In an upcoming episode of HBO's Real Sports, ex-Knick Stephon Marbury spoke openly about struggling with depression and suicidal feelings during his difficult time in New York, struggles compounded by the loss of his father and the collapse of his sneaker company.
"...I was trapped in my thoughts...trapped with decisions I made," he said in the broadcast. "I wanted to die. I wanted to kill myself some days...I was that depressed and I was that sick."
If you've ever been depressed or suicidal, or known someone who was/is, you know how painful and difficult it is to deal with. And that's the case for those of us who live and hurt in relative privacy. When I'd watch Marbury play, it always struck me how he never looked happy. Not even that: he never looked at peace. He looked worn, like he was playing in chains. Demarcus Cousins looks angry. Jerome James looked blase. Steph looked lifeless. I'd always wondered why. Now I wonder how much more difficult it may have been for someone who'd been in the public eye since he was 11, someone who'd "made it" and seemed to have it all, who worked in a field where vulnerability is still often chastised as weakness, to deal with depression.
If you followed the Knicks when they traded for Marbury, you realize how far these sad truths sound now, in light of his seemingly storybook homecoming. His first game as a Knick was in Cleveland; I still remember the joy and excitement I felt tuning in that night, something I hadn't felt watching Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson. He succeeded Antonio McDyess as the post-Ewing cornerstone, their most promising point guard since Walt Frazier. He was going to play under another Brooklyn-born Hall of Fame point guard, Lenny Wilkens. Even when that experiment ended, he was paired with another Brooklyn-born Hall of Fame point guard and coach, Larry Brown. It seemed dreamlike. After years of speculation, after Marbury called out Charlie Ward and Chris Childs, he got what he'd always wanted. He came home.
Last Sunday's Daily News details Marbury's resurrection from "New York's most reviled athlete" to China's "national treasure." But before leaving the city with his rep in tatters, Marbury had been roundball royalty, the city's best basketball export since Kareem. A legendary career at Lincoln High School. A one-and-done lottery pick. Two All-Star selections. Two All-NBA teams. Steph was an Olympian, though that honor would end in infamy. Until fading his final years in the league, Steph was on pace to join Oscar Robertson as the only players to average 20+ points and 8+ assists for a career. While kids were killing each other over sneakers pitched by billionaire shoe companies and millionaire athletes, sneakers made by sweatshop workers, Steph released his Starbury line of affordable basketball shoes.
But Marbury was the centerpiece of an era in Knick history filled with teams that were often unlikable, and Steph's professional and personal timelines were as ugly as any. The team made the playoffs just once, swept in 2004 in embarrassing Fugazi fashion by the Nets. In 2006, Marbury feuded bitterly and openly with Larry Brown. The night his father died in 2007, the Knicks waited to tell Steph until after the game at his family's request. That same year, his testimony in the Anucha Brown Sanders lawsuit against Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden detailed Marbury's own grotesque, misogynistic behavior. He feuded with Mike D'Antoni before the 2008 season. In 2009 he posted videos where he cried, screamed, and ate Vaseline.
Nothing's more "New York" than leaving home and all you know behind and re-inventing yourself in the big city. Some re-inventions need a bigger stage than Broadway. Beijing is bigger than New York, and the Forbidden City is the perfect setting for Marbury. I always felt he was (or he felt) forbidden to be himself back home, that instead he felt he had to be whom others expected him to be, or needed him to be. By the end of his New York run, Marbury was weary of hearing "that you're a loser, that you can't win, and that you can't do this, and you can't do that." The Knicks had seen him as a savior, promoted him as one. They weren't the only ones.
Several Marburys played college ball before Steph, but none made it to the NBA. The family's best chance was always Steph, a local legend by sixth grade. How does it shape a boy, a pre-teen, to be blessed with such adulation and burdened with such pressure? When others see us as what they wish us to be, how does that affect our reflection of our self?
Marbury has now found success playing for the Beijing Ducks, winning his second Chinese Basketball Association title last year. He's become wildly popular in China, where he says he's found "love, compassion, and care." He has an enormous social media following and has even inspired (and performed in) an allegorical musical called "I Am Marbury." The Daily News pointed out his role in the musical is minimal, and that in a video of him dribbling during his performance, "he loses the ball twice." That's burying the lede.
He was only a year older than me. He'd lived my dream, the dream of millions: a New York City basketball star, an NBA star, set for life, for several lifetimes. Famous in his hometown, then across the five boroughs, then across the U.S., and now in the biggest country in the world. Like Marbury, I had to get away from home to begin to understand, to walk away from what I'd grown up wanting and take steps toward what made me happy. Those are often very different dreams.
Maybe Steph's finally found his stage, his audience, his role. Maybe when he looks in the mirror, he no longer sees a legend looking back, nor a savior, nor a symbol. I hope he's found his happy ending. I hope a man who "wanted to kill [him]self" and felt "trapped" when he was home has found a place in the world and in himself where he can just be. I hope all his paradoxes give way to peace.