Stephon Marbury was recognized as the AmCham China 2018 Pioneer Award winner for his significant contributions to the US-China relationship, both through exemplary leadership on the basketball court, and through a range of entrepreneurial and philanthropic ventures off it. With AmCham China’s vision to strengthen cooperation and understanding between the US and China, the individuals selected to receive this award are usually those who have demonstrated visible contributions in promoting people-to-people relations between the two countries, something that Marbury has done continually over the past decade.
With US-China relations embroiled in a protracted dispute over intellectual property and open market access, the collective focus is framed around those butting heads and those who stand to lose in the fight for free trade. However, while representatives on either side battle for their nation’s best interests, there are those who, despite the geopolitical environment, strive to make progress and create access for both sides.
One such person is former NBA and CBA star Stephon Marbury – winner of the 2018 AmCham China Pioneer Award. Over his many years in China, Marbury has successfully bridged the US-China divide, creating added value for both sides through a search for commonality, collaboration, and mutual benefit. On and off the court Marbury has found success with his Chinese counterparts both in basketball and in business, acting as platform for access, and as a conduit for cultural understanding.
Marbury, a 1996 first round NBA draft pick and two-time NBA all-star, first came to China in 2010 after leaving the Boston Celtics. Coming to a foreign land with language and cultural barriers that for most people would have been wildly prohibitive, Marbury instead saw new horizons in the unknown. “When I first came to China, I didn’t know how long it was going to last,” explains Marbury. “But when I came here, I pretty much said that I was coming to try something brand new. To do something different.”
What Marbury found on his arrival to China was certainly something the NBA star had never experienced before. First touching down in Shanxi Province to join the Shanxi Zhongyu Brave Dragons, Marbury was greeted by the two extremes of the China experience. “It was hard – the weather, the pollution. That was all tough. And I had no idea it was going to be a long-term thing,” says Marbury. But despite some of the more challenging aspects of living in China, what drew him in, and what ultimately kept him in China, was the same thing that drives him in all his endeavors – people and love; two things of which China has an abundance of when it comes to a person like Stephon Marbury.
Without knowing what to expect and before even dribbling a basketball in China, Marbury received what can only be described as a hero’s welcome on the tarmac of Shanxi International Airport. Marbury explains, “When I first got to China, I landed to 5,000 smiling, screaming faces.”
For Marbury, this outpouring of love was a breath of fresh air in the wake of his final stint in the US and in the NBA. Amidst personal tragedies and highly publicized conflicts between himself and former New York Knicks head coaches Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas, Marbury’s reception in Shanxi was surely a welcome one. “I went from a place where everything was bad and negative to people who were smiling and laughing and happy to see me. It was like a new beginning.”
With such a resounding reception, it is no surprise that Marbury would go on to accomplish so much in China. From the start, Marbury had a grand plan for the Middle Kingdom that went far beyond the court, however. Though he had little knowledge of what was in store for him on arrival and for his CBA career, what Marbury looked for in China, what he could not find at home, was opportunity. “My idea in coming to China,” says Marbury, “wasn’t just to play basketball. I was coming here to build my brand, and to build a bridge.”
A CBA Slam Dunk
To build his bridge, Marbury would first need to solidify his place in Chinese culture and with the people of China. With his first stop in Shanxi, playing with the Brave Dragons, Marbury had great impact on the team’s season. He was named the MVP of the 2010 CBA All-star Game and consistently put up impressive numbers. Marbury next found himself playing in the starting five of the Foshan Dralions. It was in Foshan where he would lay the foundation for his meteoric rise to fame – not only in the CBA, but in all of China.
“It wasn’t until I got to Foshan that I really started to get my game back and get back in the realm of playing to the best of my capabilities. That whole year was so needed,” says Marbury. “I got to Foshan and I had an amazing experience: I got the chance to play with a group of guys that were leaving from one province to another.” In 2010, the Shanxi Kylins moved to Foshan, newly rebranded as the Foshan Dralions.
For Marbury, this was an immense opportunity. Moving from Shanxi to Foshan meant the organization would need to completely rebuild its image and reputation, attract new fans, and prove themselves on the court in their new home. Marbury jumped at this opportunity, leading the Dralions in points scored in their inaugural season in Foshan, but more importantly, he was central to the team’s rebrand as they looked to establish a new identity.
“I got to be the face of the organization for that year. I was there because they needed that face,” says Marbury. “I fit perfectly into what they were doing and how everything was being orchestrated for them to move from Shanxi.” In the end, this perfect fit paid dividends for Marbury and his team. For the second year in a row, Marbury played in the starting five of the CBA All-star Game, gaining even more traction in the CBA, and raising his profile throughout China. Surprisingly, while Marbury found such great success in Foshan, his teammates held differing views about his future as a Dralion.
“After I got to Foshan I thought, ‘This situation isn’t so bad.’ So, I talked to management about staying in Foshan. But my game had returned to the level of my NBA days, and my team said to me, ‘You’re not staying here. You’re going to Beijing.’” Selflessly, the Foshan Dralions saw Marbury’s potential and rather than keep him in Foshan, they pushed him to go to the big city to become a champion – Marbury’s ability to build bridges and collaborate with the Chinese people had already taken root.
Despite having relished his time in Foshan, Marbury heeded the words of his teammates and signed with the Beijing Ducks. Marbury lived up to his former teammates’ dreams, and with his new Beijing Ducks teammates, brought home the 2011–2012 CBA championship. In doing so, Marbury cemented his career in the CBA, himself in Beijing, and his place in Chinese sporting history.
Ever the overachiever, Marbury did not stop with just one championship. In total, he would win three CBA championships, and receive two larger than life statues of himself and his team in Beijing. In Beijing today, Marbury is a hero and the love he feels is unrivaled.
Doing the Right Thing
With his legacy in China cemented and the foundation of his bridge firmly in place, Marbury has set his eyes on to other ways which he can marry his ties in China to his aspirations of helping those back home – a dream to create access for those who have none.
“I feel like we all should have a social conscience and sense of responsibility to help our fellow man,” says Marbury. “This is the only way, because not everyone is privileged. Not everyone can create for themselves. We know that because it exists, and it continues. We talk about what people should do. But they’re not doing it.”
Coming from an underprivileged home himself, Marbury sees an opportunity to do for others what wasn’t done for him. “For me growing up in the projects, we didn’t have a lot of money. But, we had a lot of love,” says Marbury. “We always had food. All my siblings went to college. Four of them played Division 1 Basketball. Most people would look at a family coming from the projects and they would visualize them differently,” explains Marbury. The projects, Marbury says, are not the problem.
“It’s the attitude of the projects. It’s not the projects themselves. And it’s getting people living in the projects to reform their thinking, which is what I aim to do,” says Marbury. This is where Marbury seeks to make his biggest impact, creating access where little exists.
Enter Starbury: Marbury’s signature brand of basketball shoes and apparel. Though there is nothing new about an athlete creating or endorsing their own basketball shoes, Starbury is wildly different in one major aspect: the price. With most basketball shoes seen on NBA courts costing upwards of $150, Marbury sees an opportunity where a vacuum of morality now resides. He sees an injustice and a disservice being done to the kids and families of America, supported by those who used to be in the same position. Very publicly, the three-time CBA champion has admonished other athletes the likes of Lebron James and Dwayne Wade for creating and endorsing exorbitantly priced sneakers that are so expensive and hotly demanded, such as Air Jordan’s, that an estimated 1200 people a year die as result of sneaker-related crime.
“I know that it doesn’t cost that much money to make all these products. So why would I charge human beings an astronomical price for one item when they could buy a multitude of different shoes, clothes, and a variety of different things that they need for basketball, for the weather, to play, or to walk around? You can have all of these different things from our brand,” explains Marbury.
Unlike most brands, Starbury provides an option for affordable, NBA-ready shoes and apparel. “I created shoes that you can buy for $15 that you can play with on and NBA court. Clothes that are under $15. $10 sneakers. $10 jeans. $6 shirts. Access. I’m creating access,” says Marbury. “And creating access was part of the plan, because I didn’t have the access to be able to buy stuff like that. My mom couldn’t do that,” puts Marbury.
Originally launched in 2006, Stephon Marbury brought his answer to the world’s sneaker problem to help low income families deal with the pressures of raising children in a world dominated by consumerism. To execute his vision, it was imperative that Marbury find the right business partner that was willing to pursue a socially conscious brand that was functional, stylish, and available to everybody. Marbury found this partner in clothing retailer Steve & Barry. Using funds from playing with the Knicks, Marbury and Steve & Barry began manufacturing their shoes in China and sold them in Steve & Barry stores. The initial Starbury product line included, The Starbury One ($14.98), Starbury Crossovers ($9.98), Starbury Cyclones ($9.98), and the Starbury SXM ($9.98).
The first Starbury basketball shoes definitively accomplished their goal of affordability, but more than that, they delivered on their promise of being equal in quality to $150+ brands like Air Jordan’s. In March of 2007, Starburys were featured on ABC’s 20/20 for a segment hosted by John Stossel entitled, “Enough!” On the show, Marbury made the claim that if you cut a Starbury One down the middle and compared it to any basketball shoe over $150, they would look the same. Stossel took this challenge and brought the Starbury Ones to Parsons The New School for Design’s shoe design department to put Marbury’s words to the test, bisecting the Starbury Ones and a pair of Air Jordans for comparison. The Parson’s expert unequivocally proclaimed, “They’re constructed the same way.”
Despite having science on his side, Marbury would not be satisfied unless he truly walked the walk. And, when Marbury said his shoes could be played on an NBA court, he meant it. On November 1, 2006, Marbury wore his Starbury Ones in an NBA game, and with great success. He continued to wear the Starbury Ones in every game that season and even garnered the support of fellow teammates, such as Steve Francis, who dawned the super affordable sneakers in several games. Thanks to his faithful utilization of his sneakers on the court, as well as the support of teammates, Starbury’s sales were strong, selling over 4 million pairs. Unfortunately, when the 2008 financial crisis hit, Starbury manufacturing and distribution partner, Steve & Barry, was one of the victims. In 2009, Steve & Barry was forced to close its doors, closing a chapter on Marbury’s sneaker and clothing line.
Starbury 2.0 – “I’m Vertical”
This would not be the end for Starbury and Marbury’s dream to create access. Now a hero in China and a perennial business man who had worked on a variety of projects while playing in the CBA, Marbury is set to leverage his ties in China to revive Starbury. This time around, Marbury will not be beholden to partners like Steve & Barry. Instead, he is going straight to the source.
Having created the means for such an incredible opportunity through his CBA achievements and connection to the Chinese people, Starbury has all the infrastructure necessary to come through on Marbury’s great ambition. “Coming to China, building out this portal, I can walk into factories and have conversations where we can try and do a light asset deal where they put up the capital for the product and we do a 59/41 split deal. Once they recoup all the money they spent for production, we split the profit. So basically, they’re not doing anything besides putting a logo on for me. They already make those shoes. They’re going to make them anyway,” Marbury explains. “So now, with me being my own company, being able to make my own decisions, these are some of the bridges that I want to set up.”
Marbury sees the opportunity, and moreover, the responsibility he has to create access. And, he’s doing so to help those who can’t help themselves. Marbury explains that he’ll become “the pillar for all of those people at the bottom of the pyramid. That’s what inspired [him] to come here. [He] came to China to try to establish the factories and establish the partnerships with companies that want to do good business like this.” Marbury goes on to explain that, “I’m trying to do factory deals as oppose to doing a big deal with a company. I already have a distribution portal in America. I have my own brand. I’m vertical – I have everything already set up so that I can do business for the people.”
This article was originally published in the first edition of the AmCham China Quarterly, an executive-targeted periodical focused on policy, business, and technology, driven by C-suite perspectives and insights. To subscribe or contribute to the Quarterly, contact our editor: firstname.lastname@example.org