The athlete who hung around too long is a familiar trope. Unable to say goodbye to the game because they can’t admit that they no longer have what it takes, or too frightened of what life after sports holds to let go, so they linger. And then there’s the athlete who didn’t get to play long enough to reach his full potential. These are the heart-breakers, the what-ifs. Sports lore is littered with the tales of these bests-that-never-were.
In recent years another model of careers ending at the wrong time has emerged; the player deemed so toxic that he finds himself involuntarily retired despite retaining the ability to contribute at the professional level. They are the Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens, Allen Iversons and Sean Averys of the world. Whether plagued by scandal, psychologically unstable, unwilling to accept a smaller role, or just plain jerks, they’ve found themselves on the outside looking in. Unique among this group, however, is the NBA’s forgotten superstar; a man who has to personify persona non grata, so unwelcome in professional basketball circles, that he’s actually beginning to fade from our collective consciousness. Stephon Marbury.
Ask most NBA fans to name the 25 greatest PGs of all time, and you’re likely to get consensus on about 10. Some lists will suffer from recency bias, ranking players whose legacies are very much works-in-progress over those with established legacies of greatness. Others still, will veer towards the historical, spurred by tall tales of legends past and citing defensive rule changes as evidence that modern stars have inflated stats. What most of these hypothetical lists will have in common is the omission of Stephon Marbury.
This is the part where you say to yourself that Marbury ISN’T a top-25 pg. Maybe you’re right. He is, however, good enough to be in the discussion. Marbury is one of only six players to average at least 20 points and 8 assists for eight or more seasons. The other names on that list: Oscar Robertson, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Tim Hardaway. That’s a five-time all-star and four men included on the NBA’s 50 Greatest Player of All-Time list. Why then, have we forgotten how good Marbury was?
There are a few factors in play here. First and foremost, he didn’t win. In the post-Jordan NBA, we have come to expect nothing less than championships from our stars. There is this belief that a great player, through sheer force of wil,l can drag a roster full of rotation players and cast-offs to the promised land, and if not, he’s a loser. People point to the fact that every team he left during his prime, got better in the following season. They somehow forget that in two of those cases he was replaced by Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, and in the third, a young power forward named Kevin Garnett who was just entering his prime and blossomed in the season following Marbury’s departure.
Although Marbury was briefly among the best players in the game, being good enough to be named to Team USA, his peak coincided with a dark period in the NBA (they took the bronze). For the five minutes between Jordan and Lebron eras Marbury was held up alongside Allen Iverson as an example of everything that was wrong with the NBA. It was a league filled with tattooed, me-first prima donnas who had to be wrestled into submission by the strong arm of benevolent commissioner David Stern…except for that part where that entire narrative isn’t true. Marbury was just one of many stars born into the the hip-hop generation painted as thugs and punks by the aging, culturally out of touch (and maybe just a little bit racist) sports media and the league’s megalomaniacal, paternalistic dictator of a commissioner.
Another thing Marbury has going against him is recency bias. It may seem odd that recency bias would negatively affect the perception of a player as contemporary as Stephon Marbury, but it’s true. We all saw Stephon Marbury suck RECENTLY. We remember his struggling, scandal plagued Knicks. We remember him being released, unable to find a team only to land on the Celtics’ bench, only to be released after only 23 games. Truth be told, while Marbury was past his prime, he still had enough left in the tank to contribute at a high level, but teams are unwilling to tolerate Marbury’s special brand of erratic behavior from anything less than an all-star caliber player. Simply put, he assholed his way out of the NBA. Fans find it extremely difficult to attribute greatness to players who find themselves saddled with the label of team cancer. Also:
These factors, combined with Marbury’s decision to continue his career in China while his peers are either revered elder statesmen of the league, or retired on their own terms create the perfect recipe for a tarnished and eventually forgotten legacy.