Sunday, April 1, 2012

Starbury at a Crossroad: From Crucifixion in the Eastern Conference to Captivation and Capitalism in the Far Eastern Conference

By Conor Flahive

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This morning TMZ reported that Stephon Marbury’s L.A. mansion was sold at a foreclosure auction. Many would assume that this is just another once-millionaire-now-bankrupt athlete, but the reality couldn’t be further from that assumption. In fact, since leaving the NBA, Marbury has extraordinarily resurrected his image and his career in a world thousands of miles away from home. As his name and brand spread across the globe, Starbury has become one of basketball's greatest ambassadors.

Anyone that follows Stephon Marbury on Weibo knows that he is not only the Chinese Basketball Association’s (CBA) biggest star, but he is also an accessible, fan-friendly public figure who embraces the Chinese culture. This depiction may surprise most American fans. After all, Marbury’s career in the NBA was characterized by his egotistical, arrogant personality and his catalog of mishaps that included public spats with coaches, romancing a Knicks intern, and posting erratic videos of himself on YouTube. 

After being dubbed the “most reviled athlete in New York” in 2006, the culmination of Marbury’s poetic downfall in the NBA was when he bought a courtside ticket to the Knicks-Lakers game in L.A. just days after being banned from the Knicks facilities.  Despite being greeted by some of Hollywood’s most recognizable celebrities, the Knicks entire roster completely ignored him. Thus, when I initially heard reports that Marbury was going to sign a contract with the CBA in 2009, I found the news to be almost, well, humorous. I admittedly thought that his life was in an irreparable state of shambles.  I thought his success in basketball at any level was inconceivable. But, three years later, the thirty-five year old hoopster has proven us all wrong.

Yesterday, Marbury’s forty-one points led the Beijing Ducks to their first-ever CBA title, as the Ducks beat the defending champion Guangdong Tigers in Game 5 of the best-of-seven series.  Remarkably, Marbury is not just leading his team on the court. After yesterday’s championship win, Marbury touted his fans and the Chinese media, saying “it has been an incredible experience…this shows what this team is made up of, everyone stepped up and everyone played their role. We have been blessed as a team.” Moreover, Marbury’s statements convey his striking embracement of a Chinese fan base that has given him a second chance.

Improbable as Marbury’s guileless public makeover might sound, it does not compare to the phenomenal scope of his lofty business endeavors. One of the lone bright spots of Marbury’s career in America was his Starbury brand, which seeks to compete in the merchandizing market by selling $15 basketball shoes, as well as an array of other apparel, all under $10. Although the brand went through a rocky stage, it hired Apple’s marketing firm in 2011 and began churning out 5,000 pairs of Starbury sneakers per month. Eventually, Marbury wants to build the Starbury brand into a diversified empire by tapping into markets such as construction, manufacturing, and even mobile car washes.  To date, Starbury has a staff of eighteen people working full-time in three different corporate offices. 

So where has Marbury found the inspiration to reinvigorate himself and his brand, and how has he become so wildly popular with a culture that most Americans consider to be a reclusive mystery?

Maybe he has just grown up. That certainly has got something to do with it. But a more likely explanation is the notion that Marbury is captivated by the galvanizing transformation of China’s modern society, and its rapid technological and industrial accomplishments.

Marbury grew up in a small housing project in Coney Island that he shared with his parents and his six siblings. To support the family, his mother worked in a day-care center and his father did whatever he could to get money. Yet from day one, Marbury’s family made it clear to him that they would not accept anything less than success and a better life for the young basketball prodigy.

Thus, it is easy to see why Marbury can to relate to, and is inspired by, a Chinese culture that is obsessed with constant achievement. It is even easier to see how Marbury fosters dreams of expanding his brand, considering every morning he opens his blinds to a skyline of cranes. And, what better market for his $15 Starbury sneaker than a basketball-crazed but notoriously conservative consumer population like China’s?

In an incredible course of events, Stephon Marbury’s weekend included the loss of a house to foreclosure in L.A., and a forty-one point performance that propelled his team to a CBA championship in Beijing. This twist of irony perfectly captures the crossroads that Marbury currently finds himself living in. He is escaping the consequences of the errors in judgment he made in the past, both on and off the court, while simultaneously triumphing through a rebirth of his game, his brand, and himself. Once a poster child of an NBA bad boy, Stephon Marbury is now a globally recognized and admired figure. He has strategically aligned himself with China’s booming economy, and in doing so captivated the hearts and minds of a billion people.

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