In 1994's The Last Shot: City Streets,Basketball Dreams, author Darcy Frey offers potent evidence that the matchlessly bizarre personality of new Celtic Stephon Marbury dates back at least to early adolescence. When Marbury enters Frey's narrative, which focuses on a legendary basketball team at Brooklyn's Abraham Lincoln High, he's a 14-year-old phenom piloting a Big Wheel through an irked crowd of older players gathered for a playground game. Later in the book, Marbury — the great NBA hope of a storied Coney Island basketball family — has a surreal exchange with his teammate Tchaka Shipp, a Nike All-American bound for basketball powerhouse Seton Hall:
"Yo, nigger, what position you gonna play in college?" Stephon asked Tchaka after his Seton Hall trip. . . .
"Forward," Tchaka replied.
"Power forward?" Stephon said with mock incredulity. . . . "But you're only six-six," said the five-nine Stephon.
"Six-seven, nigger." Tchaka slammed his locker shut.
"You know power forwards got to dribble and shoot," Stephon suggested, his voice richly condescending. "You been working on that?" Stephon handed Tchaka a paper cup and suggested that Tchaka dispose of it for him.
Tchaka, stuck with the damned cup in his hand, was speechless for a moment. Then he exploded, "You're a freshman, man! What the hell is wrong with you?"
"I can't wait till you go to college," Stephon said with a sneer. "You'll be carrying luggage."
Telling a very tall, very good teammate that he's destined to be a scrub is an odd way to build locker-room chemistry. But then, esprit de corps has never been Marbury's strong suit. Which is why, ever since word surfaced this past week that the New York Knicks had negotiated a buyout of Marbury's contract, leaving him poised to sign with the Celtics, the wisdom of that move has been hotly debated. Critics pan Marbury as a selfish problem child who's burned through five teams in 13 years — teams that invariably get a whole lot better as soon as he leaves town. Fans of the move cite the C's thin bench and Marbury's on-court prowess — he's a born point guard and two-time NBA All-Star who's averaged nearly 20 points and eight assists per game over his career — and argue that the Celtics' solid locker-room culture will keep Marbury from becoming the cancerous presence he's been elsewhere.
Interesting though it may be, this debate is too superficial. Whether or not Marbury helps the Celtics, the real question is this: what planet is he from, exactly? Look back at the long, strange trip that is Marbury's career, and there's considerable evidence that his reality is simply unlike yours and mine — and, for that matter, unlike Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen's. His mind works differently; he speaks a different language; he seems, at times, to operate in an entirely different dimension. To paraphrase Thriller-era Michael Jackson, Stephon's not like the other guys. And now that he's here, Bostonians should be prepared for a sports freak show unlike anything they've seen before.
But let's deal with Marbury's conventional transgressions first — and let's start with the selfishness, because the acuteness of Marbury's narcissism puts even his most solipsistic pro peers to shame.
There is, admittedly, something absurd about the way the public bristles when pro athletes show an excessive sense of entitlement: we pay obscene amounts of money to watch these players perform, know full well that they're making even more obscene amounts of money to ply their craft, and then are shocked — shocked! — when they act like they think they're better than the rest of us, or not beholden to the same ethical norms.
All that said, it's hard not to marvel at the Promethean self-absorption of the newest Celtic. Most recently, Marbury — who was making about $21 million with the New York Knicks this past season — evidently refused to take the court two times in November 2008, after the team had been decimated by injuries, and was subsequently banished. Marbury's motivation was obvious — he was piqued by an opening-night benching by coach Mike D'Antoni — but his boycott was seen as an unacceptable breach of protocol by fans and players alike. As then-teammate Quentin Richardson put it: "He hasn't played with us all year. . . . I don't pay attention to [Stephon] because I don't look at him as a teammate, anyway."