allotment of three foreign players: [Jamal] Sampson and [Leon] Rodgers [and Osama Dahglas]… Rodgers was with Zhang Aijun when he was in Jilin. Obviously, Zhang still wants to use is own guys now that he’s with Shanxi.”
Yang also shared that Shanxi gave Marbury two choices: Take a large pay cut, or stay on the team this year as an assistant coach. He declined both and will be headed back to the States after he spends the next few days in Beijing, according to the report.
According to sources with NetEase, Marbury is devastated over the news as he had developed a real connection to the Shanxi area and its fans and after negotiations broke down, he holed himself up for three straight days in his hotel in Taiyuan. On the 26th, fans came to the hotel to as a sign of support, which caused Marbury to come out and address the crowd.
“I don’t blame Shanxi, it’s just that they told me about all of this too late, so I probably can’t play in the CBA this year.”
A sad ending for maybe the only American ballplayer in China who actually wanted to be in China. Maybe I was wrong about the CBA needing Marbury. But, there’s no doubt that maybe Marbury needs China, just as anyone needs to receive a little bit of love in their life.
As someone who knows first hand about the mutual happiness that Marbury and China brought to each other, this is a depressing start to a season that looked to be so exciting.