Marbury Agonistes

I feel the crushing need to say something in this, the quietest off-season in eons, about our former prodigal son, Starbury, especially now that he’s tweeted his retirement. (of sorts)…

For those who might have missed it, back in July, our man in Coney Island first decided to broadcast himself live on Ustream for 24 consecutive hours. Here’s a partial transcript:

I found myself checking in from time to time over the course of that day. And honestly, it was unfathomably compelling. He argued with the cable guy. He traded barbs with fans commenting. At one point he said, “Me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me!” for what seemed like five minutes. He danced. He gave us a tour of his summer home. The “show” just followed a famous person while he had what appeared to be an uneventful Sunday at home, babbling to himself (and the thousand or so folks watching). Granted, what he said did have that particularly Steph-brand of arrogance and weirdness.

So why couldn’t I stop watching?

It wasn’t that I wanted to “catch” him doing something kaboobernuts. Though to some, dancing to “Barbie Girl” and getting a massage from his bro was crazy and Jeff Stryker-esque. I won’t even begin to delve into the social/racial/sexual politics that come full flower (pun intended) with this one. For those inclined, Kevin Arnovitz does a swell job of parsing through the homophobic nonsense and Haywood’s subsequent non-apology. (On a personal note, now I’m even gladder that Etan Thomas whupped Haywood’s ass back in the day)

Starbury’s most common declaration throughout the course of the ‘show’ was some bellowed, top-of-his-lungs variation on: “They can’t put me in a box!” The smack-you-in-the-face irony for those watching is that Marbs was trapped in that rectangular box on our desk (the computer). Plus, he didn’t leave his home – trapped again in what appeared to be a very expensive well-furnished box somewhere in the Hollywood Hills.

Ostensibly, what I assume Stephon meant was that this “unfiltered” broadcast couldn’t be edited to frame the perception of him as a person (as I assume he thought was the case with his “best PG in the NBA” comment or the infamous Bruce Beck interview). Here he’d be free to present his “true” self. The general consensus from the blogosphere was  – “See! Steph is bipolar/crazy/on drugs (the latter being semi-proven when Steph thought it might be a swell idea to tape himself hotboxiing it in an SUV: As utterly foolish as that may have been from a self-marketing perspective, it’s really not a story or particularly newsworthy at all.

I can only imagine that Marbs’ thought process was: “This is the real me. I’m showing the people something real. THEY CAN’T PUT ME IN A BOX!!!!” Which I get. If you’ve ever come to see one of my plays (shameless plug: Next show in Nov!), you’ll know that the schism between the interior self (isolated, unknowable) and the public image (always contrived, false) is one of my pet memes. I think Marbs is consumed by this as well. More so than your humble correspondent because his public persona is far more public than mine. And his persona is unfortunately determined by a-holes in the sporting press who’ve decided he’s bipolar/crazy/on drugs/etc. I get the Box thing. He is in a box. It must be maddening – the notion that any private self is both non-existent and constantly available for consumption and scrutiny. The brutal irony is that this attempt to define his own existence and identity has only resulted in even more people deciding who he is.

So that’s why I couldn’t stop watching. It was heartbreaking (not in the “he’s screwing himself out of ever playing in the NBA sense). He was fighting for his very existence, his very soul.

But for those who do think Stephon has lost it, what can one actually learn from livestreams and 140-character snippets? Do I feel like I know more about N8 because he was tweeting whilst getting pulled over by the Po-Po’s? It’s just another mediated exchange – not actual human interaction (although far more compelling than the usual slew of media clichés one gets from athletes – see the seminal “Bull Durham” scene where Costner schools Nuke LaLoosh in the art of the meaningless cliché — )

At the time, I just thought the scene was funny. But it makes loads more sense now. I don’t think one wants to see the athletes we spend hours pondering as ‘real’ people sharing many of our hopes, dreams, and fears. If they’re real, they can’t be heroes, gods, or legends. They’re just schmucks like the rest of us with horrible, bone-crushing, human failings and weaknesses. I’m certainly not plunking down $300 for a ticket to watch actual people with flaws try to do something inherently inane (put a leather ball in a steel ring whilst wearing shiny underwear).

We abide in our fictions…

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Robert Silverman

Hey, did you know that in addition to banging the keys here and occasionally for the NY Times and at ESPN, Robert is a playwright, an actor and a wand'ring mendicant/gadfly? He also once wrestled a bear...and lost.

15 thoughts to “Marbury Agonistes”

  1. Nice piece.

    I think the phrase prodigal son is particularly interesting to use for Steph. You probably just meant it as a quick drop-in (and it worked) but comparing his story to that story (the one from the Bible) actually illuminates a lot of the problem with Steph, I think.

    Like the son in the story, Marbury was raised by his “father” (NYC) to believe that he was the beloved culmination of a line of “children” (NYC Point Guards). Because of this (excessive?) adoration, he was sent off into the world wealthy (in image and fame) but perhaps less than prepared to deal with the harshness on the outside. While Marbury enjoyed at least moderate success (absolutely awesome in college and, statistically, a very good pro), he developed a public reputation that (it seems, looking back) laid bare the insecurities that had once been masked by the adulation heaped upon him by his enablers back home (all i can say here is to read “The Last Shot” by Darcy Frey; everything Steph does will make a lot more sense).

    So like the son in the story, Marbury returned home world-wearied and (at least from an image perspective) lacking the “riches” with which the Coney Island playgrounds and NY Media had sent him on his way. For his part, Marbury, like the repentant son, said all the right things in the days after his acquisition. And, like the prodigal son, he was given a hero’s welcome by a fan base that saw its former wunderkind as he once was — a romanticized child prodigy — not as what he had become — a me-first, coach-killing combo guard whose wake was littered with sub-.500 seasons and remorseful GMs.

    The problem with the comparison is that the prodigal son story ends there. And it’s a happy ending, just as it would have been for Marbury had the curtain fallen on the press conference introducing him to the New York media. There is no mention of whether the prodigal son reformed himself once his ample support system was restored. It’s just as plausible that the son would have fallen back into his old habits, behaving immaturely when reintroduced to the ease born of his father’s seemingly unconditional love. Which, unfortunately, is what Marbury did. He didn’t have it so easy (I, for one, wouldn’t want to work for Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas), but he also proved entirely unwilling to reinvent himself or address his flaws, which seemed so obvious to everyone else. He always played a little better than we gave him credit for (those were seriously crappy teams) but the sense of entitlement that had led him to so much disappointment never disappeared. NYC began to resent Stephon for it, just as the father in the story may have resented his son had his second chance not been met with gratefulness and repentance.

    It really doesn’t seem like Marbury’s such a bad guy — he’s had a truly bizarre life (again, read The Last Shot) and seems to be reaching out for some elusive shred of normalcy. In the end, he goes down as a very good NBA player who made a few all star teams and a ton of money and has every right to tell the people who are critical of his unusual behavior or underachieving performance to shove it — he’s a greater success in his arena than almost any of them are in theirs and his “skeletons” are no more repulsive just because they have (however willingly) become a part of the public record. He was just never quite as good as he thought he was or as the fans back home wanted him to be and, as a result, it seems that both Steph and his one-time fans are having a particularly difficult time accepting the man or the career for what they are.

  2. Thanks Kev. I enjoy your work as well. I have a dog-eared copy of “The Last Shot” in my bathroom (TMI?). To second Mr. McElroy, it’s a must-read. The “Hoop Dreams” of roundball non-fiction.

    The book paints Steph (at age 14) as one of the smartest/stupidest, wisest/oblivious, most selfish/hard-working, mature/immature teenager that you’ll ever encounter.

  3. hey, havent read through the whole piece thoroughly yet, but just wanted to say i think its really sad that such an incredible talent could not find his place in the nba… perhaps it was his coaching, the teams he played for, or more likely his insanity- but marbury is one of the more athletic guards you will see in a while and i for one would have liked to have seen him excel… really too bad

    his stretch of games at the end of the (i think its) 06-07 season were pretty indicative of what could have been… he almost led a really hobbled knicks team (i should have checked who was injured, and who was left playing) into the playoffs… if one were to check up one marburys stats over the last two months of that season, it should offer a glimpse of marbury’s game

  4. the two memories I have of Steph at his peak come from before his Knicks days. one was when he was in Phoenix, one in the All-Star game.

    the first was game 1 in the first round against the eventual champion Spurs when he hit a three at the end of OT to win the game. what’s amusing is when I just looked this up, he shot 9-28 with just 6 assists in that game.

    the second was in 2001 when he was on the Nets, and he and Iverson led a miracle comeback in the All-Star game, the East outscored the West 41-21 in the 4th to win by one on a Steph 3. he was one of the most talented players in the game then, good enough to be traded for Jason Kidd even up soon after.

    his Knicks career started off OK, and eventually degenerated to where he was better off for the team to not be on the premises, the closest thing the NBA has had to a crazy homeless man that I can remember. I hope he really does stay retired and doesn’t embarrass himself on the court anymore; watching him contribute absolutely nothing for the vast majority of that Celtics playoff run last year was pretty sad.

  5. An extremely random thought occurred to me last night.

    I was thinking about how this upcoming season is sort of like that Don Henley song:

    “This is the last worthless season that you’ll have to spend”

    Hey, it made me chuckle when I thought it!

  6. It’s true in my case, Brian: if the Knicks botch this offseason by losing D. Lee or Nate without moving salary and can’t sign a top-tier superstar next offseason, I’m going to move my allegiance across the New Jersey border!

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