In only two months in China, the former NBA bad boy Stephon Marbury has shed his self-centred, spoiled image and wowed fans with his dazzling play. The question now is: will he stay for a new season? The former New York Knicks point guard, now of the Shanxi Brave Dragons, is the biggest foreign star ever to play in the Chinese Basketball Association and one of several American players enlivening the 15-year-old league.
After cutting a disgruntled figure back home, Marbury, 33, ended his first season in China as the CBA's most valuable player at the league's All-Star game, leading the North All-Stars to a 133-121 win over the South. "I had a lot of fun. You never know what's going to happen out there, but being in an All-Star game is always an honour," he said after scoring 30 points with 10 assists in the game in Beijing.
"I knew there were going to be a lot of people, so I wanted to give the fans a show. If you are going to be playing in an All-Star game you always want to do that." But Marbury - who is known by the three Chinese characters Ma Bu Li - remains cagey on whether he will stay to build on his court success and his hopes of marketing his Starbury brand of basketball shoes. "I'm going to have to weigh my options as far as what I'm going to do, but I'm looking forward to doing so [coming back]," he said.
"It's a great opportunity to play basketball in the CBA. I think it has been a great experience, so I have to evaluate it with my wife, see what my kids think about the situation. "It might be a situation where I might be here for a couple of years and my family might have to move here. So there is a lot to think about." Marbury wants the Brave Dragons to bring in better players, retain Wu Qinglong, the coach, and craft a compensation package that could include a shoe marketing deal and a playing salary of US$2million (Dh7.3m).
In 15 regular-season games, Marbury averaged 22.8 points and 9.5 assists for the Brave Dragons, managing to eke out a 10-22 record for a team that was 4-13 before he joined them. The team enjoyed record crowds at home, a reception that marked a turnaround from his controversial 15-year NBA career. After being benched by Isiah Thomas, the former Knicks coach, during the 2007/08 season, Marbury refused to play in what became an ugly spat that drew national headlines and alienated fans.
The situation dragged into the following season until the Knicks bought out the final year of his reported $42m contract in early 2009. He last played for the Boston Celtics. Marbury still hopes to play again in the NBA one day. But he hinted the fan adoration, and the respect he enjoys from CBA players and coaches, will be hard to give up. "They respect me because of what I do on the court," he said.
"People wrote so many things back home. It is political back home. Coming here, people really understand who I am as a basketball player and a person. They've had an opportunity to see for themselves." Sunday's all-star game showcased Marbury's impact. The first person to play in both an NBA and a CBA All-Star game, he led an American domination of the fast-paced, nationally televised game that also saw big performances by Rodney White, the former Denver Nugget, John Lucas, the one-time Houston Rocket, and Olumide Oyedeji, the Nigerian who played for Seattle in the NBA.
Zhang Qingpeng, China's nat-ional team point guard, who scored 29 points for the North and proved the only Chinese star to match the quality of the former NBA players, gushed about Marbury's play. "He controls the game. When he passes, he gets the ball to you in a very comfortable position and makes it easier to score," he said. "There is a lot we need to learn from him." South All-Star Lin Zhijie added: "He knows how to turn it on as the game progresses. From the start of the game, he got everyone involved playing high-level basketball. This is how an all-star game should be."