Amid weeping fans and a media firestorm, the Beijing Ducks walked off their home court on February 19, their season over before the Chinese Basketball Association playoffs even began. The Ducks have been CBA champions three times in the last five years, and so their postseason absence should be a huge deal. Instead, the intense glare of the media is focused on one player: Ma-bu-li, a.k.a. former NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury, the Ducks' beloved star point guard.
Heading into this season, China had been gearing up to say goodbye to the grand old man of Beijing basketball. Twelve months ago, the then-39-year-old told local media that this season would be his last. But within hours of the final buzzer last Sunday, Marbury was announcing on Chinese social media that he wanted to come back for the final year of his contract. This clearly caught the Ducks off-guard, and local sports media cannot stop talking about it.
What makes the situation even juicer is that Marbury's final year is a team option, leaving the Ducks in a precarious position. If they give in and extend his contract, the team's much-needed rebuild gets postponed for another year. But if they don't and Marbury walks, Beijing explodes with fury—and that's before considering whether the guard even plays on in China with another team.
To understand why this is a such a delicate situation for the Ducks, it helps to understand Marbury's place in recent CBA history. Before Tracy McGrady, Steve Francis, and other faded NBA All-Stars started coming over to China, Marbury was out here by himself. His popularity only increased when he stayed long after the others had returned to the U.S. Cynics might (correctly) suggest that there was little interest in Marbury among NBA GMs and that the Coney Island native would rather bask in the adoration of Chinese fans, but regardless, he wanted to be part of the CBA, and that meant a lot to basketball fans in the Middle Kingdom.
In the Chinese capital especially, Marbury is more than a cult hero who endeared himself to a new audience; he has become the sporting embodiment of Beijing, a city whose people are commonly stereotyped as mean-spirited and tough-nosed. His first season with the Ducks, he hospitalized a player from Beijing's hated rivals, the Shanghai Sharks, with a brutal hard foul. Twelve months later, he gleefully ran up the score in 101-88 beatdown that cost the Sharks' coach his job. For a while, he kept kicking people in the junk just because he could.
It helped, of course, that Marbury was also good. Before he arrived in 2011, the Ducks were a storied team that had stagnated. Marbury was a perfect addition to head coach Min Lulei's spread pick-and-roll playbook, and that same year, he helped the Ducks win their first championship in decades. More titles soon followed and Marbury's near-unstoppable partnership with American teammate Randolph Morris forced the league to make a rule limiting the number of foreigners allowed in the fourth quarter.
In response, Beijing has showered Marbury in plaudits. The city built a statue of him, put on a biographical play, and issued stamps in his honor. Demand to see the Marbury–powered Ducks also allowed Beijing to move from the 6,000-seat Shougang Gymnasium to the Wukesong Arena, whose capacity is three times that. At a time when most CBA arenas are half empty, Ducks fans pack the building and Marbury, who is routinely serenaded with "MVP" chants, is the central factor behind this. It would be impossible to find another American who replicates Marbury's mass appeal. Should the Ducks jettison him this off-season, ticket sales would drop and Beijing's rowdy fan base—who once drove an opposing team's enforcer to seek therapy after he hard fouled Marbury during a 2011 Finals game—will find a way to have their frustration heard, presumably live and on national television.
The problem is that, on paper, the Ducks really need to move on from their veteran star. Marbury averaged 21 points per game this season, but he has been injury-prone for the last two years. The Ducks, meanwhile, have local players they want to develop, most notably backup point guard Feng Shuo, whom Marbury previously anointed as his heir apparent. That won't happen if the American guard returns next season and demands more shots.
Furthermore, Marbury will be 41 by the end of next season, and it will difficult for him to have the same impact on the court as he once did. "He could still play a role in key games, but not every night," said Zhang Duo, who covers the CBA for Hupu Sports. Zhang thinks that Marbury will ultimately get his way, but others are less convinced.
"There are two voices [within the city]," Sohu Sports, another of the major Chinese sports websites, wrote last week. "One that says Marbury should be renewed … and another that says Marbury is 40 years old and his injuries are hindering the Beijing team." On the same day, a third major sports outlet in China, Sina, published a front-page article about the team's reluctance to bring Marbury back. It certainly feels like elements of the Ducks front office are briefing the press. They want both the fans and Marbury to realize his time is up.
Marbury either is not listening or does not care. On Weibo, he recently posted a video of himself embracing Coach Min, an equally beloved figure who played for Beijing before retiring to the bench. When a fan replied below the post, "another year champion as a player [sic], fight till the end!', Marbury made a point of replying, "When you see me fighting next year, you will see me fighting with everything in my life."
Right now, no one knows what is going to happen. The Ducks owe their recent titles and their nightly sellout crowds to Marbury, but there is also no denying that they need to look to the future. The CBA is a league defined by dynasties; three teams have won 18 of the last 20 titles, and typically one team dominates until a younger rival steps up to overwhelm and take its place. The Ducks are trying to avoid this fate, but they also recognize the politics at play.
"Marbury is the best foreign player in Beijing and the CBA's history," Zhang told me. "Whether he continues to play or not, the fans will love him."
The real question is what the Ducks' relationship with the fan base will be if Marbury does not get that final year. The American built the Ducks into what they are now. His departure would devastate the appeal of the league's best-supported team and potentially turn segments of the fan base against the front office. It has never happened in the CBA before, but a foreigner has come to define a team. To cut bait now would be seen as betrayal by many, but if the Ducks are to keep on contending, they have to be ruthless. Whatever decision they make, the next twelve months are going to be tough for the Beijing front office.
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