The death of a family member reminds all the fans and reporters out in The City that Stephon Marbury is a man just like any of us. He may be wealthier and taller and less educated than some of us but he is just a guy who gets paid to play basketball. I get paid to edit and write and make occasional photo copies. One of my roommates gets paid to appraise real estate. The other roommate, he gets paid to cook. Stephon gets paid to play basketball. For certain, it is good work if you can get it but on a fundamental level it is just a job the same as ours. Even if those in the stands (myself included) fail to bear that in mind most of the time. You always hear from the players and coaches that "it's a business," and for them that's exactly what it is. It is a career. Same as yours. Just harder and easier and more demanding and probably more fun and, oh yeah, much better compensated. This will never fully make sense to fans. The things we see them do nightly seem so amazing to us at home that we struggle to relate to them.
In the wake of Sean Taylor's tragic murder and with the Jimmy V Classic playing on the television right now it reminds me that it is really only in moments of tragedy that we remember athletes are actually like us. They come from somewhere. And they'll likely go back there once their amazing physical skills dull with age and over-use. Stephon Marbury is from Coney Island, New York. The spot where all those subway lines end. It's the wrong side of four sets of tracks and Stephon was the youngest of seven children raised by Don and Mabel Marbury. He was named the National High School Player of the Year by Parade Magazine during his senior year at Lincoln High. He was a member of the 1994 US Junior National Team that won a Gold Medal. He wore number three at Georgia Tech because all of his older brothers wore the same number. Drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Don's baby son went on to put up historic stats as he showed himself to be one of the more impressive players in the professional ranks. Stephon also signed up to play for his country again in 2004 when so many of his peers were avoiding the commitment at all costs. Up until his numbers took a hit in NY during the last few seasons, Marbury was the only player in league history other than Oscar Robertson with career averages over 20 points and 8 assists. In spite of his much publicized demise, his career averages have only "sunk" to 19.8 and 7.9 per game.
Off the court Don and Mabel's youngest child was also named to The Sporting News's prestigious "Good Guys in Sports" list in 2001, 2002 and 2005. He also teamed up with a discount clothing retailer to release an affordable basketball sneaker. He was the first big-name basketball player to buck the trend of over-priced shoes marketed at inner city kids. Steph came from the neighborhoods were kids were killed for Air Jordans and parents, like Don and Mabel, worked night and day to get their children such shoes.
Now, we can be sure that Stephon's charitable work does not make him a saint. In testimony (painfully and naively honest testimony) during Isiah Thomas's sexual harassment trail Marbury revealed that he had an extramarital tryst with an MSG intern. Barry Bonds is now facing federal jail time for choosing to be less forthcoming when asked for such embarassing honesty. In addition, Steph has had confrontations with former coaches and teammates but so have Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant and innumerable players whose maturity didn't yet equal their talent. A man with works both bitter and sweet, he is just as conflicted and contradictory as the rest of us. He just takes his bows and his brow-beatings on a larger stage and with larger stakes.
In spite of any missteps in his personal life, Marbury has been an NBA ironman. He came from hard-working people and brought that work ethic to the basketball court. He didn't miss a game due to injury from April 2001 until January 2006. He couldn't lift his arm over his head but it was still a struggle to get him out of the game where he finally gave in to the pain. No matter what anyone thought about his performance he kept showing up night after night. But that is not enough. It never is. He isn't as good as we want him to be. And he probably never will be. He falls short of our expectations. And he always might. He hasn't lead a team to postseason success. And it seems like he might never "lead" a team in June. He has had some high profile problems with coaches and teammates. He hasn't turned into a pass-first point guard that we wish he could be and hasn't made the teammates to whom he should be passing more often any better. He hasn't replaced Walt Frazier in the hearts and minds of New Yorkers liked everyone said he might when he was a teenager. But let's not forget that Zach Randolph is no Dave DeBusschere. Eddy Curry is not Willis Reed. Jamal Crawford is not Bill Bradley. And Isiah Thomas is not Red Holzman.
Isiah Thomas is just the man who kept Stephon from his dying father's side. The coach who has allowed Marbury to become the scapegoat for the mess that he created is the man ultimately responsible for the fact that Stephon continued to play in an early December basketball game while his beloved father was suffering and being rushed to the St. Vincent's Hospital where he would expire.
Can you imagine if your boss knew that your father (or mother or brother or sister or spouse or best friend) had been rushed to the hospital and was having a heart attack and this boss neglected to tell you until you finished the project you were working on?
If my father was been taken suddenly to a hospital in an ambulance would it be strange to think that I would drop what I was doing to accompany him? Would it be wrong? Even if Steph's presence couldn't have kept Don Marbury's well-worn and well-used heart beating, he still could have been there during those last moments. Lives and relationships are defined and fortified in such moments. Old wounds are mended, bonds reaffirmed. They can provide solace for the grieving and perhaps peace for the fading.
Considering the hectic life of a professional athlete it is remarkable that Stephon was even in the same state when his father's heart failed. But he was in the same state. He was in the same city. He was even in the same building and the same gym. But he had no idea. I can't even begin to comprehend how miserable and helpless and isolated it would make someone feel to know that a loved one who needed you was within bounce passable distance and that you had no idea. This is the worst sort of pain that I can imagine adding on to an already awful situation.
The fact that no one told Stephon Marbury about what was happening is far and away the most despicable and selfish act perpetrated by this wretched Garden hierarchy. This is worse than an inappropriate firing of an employee. This is worse than creating a hostile workplace. This is worse than mismanaging the finances of an organizations because of ineptitude and ignorance. This is worse than turning your back on a tradition that was never yours to begin with. This is worse than treating lightly that for which others toiled tirelessly for a lifetime, yet was gifted to you. This is worse than insulting the very people upon whom your livelihood depends. This is worse than anything that has happened to anyone at the hands of the Garden.
How can Stephon ever trust Isiah Thomas? How can he ever trust any single member of the coaching staff? How can he ever trust any member of the security staff? Some person or persons in that group knew what was happening. Someone had called the ambulance. Someone had helped Stephon's suddenly stricken father from the arena. Someone fielded the call from either the ER or another member of the Marbury family. Someone had to do those things. That person likely asked their own supervisor what to do. Perhaps that person subsequently asked theirs. Perhaps that person asked MSG President Steve Mills. And maybe Mills got word to the head coach. Or, maybe this news never made it up that far in the chain of command. Frankly, I don't know. And I don't care. If someone felt like this news to be kept from Steph than likely they were doing what they thought that their boss (Isiah Thomas) would have wanted.
I can't imagine many things more devastating than having a parent need me and not being told until it was too late. And, all of that pain and doubt and self-recrimination for what? For a win in December? To play in the fourth quarter? This is not the case of the athlete making the sacrifice of family and selfhood during the Finals. This isn't heroic. It is tragic. Marbury was never given the choice to make any sort of sacrifice. That choice was made for him. His last moments with his father weren't sacrificed, they were stolen.