Stephon Marbury in Manila: Bigger Than Basketball

From being one of the most celebrated draft picks in his batch to his highly publicized spat with the New York Knicks organization to his flight to China and finally to his touching countless lives in Asia, Stephon Xavier Marbury has almost come full circle—at the very young age of 36. He is easily one of the most misunderstood characters in American professional basketball and all of the tales must have escalated in the US since his departure from the NBA in 2010. Now he arrives at the doorstep of probably the most hoops-crazy nation in the region and his mission to continue making a difference is now “Bigger Than Basketball”.

Stephon Marbury: misunderstood (Photo: Voltaire Domingo/NPPA Images)

“I didn’t know how big basketball was over here,” the former Georgia Tech star disclosed. “I’m so humbled by the reception I got here and I will definitely be back.”

We’ve already jumped to the tail-end of his all too brief stop in the Philippines, which was initially construed as a marketing sortie to promote his Starbury shoe line; a brand which has taken China by storm due to its affordability and high quality. But it turned out that he has been helping people here for a very long time--more than merely providing footwear.

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“I don’t believe in making a big fuss over contributing to people’s lives,” the two-time NBA All-Star reveals. “I will help as many people as I can, in what little way I can. If I did it just to become popular, then I’d be doing it for the wrong reasons.”

The author one-on-one with Marbury at the Shang: many revelations (Photo: Jamil Buergo)

Marbury arrived in Manila from Malaysia last June 24th, accompanied by his agent; the renowned Sheryl Reyes who handles such local greats like reigning Asean Basketball League (ABL) MVP Asi Taulava, two-time PBA MVP Willie Miller and former PBA Rookie of the Year Ren-Ren Ritualo, among others. After a few media interviews, the pair proceeded to the National Press Club (NPC) where I and a phalanx of other members of the media were invited by NPC Director and old friend Tina Maralit. I had surmised that this was the media availability portion of his visit. When about a dozen children accompanied by family members also showed up the NPC offices in Intramuros, I felt something was amiss.

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It turns out that Marbury has extended financial support to the Ahon Pamilyang Lansangan Foundation, specifically to help fund those afflicted with the liver disease Biliary Atresia; a sickness which requires patients to undergo a transplant. NPC President Benny Antiporda stressed that Marbury’s assistance will not only help these children become better, but also help the next of kin of the victims of the infamous Maguindanao Massacre of 2009.

“These are the ones who most need our help,” Antiporda announced. “Stephon has not only gone out of his way to support our cause, but he has also personally requested to meet with the families (of the patients). That’s why this is all ‘Bigger Than Basketball’.”

A child showing Marbury and NPC President Benny Antiporda (R) her scar from the procedure (Photo: Voltaire Domingo/NPPA …

One procedure costs about four million pesos (about one hundred thousand dollars). Judging by kids who showed up, Marbury must have helped by donating a hefty amount. We were all floored. This was the most unexpected news of the day.

“From every sale of Starburys, ten percent of that is set aside to help those in need,” Marbury explains.

A pair of Starburys sells for about sixteen US dollars (approximately PhP 700), but is said to be made of practically the same material of its more upscale competition.

“It’s a shoe for the people, by the people,” he proudly shares. “Most of those other brands are also made in China, like the Starbury. My line is more affordable because I just don’t believe in people spending one hundred to a hundred and fifty dollars on shoes when they can spend that money to feed their families. For me, it makes perfect sense to price them that way.”

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After accommodating a few sit-down sessions with the media, Marbury went to the Asian Institute of Maritime Studies (AIMS) in Pasay City to spend time with the fans who flocked to catch a glimpse of the former USA Olympian. He not only addressed the crowd, but he also donned a Barong Tagalog for the endeavour, was among the judges of the “Newspaper Dance” and had merienda with the people; showing no qualms about mixing it up with the citizens of a country he now claims to have fallen in love with.

Marbury at AIMS: One with the people (Photo: Sheryl Reyes' Facebook page)

“The warmth of the people here is just phenomenal,” Marbury exclaimed. “China may be my second home, but the Philippines is a place that I will always hold dear in my heart.”

His stay here was capped by a modest dinner at the EDSA Shangri-La Hotel with friends and family of Reyes, some of her wards in Taulava, Miller, Ritualo, behemoth Alex Crisano and former Ateneo de Manila standout Jai Reyes, along with a handful of sports industry practitioners and media people where Marbury sampled Philippine delicacies like piyaya, and polvoron while trying to whistle while consuming the powdery confection. Miller—showing incredible talent—was able to whistle a tune with his mouth full, and an obviously challenged Marbury tried to reply, in vain.

Sheryl Reyes (center) with her wards (Photo: Jamil Buergo)

“Hey, Noel,” Taulava hollered at this writer from across the room. “You said you were going to bring the balut! That’ll really freak him out!” Unfortunately, this writer was unsuccessful in obtaining the boiled duck fetus before arriving for the party.

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Marbury, however, was the one bearing gifts. He gave out a signed jersey of the Starbury brand to everyone and indulged those present with photos and interviews. It was a fitting end to what must have been the most draining two days of his Asian adventure.

PBA and ABL MVP Asi Taulava with Marbury: new bonds

“Steph (Marbury) will definitely be back by the fourth quarter of the year,” Reyes bared. “It’s at that time where the first batch of Starburys will be arriving, so expect to own a pair soon.”

He may have had his share of rough times in the NBA, his share of media barbs as well as his share of being blamed for many things in the past—and probably even prevailing until now—but Stephon Marbury has shown his true colors in China and showed Filipinos a glimpse of it in his short but meaningful stay in the country.

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It is said that one needs to go through anguish to experience a rebirth and Marbury has definitely come from the bowels of uncertainty to the pinnacle of his life—within a mere three years. From being tagged as someone who wasn’t welcome in the NBA (although the Houston Rockets have attempted to sign him over the past few seasons) to being hailed as a champion in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) squad the Beijing Ducks last year, he must be close to coming full circle.

L-R: the author, NPC's Tina Maralit, GMA-7's Mark Zambrano, Marbury, Philstar's Alder Almo (Photo: Tina Marali …

And if his calling is really to touch lives on this side of the world, he surely welcomes it.

“When I brought my kids to Beijing last year and they saw what I was involved with, they understood why I needed to be here,” Marbury professes. “When I first rode that plane for fourteen hours to get here the first time, I thought I was going to lose my mind. Well, I found my heart and my mission. I may have had to go to the other side of the world to find it, but I found it. I’ll keep making a difference for as long as I can.”

Marbury in front the statue erected for him in Beijing (Photo from Sheryl Reyes' Facebook page)

He’s back in Beijing now gearing up for another CBA season. Who knows, maybe after his experience in the Philippines, we may also experience more of Stephon himself. I actually believe he’ll be here a lot. One thing’s for sure: he’s left a lasting imprint on the Philippines; from the kids who are recovering from Biliary Atresia, to the fans at AIMS, to the company that night at Shang. Stephon Marbury is now understood very clearly.

His Twitter (@StarburyMarbury) account says it all: “I’m not who they said I was”. I concur.

Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter (@NoelZarate)