Stephon Marbury Opens Up About China, the Knicks, New Documentary
NEW YORK CITY -- In 2010, Stephon Marbury left behind a complicated legacy in the NBA to write the next chapter of his basketball-centric in China. Eight years later, he retired from the game as a three-time champion with the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association, and an immortal figure among the world’s largest hoops fanbase. Now, Starbury’s odyssey is the subject of A Kid From Coney Island, a documentary about his life on and off the court that debuted at this week’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
The 42-year-old Brooklyn-born legend—who played for the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Jersey Nets, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics—returned to his hometown for the occasion, and took part in a panel discussion and audience Q&A about the film following a screening at the Roxy Hotel in Tribeca. While sitting alongside producers Jason Samuels and Nina Yang Bongiovi (who has a production company with actor Forest Whitaker), and co-directors Chike Ozah and Coodie Simmons (first known for making Kanye West’s “Through The Wire” music video), Stephon opened up about the process of making the film, what he gained from his time in China, why he’s still a Knicks fan—despite his tumultuous tenure at Madison Square Garden—and more.
(The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.)
From left to right: Coodie Simmons, Chike Ozah, Jason Samuels, Stephon Marbury and Nina Yang Bongiovi. (Jared Zwerling)
Moderator: Given the complications and controversies that can come when you're depicted by the media, how did it feel when the filmmakers first came to you with this project? Did you have hesitations or trepidation to work with them?
Stephon Marbury: No, I didn't. When I spoke with Nina and Jason, I pretty much had a lot of confidence in Nina. One, because of who she is as a person and two, who she is as a producer. Jason came to China and he did a story on Real Sports about me, so he pretty much knew about my story. So when him and Nina started to speak and talk about what it was that they wanted to do with this doc, I mean, they pretty much just took it from there. I didn't ask about anything about what they were going to do. I pretty much just said, “Go ahead, do what you do.” So it was a real, real easy decision to make.
Moderator: Nina, I'll jump to you about the origin of this project. I feel like with a lot of the films you've had a hand in lately—films like Dope, Roxanne Roxanne and Fruitvale Station—they sort of connect with this film as stories about what happens when promise and talent come up against the judgment of reality, the possibilities of that. How did you first start developing and come to this project?
Nina Yang Bongiovi: I think early on, when he first went out there in 2010, I remember reading about it. I don't know much about basketball, but I thought that was interesting that he was heading to China. And I wrote to my brother who lives there. I still have the e-mail that says, “I wonder how long he'll stay.” And then I read that he won the championship in 2012 and in 2013, and I finally had the courage to write him, because after 2013, that's when Fruitvale Station came out. And I was, like, Okay, I have some more credibility to be able to approach him. And I wrote him an e-mail saying who I am and Forest Whitaker's my partner, we're really interested in your story. And he actually replied. And when he replied, he said, “Get on FaceTime, so I can see your face to make sure you're not full of shit.” That was the forming of the friendship.
Moderator: Chike, talk about then once you got on board and started working on it. How'd you begin to develop the story and how you're going to tell it? Because the film tells the story in so many different ways. I mean, you've got the claymation, the archival footage, interviews with family, the whole section in China, at the end back on Coney Island. How'd you start picking through that?
Chike Ozah: First, we went out to China, and that was like a two-week journey when we went out with Nina. We had a big conversation when we first realized that we had to gain his trust to be able to tell his story. So then, we went out there just to see him move around within the culture and see how his journey is in China, and that was an amazing experience. So I think for us, we don't like to do a bunch of research when we jump into a project. We like to take on the project as if we're like the viewer watching it for the first time that doesn't know anything about what's going on.
So then we collect all this information and then figure out, Well, what's the story to tell within here? Steph alone, when we met him, one of the things that was so amazing was the depth that he could go as a person, as an individual. And a lot of times, we stereotype athletes and think, Oh, they've been playing sports their whole life, this is all they know. No. When we talked to Steph, it's like, he's so spiritual, he's so deep. He's achieving other things and making other impacts. He would have been successful at anything he wanted to be successful at. That's what's really important, you know? And so that's the approach.
As far as adding claymation and other elements to the story, we're always looking for ways to push the envelope when it comes to reenactments—try and mix it up for people who’ve never seen claymation in a sports doc yet. So that was really cool. We had a great claymation guy named William Child out of the UK. He was amazing. And that stuff is so tedious. He's taking a picture every single frame and moving it and taking another picture. So it was just the love and care that he put into it, after the love and care I think that we had as far as the whole crew in this whole process.
Moderator: Jason, since you come from a background of broadcast journalism and this is your first independent feature, what led you to get involved in this and how'd you find the process?
Jason Samuels: I couldn't have asked for a better first independent feature. Working with Nina has been an incredible process. Earning the trust of Stephon initially, I think most good documentaries, the foundation is laid with trust with your subjects. I think for me, telling his story, I think it's a story that's very, very inspirational and I think especially for young people, so I hope a lot of young people see it. My 11-year-old came to the opening on Sunday and he just couldn't stop talking about. "Dad, Stephon!" [Stephon] was so down and he came up through and he rose up and I was really amazed. My son is very quiet, but he was certainly talking about how much he was inspired and touched by this film. So I think the story is beyond just sports fans. It's a human story.
NYB: I just wanted to tell everybody that Stephon trusted our team so much that he saw the movie for the first time at the premiere this past weekend.
Moderator: So let's open it up. Does anybody have a question?
Audience Member: The Bruce Lee story [with his famous quote “Be like water”], how did that inspire you? Where did that come from?
SM: Actually, it came from one of my friends in China. Bruce Lee was always one of my idols growing up and [my friend] makes these videos for me before every season. And when he made this video for me, this particular one, it really touched home on me because it was a way of how to flow in going through life, and all of the trials and tribulations that I've faced. But during this time, when he gave me this video, it just hit home at this time because I was in a space at this time in China and I needed it at that time. So I just continued to move with it.
CO: Real quick, just to piggyback on that, when he pulled out that Bruce Lee clip to show Xavier Bell at the very end [at a barbershop in Coney Island], it's one of those moments we didn't say, like, "Oh, we know you talked about Bruce Lee in the interview. Can you pull this out on your iPhone?" That just happened. That's the magic. You don't know that's going to happen. You don't even try to write that in. It's just a real moment.
Audience Member: The movie shows how incredible you are. How come we couldn't see that during your NBA career?
SM: I don't really think that I had enough time to actually show that. The timing of me being able to explain who I was, I didn't have no time. I was doing more defending. I'm not perfect by no means, but I'm not as bad as people were trying to make me out to be. And I think what happens is, when the power of the pen is so powerful where you really have no control over it, that’s why I pretty much went to China. It just got to the point where I was just, like, You know what? I can't win this argument and I'm not going to try. I'm just going to try something different.
But at the same time, for me, playing basketball in America, it was a learning experience. It was something that I needed in order to go someplace else to accomplish things that no basketball player has accomplished playing overseas. So I just looked at everything as a learning curve. It was a process. It was something that was supposed to happen and I just pretty much went with it.
Stephon played for five NBA teams in 13 years before going to China. (Fafane Cherie)
Audience Member: I thought it was incredible at the end, your final game, there were all of these young people in China, like in tears crying. How much of the Chinese population was following your career here in the U.S., and how much of that was established once you moved over to China?
SM: When I went to China during that time, it was pretty big news because all of the media attention that I had in America, good and bad, it followed. So a lot of people knew about me playing basketball there, but once we won the championship in Beijing, the Chinese population from Australia, London, all over the world, people started to follow because Beijing obviously is the capitol, but it's 400 million people that play basketball in China. There's more people who play basketball in China than there are people here in America. So for me being recognized as a black guy in China is not pretty hard. It resonated throughout the whole country, and then it went all over the world because so many Chinese people migrate all over the world.
Audience Member: Steph, at the time when you went to China, obviously it was needed. You had a lot going on—the death of your dad, the press and getting your game back. What issue would you say helped you the most with that move to China?
SM: Well, No. 1 was God. That was the numero uno. During that time, I was super depressed after my dad died. It was really hard. I was dealing with a whole bunch—not just basketball, but off the court. But when I made the decision to go to China, when people say, “Oh, I want to start over,” literally, that's basically what I was doing. My family, everybody was, like, You're crazy. Like, you're bugging out. You're going to go 7,000 miles away. At that time, I was just really trying to find my peace. I wasn't really trying to find my game. And I was really just trying to be happy. Like, I knew what being happy was, and I knew the feeling of it and I didn't feel that anymore. So basketball wasn't going to do that, you know? So it was basically, What am I going to do?
Me leaving and going to China to play basketball, it just started to create so many positive synergies towards the life that I was trying to live, and how I was trying to lead my life. And I was able to utilize basketball as a whole. But the people, the love that the people really had, it manifested in a way that I never thought. Me not even being able to communicate with people, I would still be able to communicate because it wasn't me speaking to them and talking to them—it was basically just the energy, the energy that they were showing.
Audience Member: How much personal satisfaction, if any, do you get from the fact that you've been able to win multiple championships while the Knicks can barely make the playoffs?
SM: It's so funny and it's so crazy because it was like I was shunned when I left. I finally had the heart to go back to the Garden to go to a game. And when I went to the game, I was sitting in my seat and the guy was, like, “Look at you.” He's, like, “You feel good right now, right?” I was looking at him. He was, like, “You got a fucking museum [in China]!” That's what he was saying. He was, like, “You got a statue.” He kept going over all the different things.
NYB: You got a postage stamp, too.
SM: I'm deeply grateful and humbled by it—to be able to sit there and be at the game and be recognized in a different light. But at the same time, I'm still a Knicks fan after all of that. But that situation [when I played for the Knicks], it bothered me. It was a lesson that I needed—to be able to go to China and do the stuff that happened, because all that energy pushed me. Like those championship games, I would find myself thinking about times when I was playing back at home and, like, This is what I want to do. I want to do this, so I can show that I could do this, show that I could do that. And then after I won the [first] championship, it's like everything disappeared. I didn't have no feelings or any of it anymore, which is cool.
Audience Member: When you were embroiled in the media, how did you disconnect? Did you just not read the papers? Did you not watch SportsCenter?
SM: Actually, I didn't disconnect. I'm a New York kid to heart. I know New York. I know the media. I watched what they did to Patrick Ewing and I was, like, Man, this is crazy. This really goes on. But at the same time, for me, I was a part of it, too. I engaged when I could have just said nothing. So I take blame in some of the things that happened, but I didn't initiate.
So during that time, when all of those different things were happening, I told one group of people, “There's three sides to a story. There's their side, my side and then there's the truth.” And I said, “Who I am as a human being, it will never ever be tainted. And nobody will ever be able to tell me different because I'm not on the Earth to try to pollute. I'm not here to try to harm or hurt.” And I think when I went to another country, they saw me in the way how people were speaking about me in America. And then when they got to know me, I said, “Judge me based upon what you see and what you hear. Don't go by what somebody wrote or what they said.”
And I was given the opportunity. And for me to have been able to accomplish the things that I've accomplished, in a place where they have 1.3 billion people, I think people started to recognize that, You're not as bad as people said you are.
Audience Member: During the movie, we saw how you led with your commitment to success. And it was so amazing how you kept going in the NBA, no matter what, even though they were saying that you were only about yourself. When you went to China, how did you make that perception change when you started over?
SM: To be honest, the only thing that I wanted to do is win. I'm really a sore loser. Like my sister said, she beat me in checkers and I'm mad. So I didn't know how to find the balance in losing because I'd never lost before. And then when I went to New Jersey, I played with guys who really did not care about winning because they got so used to losing. So I didn't know how to deal with that. Like, at all. I didn't understand how you could lose by 40 points and be laughing in the locker room. That wasn't normal to me. So I lashed out in ways that I shouldn't have lashed out. I mean, I was young. I didn't know. I just wanted to win.
So when I went to China during this time, at the beginning, I knew that I wasn't going to act like that and I knew I wasn't going to repeat how I felt, whether we would win or lose, because I knew what it triggered and what it would do as far as if I would act that same way. So I just embraced the culture, because basketball there is completely different than basketball here, even though it's still a game. Because when a foreign player goes and plays in China, the first thing that the foreign player says is they want to win a championship, and the local players say, “Bullshit. You just coming to China to make money and then you're going to leave the next day after the season is over with.”
But for myself, I really was there to try to win and try to win a championship, and tried to do something different. So for me, when I stayed there as long as I stayed, they started to believe and trust what it was that I was saying as far as me wanting to win. And that's all it's been from when I first started playing basketball, because that's basically what I was taught. I was always taught to try to win a championship. I wasn't taught anything else. And I never lost focus of that, despite what Stephen A. Smith says or what anybody says as far as who I was as a player. For the most part, I thought that I'm being honest and I'm being straight, I'm being real. This is what's happening. And that's basically what I was doing.
But all of this stuff that has gone on and what went on, it led me here. So I'll take it again. I'll do it the same way. I wouldn't change it. I do not mind being immortalized. I did not mind having a museum. I wouldn't change any of that.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Additional reporting by Jared Zwerling.