Stephon Marbury's money play

April, 18, 2011
4/18/11
11:48
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Writing in GQ, Wells Tower writes meaningfully of his time with Stephon Marbury in the industrial heart of China, where Marbury is both playing basketball, but also working feverishly to ingratiate himself with the vast and valuable Chinese basketball shoe market.

The criticism of Marbury -- well, in fact there are many of them. But the main one is probably that he was too obsessed with his own rewards, recognition and income, and not focused enough on others. And that all stands. However, at least he's good at that. You have to admire Marbury's serious business-like approach to one of the most polluted places on the planet, where he now works. Tower writes that he didn't see a single bird in his entire time in the industrial city of Taiyuan, a place one guidebook labelled a "s---hole" and where Marbury says he'd consider signing a three-year contract.

But despite all the insight from China, it's a trip to North Carolina that may be most telling about what Marbury is up to these days. Note, the size and nature of Marbury's real estate portfolio. Tower writes:
When I paid a visit to Starbury's operations center in Morrisville, North Carolina, a village of office parks near Raleigh, I did, admittedly, half expect to walk into an empty room with maybe a big TV and a couple of guys playing Nerf hoops on the clock. Instead I found a ten-room suite full of business-clad people hard at work. One woman was busy designing a line of Starbury camisoles. The in-house attorney was straightening out some particulars of Chinese copyright law. The rest of the staff was dealing with the financial intricacies of Marbury's real estate holdings, a $75 million portfolio leased to such disparate and unlikely tenants as a U.S. attorney, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Social Security Administration.

Starbury CFO Gustavus Bass told me that Marbury had so far sunk $10 million of his own pocket cash into Starbury Corp. Once production started in China, he said, the business was forecast to return profits within a year. Bass, a former Wachovia corporate banker, led me down a hall, past a boardroom with a table the size of a duckpin-bowling lane, into Starbury's operations center. He showed me whirring servers, flat files full of blueprints and architectural designs for the Chinese retail stores, and a twenty-five-station call center ready to be staffed. "We've been in the planning stages for a very long time," Bass said. "We're positioned to go."

In China, Marbury's famously erratic personality, too, seemed newly conditioned for popular consumption. Despite his renown as an arrogant megalomaniac outstanding in a field of arrogant megalomaniacs, in person he came across as a warm, even earnest man guilelessly fond of almost everyone around him. "I love the Chinese people" was his reflexive response to complaints about flying sputum on the streets or the sharp elbows of the sidewalk throngs. One night at dinner, he summoned the chef from the kitchen to embrace him. More than once Marbury would tell me, with a nearly uncomfortable directness of emotion, how glad he was that I'd come to China with him and that he'd miss me when I left. Nothing in his manner smacked of PR gamesmanship. Rather, he gave the impression of someone desperate to forget all the haters back home and see only a world full of new friends.

Henry Abbott | email

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