It’s February 23, 2014, the game clock at Wukesong’s MasterCard Center in Beijing shows 0:00. Outside the arena, a grey fog hovers in the Beijing sky but inside, the lights are bright and nobody shines brighter under the MasterCard Center lights than Beijing Ducks all-star point guard Stephon Marbury.
Beijing Fans applaud the home team after coming out victorious in game two of the best-of five quarterfinals series against Chris Johnson and the Zhejiang Lions.
Every last ticket holder in the arena is up out of their seats giving a standing ovation to Marbury who stands in the spotlight at mid-court.
The jumbotron hanging over the floor that once graced the presence of the 2008 Summer Olympics display “Happy Birthday Ma-Bu-Li”.
A smile comes from the 37-year-old Marbury. It’s a smile so bright it could be seen from the upper level of Beijing’s biggest arena. It’s the same smile he had when he won the CBA championship in 2012 and the same smile shown on NBA draft day in 1996.
There is a certain feeling you get when you witness something like that. A warm feeling, the feeling that sends shivers down your spine. There is an intense volume of emotion.
Imagine 15,000 of your fans on their feet wishing you a happy birthday. It’s a feeling that can only be described with one word; love. And love is love, as the five-year CBA veteran Marbury would tell you.
“I am happy here. As a matter of fact, I am very happy here. The Beijing fans are the best fans on this planet,” says Marbury.
Marbury is by far the biggest basketball star in China. You can find him posing in his signature crossover stance on the side of Beijing city buses, billboards and television ads.
His way of interacting with the Chinese fans is what puts him on another level.
Make no mistake about it; China has produced its own homegrown basketball superstars like Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian. But as Yao and Yi distance themselves from the Chinese spotlight, Marbury embraces it.
At 37 years-old Marbury plays a key role in the success of the Beijing Shougang Ducks both on and off the floor.
During Marbury’s first season in Beijing, he visited a child in Beijing’s Dao Pei Hospital who claimed to be Marbury’s number one fan. Not only was it a dream come true for the child and the child’s grandmother, it created a feeling for Beijingers and fans across China, a feeling of love.
His success off the floor is not to be overshadowed by what Marbury does on the floor for the Ducks. He is not the dominant scorer he once was but at the end of the day basketball is not about how many points one player scores, it’s about wins and losses.
The game stays the same but the culture of basketball is different in China. Call it a Chinese spice to the wonderful recipe that is basketball. If you can’t handle the spice, you might not be as successful as you expect to be.
Marbury has adapted to Chinese basketball far and beyond more than any other foreigner who has ever played in China.
“It’s not as easy playing for a foreigner to play here as people think. You must adjust to the atmosphere, the environment and playing a different style of basketball. The games here are up-tempo and very competitive,” says Marbury.
When he is on the floor, he always possesses a cool and calm demeanor. Nothing seems to bother him. He is a valuable veteran who has a deep understanding for the game of basketball.
The Beijing Ducks utilize Marbury to his full potential. They play various sets that occasionally force Marbury out of his traditional point guard position. A role Marbury is more than capable of playing.
“In the NBA if you are a point guard then you are a point guard if you are a shooting guard then you are a shooting guard and everything is systematic. Here is you have do a combination of different things. My brother always told me when ‘you are out there on the court, it’s basketball’. I have no problem adapting to any position because at the end of the day, it’s basketball,” says Marbury.
His full-time trainer Chris Hoffman is with Marbury in China. Together they have been working on a dynamic approach to Marbury’s everyday workouts.
Hoffman specializes in working the nervous system of the body.
“The nervous system is a governing system. Nothing happens in the body without the nervous system. If you tap into it and do what the nervous system wants you to do then you make progress faster and better results come of it. We always incorporate that into Steph’s training,” says Hoffman who is based out of Los Angeles, California.
Hoffman says it took Marbury a few years to fully adapt to the training seeing how the program is totally new.
“This type of training is relatively new but it will find more ways into professional sports. The benefits are drastic. You have to keep up and do research. The last ten to fifteen years, what we’ve learned about the brain and neuroplasticity and how it works is immense. If you don’t use it then it just doesn’t make sense,” says Hoffman.
According to Hoffman, Marbury excels in the training and sees no real sign of him slowing down any time soon.
At 37 years old, Marbury continues to play at a high-level averaging north of 30 minutes per game. Marbury credits Hoffman’s training as the fuel that keeps the engine running.
“We’ve been doing it for the last three to four years so it’s something that is embedded into me. I’ve noticed a big difference in not only my basketball play but my physical ability,” says Marbury.
It’s Marbury’s work ethic that Beijingers appreciate. Beijing is a hard working city and when they see Marbury on the basketball court, not taking a possession off, they appreciate that. They love that.
The average fan will see Marbury’s impact through his hustle but if you look closely at his style of play you can see how easy he makes the game for his Chinese teammates.
Marbury will always draw attention from defenders. His ability to still get in the lane alone forces defenses to keep him at arms reach. His first step is so quick he blows past every defender in the league. Once he drives to the basket its almost as if he sees the help defense come in slow motion because he finds the right man, the open man.
From his no-look behind the back passes to his off the dribble skip passes right into the shooter’s pocket, Marbury does all of the little things coaches love to see in a player. He makes plays that allow for easy basketball.
“Some NBA players come here and can’t manage to play here because it doesn’t fit their style. In China, it’s not all about scoring points. Scoring is a plus but being able to adjust and play with the Chinese players gets you to a level where you can dominate,” says Marbury.
And that is what is doing. He is dominating. Not on the stat sheet but in the win column. The game plan for opposing teams remains to ‘shut down Marbury’.
But now, two years after his CBA championship, is Marbury capable enough to get passed the blood, sweat and tears in a playoff series against the number one team in China?
It’s March 4th, 2014, a sellout crowd gathers in the MasterCard Center for game one of the CBA semi-finals between Marbury’s Beijing Ducks and Yi Jilian’s Guangdong Southern Tigers.
The Ducks are on the floor going through their shootaround routine. Marbury jolts out of the tunnel to join his team. He posses a look in his eyes, a look of hunger and determination. It’s that look of focus. He is locked into one idea, one objective, one goal; winning.
The Ducks come out flying taking an early lead over the defending champions. It has the 15,000 fans in Beijing on their feet cheering at the top of their lungs. The building is electrified.
Guangdong was having non of it. They went on to controlled the second and third quarter. Guangdon’s execution was flawless and Yi Jilian was not missing a jump shot. The Southern Tigers would go into to fourth quarter with the lead.
That is when one man would take over the game.
Marbury, for three… BANG!
Marbury another three… BANG!
Can he do it again? YES!
Three straight three pointers have Beijing right back into this ball game.
He’s is feeling it, but a true champion knows his role in this situation. A true champion knows that the defense will key in on him so Marbury wisely decides to get his fellow foreigner involved calling two back to back post ups for Randolph Morris. The result was fantastic for Beijing. Morris got to the line to shoot free throws and then finally took the lead on the ensuing possession with an and-1.
Marbury proved in front of “the best fans on the planet” that he is here to win.
The Beijing Ducks led by Marbury’s 31-point performance took down the first place Guangdong Southern Tigers 90-87 in game one of this CBA semi-final series.
After the game, Marbury is swarmed by media. He credits the Beijing fans for being with the team throughout the game.
“There are no better fans than the Beijing fans. It doesn’t matter if we are up or down, they are always with us.”
Marbury followed by commenting on his clutch execution down the stretch.
“We played well down the stretch. The game is 48 minutes. You’ve got to keep grinding and keep playing. You can’t lose focus when the other team goes up. You just have to keep playing hard.”
The Ducks travel to Southern China to play two road games in Guangdong before coming back home on Tuesday March 11, 2014 for game 4.
When all is set and done, one thing is for certain; Beijing fans will always know Marbury as ‘Ma-Bu-Li – MVP’.