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Are Chinese fans bored of Stephon Marbury?

January 5, 2011

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As someone who understands the difficulty of adapting to life China, I’m generally down with Stephon Marbury.  While an entire starting lineup of ex-NBA players have already left — some before even playing a single game — Marbury remains dedicated to playing and developing his business plans in the People’s Republic almost one year since his arrival here, even after almost being shut out of the league (under extremely shady circumstances).

While some guys were content to coast along on their name alone, Marbury has taken his on-court role more seriously and has also maintained meaningful interaction with his Chinese fans. His success last year ultimately brought along other NBA players looking for a check, but hardly any have been able to stick.

To me, that says something about Steph.  He’s doing things — playing here, living here, doing business out here and seemingly liking it all the while — that other big-name NBA players failed miserably at. I may just be a sucker for China, but I think that’s worth something.

Cool as that may be, however, Chinese fans aren’t as enamored.  This report published last week by the Metropolitan Express in Hangzhou after Marbury’s team, Foshan, lost away at Zhejiang Guangsha wonders if notoriously fickle Chinese fans have already become bored with watching Marbury play (via Sina).

Stephon Marbury came, but he’s leaving a little bit early.  In Foshan’s away game last night [December 26th] against [Zhejiang Guangsha], he was subbed off for the final 5 minutes and 45 seconds.  When he went off, the stadium also started to leave early.  With Guangsha up 30, only about half of the people stayed to see the final 115 – 80 score.

“It was the fourth quarter, I played him for six minutes, didn’t I? There was five minutes left, there’s no way we were coming back from 30 down,” said Foshan’s head coach, Jay Humphries. For [Steve] Francis’ first game in Beijing, head coach [Min Lulei] let him get into the game because the crowd was swearing at him; when Marbury left the game early, the Hangzhou crowd was instead very calm.  Because they saw him play 30 minutes,  there was no feeling of dissatisfaction… This was the so-called ‘biggest-name NBA import’s’ second time coming to Hangzhou, and it really wasn’t that great.

Last year, Marbury set the CBA on fire playing for Shanxi Zhongyu, averaging 22.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 9.5 assists in 15 games, delighting fans in his team’s hometown of Taiyuan and selling out every arena his team went to.  And his 30 point, 10 assist MVP performance at at the CBA All-Star game was considered by many as the dopest thing to ever happen to Chinese basketball since… well, ever.

But, this year it’s been a different story.  Playing for newly relocated Foshan this year however after being released by Shanxi just before the start of the season, Steph’s production has dropped off to much more pedestrian levels of 16-5-5.  At the time of the story, Foshan was sitting 15th out of 17 teams, although they have since improved to 11th.

Besides his dip in play, there might also be another reason why Chinese fans are yawning at the prospect of paying to see Starbury play: they all saw him play last year:

Everyone knows right now the CBA only has one former NBA All-Star, but fans in Hangzhou still didn’t buy tickets for Marbury. This game’s attendance compared to last Sunday’s against DongGuan — a typical, run of the mill match — was only slightly larger. When Marbury’s Shanxi team came last year, the entire stadium was packed. Why can’t Marbury attract a crowd?  Guangsha GM, Ye Xiangyu, explained.

“One reason is that everyone saw him once last year. Seeing him was new and exciting; this year not so much, so they’re not going to come again. Second is because of the the whole Francis thing, everyone thinks that all big name NBA stars are all like that.”

As I’ve already argued, Marbury is quite different than a player like Francis, who left a mere two weeks after first showing up out of shape, then flipping the bird at a ref before finally refusing outright to practice. Of course, Ye says this after a former NBA player of his own, Javaris Crittenton, left the team because of his questionable commitment to China.

The article goes on to detail the overall mood at the game and quotes a player who thinks that Marbury’s ability may have slipped since last year:

Other than Guangsha’s die-hard fans, almost everyone came to see Marbury. Every time Marbury came onto the court or made a shot, he elicited a few cheers. Even when he went off for good earlier than expected, the audience responded with applause. But it was obvious that there were few fans who felt really excited about seeing him.

The day before the match, Marbury told the media during practice that he would play hard. In 30 minutes, you can’t say that he didn’t put forth an effort, but his performance wasn’t that far off from just a common CBA import player: 4-14 shooting for only 13 points.

Said Wang Xiaofei, one of the Guangsha players who guarded him during the game, “I learned a lot of things from him this game… When these big name players first came, I was definitely playing a little tight. Now, I’m not nervous. He’s old. I feel I can play with him.”

Should Marbury be worried? It’s never a good thing when some young cat, Chinese or not, is calling you old. China is not unlike any other basketball sneaker market. His ability to sell himself and his brand to Chinese depends on how well he and his team plays, and right now, neither are playing very well. Mixed in with China’s famously fickle fans, and Marbury’s grand ambitions for taking the Chinese shoe market by storm may not be the slam-dunk that everyone thought it’d be just a few months ago.

The article concludes by stating what is obvious to pretty much everyone: NBA players aren’t coming back to China anytime soon.

Trying to transform shaky NBA players into CBA model citizens, Marbury’s success in China is a legend never to be reduplicated again. But looking at his his gradually dropping fame and ability, it’s safe to say that the gold rush to bring NBA players to the CBA will pass.

Said Ye Xiangyu, “When we choose imports next season, there will definitely be a big change. Teams will look for players who can still play, not for players who are famous.”

Follow Jon Pastuszek on Twitter @NiuBBall

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