Beijing (AFP) – Former NBA player Stephon Marbury ended a trailblazing 22-year basketball career with rhyming couplets and tears after winning his last-ever game Sunday in Beijing, bidding an emotional farewell to his adoring Chinese fans.
The six-time Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) all-star reinvented himself in China after a rocky end to his 13 years with the NBA, becoming one of the first high-profile foreign players to ditch home for the Middle Kingdom in 2010.
He leaves the game just shy of his 41st birthday as one of the Chinese league’s most beloved stars, honoured by Beijing with “honorary citizenship”, a green card, his own museum, statue, postage stamps, and even a musical.
As cheerleaders danced with elegant fans and a yellow dragon mascot fist-bumped, Marbury scored 20 points to lead Beijing Beikong Fly Dragons to a 104-point victory against Jiangsu, who scored 92.
Both sides seemed to step back to let him shine in his final minutes of play, with Marbury grinning as he scored a last three-pointer with seconds to go.
Victory cinched, he sat stunned on the sidelines, tears streaming down his face despite the jostling scrum of cameras around him.
A showreel of career highlights played to the saccharine tune of Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” before he took to centre court for a speech, bringing tears even to the beaming cheerleaders.
“Ending my basketball career here in China completes me. This is it — no NBA, no anywhere. This is the way it’s supposed to end, here with you and only you,” he told the overflowing crowd at the Beijing Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium, who yelled themselves hoarse.
– Adopted and embraced –
There are good reasons for why the Brooklyn-born player has “I [heart] China” tattooed on his arm, next to the Mandarin characters for his Chinese name: “Ma Buli”.
Marbury is the last player to retire from the famed 1996 NBA draft class, considered one of the most talented drafts in history given its roster of champs like Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant.
Yet his career appeared at a dead-end back in 2009, following ugly feuds with coaches on the New York Knicks and ultimately a ban from that team.
Then came a livestreamed breakdown in which he alternately raged and wept at the camera for hours before eating from a tub of vaseline.
His father had passed away, and his shoe brand was losing steam. “I wanted to die,” Marbury later recalled to HBO’s Real Sports.
But China gave him a second chance. He led the Beijing Shougang Ducks to three championships during six seasons there, before switching over to the Fly Dragons for his final year.
“At one time I had no place for the blood to go, and you opened up a portal to your hearts for me to flow. You let me live when I was dying; I can’t explain how I feel as I’m crying,” he rhymed from centre court as fans kept up a continuous, deafening call-and-response of “Ma Buli! MVP!”
The CBA struggles from China’s difficulties in nurturing young talent thanks to a continued dependence on a Soviet model of player development.
So for Chinese basketball fans it remains a surreal treat to see NBA-level players shooting hoops on their turf.
– ‘Hero of this city’ –
“I remember boys talking about how good Marbury was when I was still in senior high, over a decade ago,” said 30-year-old finance officer Zhao Wang, who started watching basketball only because Marbury joined the Beijing Ducks in 2011.
“For a star like him to have come to play in Beijing is really an honour to be proud of,” she told AFP .
Scalped tickets were going for more than 3000 yuan ($477) but Zhao exclaimed: “I wouldn’t trade mine for any price.”
Marbury’s number three jerseys flew off the shelves before the game, with racks nearly emptied a half hour before play.
“It’s his last game, so I’m here to send Old Ma on his way,” said Beijinger Bai Wen, a 25-year-old civil engineering student who picked up two, referring to Marbury with a chummy nickname.
“He’s a hero of this city who deserves everyone’s respect. All true fans ought to be here tonight.”
Marbury admitted pre-game that he was “pretty tired” after playing 22 years, and so wouldn’t miss being on the court.
He plans to continue to live in China, citing numerous basketball-related “projects” in the works and a desire to work with Chinese youth, but gave no further details.
“That’s my obligation, and that’s what I feel like I [owe] this country for doing what they’ve done for me,” he said.