Marbury assumes role as leader in China

TAIYUAN, China -- Stephon Marbury has returned to basketball -- this time, playing in a parched, polluted city in China after making himself unwelcome in the NBA.

The team is officially called Shanxi Fenjiu, named for a local grain alcohol, but is more commonly known as the Brave Dragons.

Home court is a grimy 5,300-seat arena with dragon decals peeling off the worn hardwood. The sports heroes whose posters hang on the baby blue walls outside the locker room are Chinese pingpong and badminton athletes.

How did "Starbury," the brash New Yorker with a tattoo on the side of his head who's lately become better known for his bizarre online stunts and run-ins with coaches and owners, end up in a provincial rustbelt city that's home to the Coal Museum of China?

"It was an opportunity to allow my brand to grow in a different distribution channel," he said, referring to his Starbury line of low-priced athletic shoes and clothing. "And I wanted to get back onto the basketball court."

The Marbury who's been reincarnated in China for this roughly six-week gig is, by all accounts, affable and easygoing.

There's been no sign of the defiant personality that turned the former All-Star into an NBA pariah after feuding with coaches and skipping games, in the process alienating management, teammates and fans.

Marbury has embraced a leadership role with the Brave Dragons after being here only about a week, giving pointers to young teammates through sign language and a translator who hovers along the sideline.

Off the court, he delights his many fans in this basketball-crazy country with one of the few Chinese phrases he's learned, "Xin Nian Kuai Le," or "Happy New Year."

"People say this and that about him, but let me tell you, I had dinner with him last night and it was so simple, chicken fried rice. That's it," Brave Dragons coach Wu Qinglong said, expressing his approval of such low-key behavior.

"He was happy. He said it was really good," Wu added. "He didn't even want anything to drink, just some bottled water."

Marbury was dealing with a throng of fans and journalists as soon as he got off the plane and walked into the airport terminal in Taiyuan, 320 miles southwest of Beijing. Staff at the Western restaurant in his luxury hotel say they've been busy shooing away reporters, including one who ran in after Marbury left to snap a photo of his unfinished meal.

Of course, a positive image helps sell shoes, and Marbury knows his potential Chinese customers are watching.

"You got over 300 million kids that love basketball, so you can't beat that," he said. "I don't think people are all aware of that in the United States."

The 32-year-old Marbury may be the highest-profile NBA player to join China's professional basketball league so far, but he's certainly not the first. The Chinese Basketball Association depends heavily on foreign talent to raise the level of competition, though each team is only allowed to have two overseas athletes who play a combined six quarters per game.

Nine of the top 10 scorers in the CBA this season are foreigners, led by Andre Emmett, who had a short NBA career before becoming an international journeyman.

Ninth on the list is Wang Zhizhi, the former Dallas Mavericks center who was the first Chinese player to make the NBA.

The Brave Dragons have a dire need for talent. They're 4-15, last in the 17-team league.

Team owner Wang Xingjiang, who made his fortune in iron and steel before getting into basketball, saw in Marbury a kindred entrepreneur. He invited Marbury to play in China after reading online that the point guard didn't have an NBA contract and offered him a salary of $100,000. That figure has not yet been finalized, Wang said, calling it a "very low" amount.

"He's helping me with the team, I can help him in business. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to afford him," said Wang, sitting in one of the more than a dozen faded armchairs and loveseats lining the sideline that make up the VIP section at Binhe Sports Arena. "He wants to promote his shoes and I want to be his agent in China."

Marbury has shipped 50,000 pairs of Starbury shoes to China, but said the marketing plan was "secret." On the court, he wears black hightops embroidered with his Chinese name, "Ma Bu Li."

He's opened a store on popular Chinese online retailer taobao.com, but Marbury had no idea how many pairs of shoes have sold so far.

"I haven't even been focused on that, to be honest," Marbury said. "I've been totally focused on basketball."

The knowledgeable Chinese fans expect a lot from foreign players -- and they say Marbury's nine months away from basketball is evident.

"His stamina isn't up to it yet," said 41-year-old season ticket holder Zhang Zhijun, an unemployed driver, sitting on the front row at Marbury's second game with the Brave Dragons. "Right now he needs to turn up his game. He's not even playing at his normal level.

"I can't say he's the best player I've ever seen," he added. The best so far has been "[Bonzi] Wells, who played for Shanxi last season."

Wells, who played for the Portland Trail Blazers for most of his NBA career, scored 48 points in his debut with the Brave Dragons.

During Wednesday night's game against the Guangdong Leopards, Marbury finished with 15 points and 15 assists in more than 42 minutes. He was only 1 of 7 from 3-point range.

Action off the court was almost as exciting as the sloppy play on it. Incensed by what they thought was a bad call in the fourth quarter, angry fans began hurling cigarette lighters at the referees and onto the court. Police dispersed into the stands while the visiting team scurried away, covering their heads with towels and the hoods of their puffy jackets.

"Please sit down," the announcer pleaded. "Please take care of your home court."

Considering the fans' tendency to throw things (the same thing happened at the previous game), perhaps it's not too surprising that the arena doesn't have concession stands -- no popcorn, no hot dogs and definitely no beer.

As for Marbury, his mood was buoyant even after the 113-104 loss. His assistant had to force a path through the crowd that gathered outside the locker room and followed them all the way to Marbury's car, a four-door Honda.

"You are the best!" they shouted in English, waving basketballs, T-shirts and notebooks.

"I'm going to let the chips fall where they may," Marbury said of his future in basketball. "This was something that I'm happy that I did. ... I'm getting an opportunity to find myself and it's like a retreat also because I'm in a peaceful environment. I'm focused on one thing and that's playing basketball."