Surrounded by cameras, Stephon Marbury slowly moved up the steps and headed to the gym.
It was a familiar scene for the former NBA and CBA All-Star.
However, this time, the cameras flashed for a different reason.
Marbury became a CBA head coach.
The American was already seen as a veteran when he first came to China in 2010, but he managed to prolong his playing career until 2018.
After one-year break, Marbury finally inked a three-year contract with Beijing Royal Fighters (formerly known as Beijing Aolong) to became head coach of the Chinese Basketball Association club.
“This is definitely not what I expected,” Marbury told Xinhua about his new nomination.
“This is something that just evolved into me. I love basketball and I’ve been playing basketball all my life. This is my way of giving back to the country, to Beijing.”
Marbury started playing for the Beijing Ducks from the 2011/12 season, carrying the team to their first-ever CBA title that year. Following further championship wins in 2014 and 2015, a statue of Marbury was unveiled at the Ducks’ Wukesong Arena.
While playing for the Ducks, Marbury’s experience led him to play a “coach on court” role, which he said began his preparation for being a head coach.
“Coach Min [Lulei, Ducks’ head coach] gave me the opportunity to help create different strategies for us to win games,” he said.
“He understood his players. He challenged his players. He worked us so hard. When you’re working so hard, you’re tired and you feel the way how you feel in practice, but when you get inside the games, the game’s so easy, and you don’t get tired.
“He’s a very caring coach. We all looked up to him as a father figure, and he did something that a lot of people never did before. He won three championships in four years. He’s a legend and he’s a legend to me.
“He did things that a lot of people probably can’t see. He trusted his system and he believed in what he did as a coach for so many years. When he finally won, his system was proven.”
EVERYTHING IS A CHALLENGE
Embarking on his first appointment as a head coach, Marbury sees a lot of difficulties ahead.
“Everything is a challenge,” said Marbury.
“Everything is brand new. Last year they didn’t do that well, they were at the bottom of the of the league.”
The Royal Fighters are one of the youngest teams in the CBA. The team had been targeting the playoffs at the beginning of last season, but only won eight games in the 46-game season.
“I think that I can make a difference,” Marbury said.
The first “difference” that Marbury brings to the team is Dominique Jones, an efficient attacker who has proven himself in the CBA.
Looking to youth, Marbury plans to make full use of the first-pick advantage. 23-year-old Wang Shaojie will join the CBA Draft this year, and the big forward and top-scorer of CUBA champions Peking University is regarded as the top favorite for the first pick.
“We’re going to draft him,” Marbury said.
“We think that he has very high potential. And playing in the CBA, he’s definitely a reminder of a guy like Wang Zhizhi,”
Marbury’s former Ducks teammate Randolph Morris and Sun Yue are also targets.
The Royal Fighters have not given Marbury a specific goal for next season, and the coach knows only too well how tough the league is.
“The CBA is not an easy league to win.” Marbury said.
“It’s very, very difficult.”
A DIFFICULT JOURNEY
Beijing wasn’t Marbury’s first stop in China. His first CBA club was in Shanxi and then he went to Foshan, before he found true success in Beijing.
“The CBA was harder for me as a foreigner,” Marbury said.
Foreign players play important roles in almost every CBA team. They are expected to score, to rebound, to assist, to defend and to lead the team to victory. Last season, the top 20 scorers in the CBA came from outside China.
“The rules are different and a lot more is expected from the foreign players. In the NBA, you have a variety of different guys that can do well every night. In CBA, you have no choice. You have to play well every night.”
Marbury enjoyed many memorable moments both in the NBA and the CBA. He entered the NBA in 1996 as the fourth overall pick, and became an NBA All-Star with the Phoenix Suns in 2001 and 2003.
“My most memorable moment in the NBA was when I got drafted on the first day,” said Marbury.
“And my best memory in the CBA was winning the first championship. It took me a long time to win it. So when I won that championship, I did something that a lot of people said that I wasn’t capable of doing.”
Facing his next challenge as a coach, Marbury plans to raise the training of the Royal Fighters to the championship level. “My short-term plans and my long-term plans are to train like a championship team, practice like a championship team, think like a championship team, and then let the results fall where they are supposed to fall,” said Marbury.
“I think that’s the best way to go about trying to win in the CBA.”
Marbury has been living in Beijing for almost a decade. He overcame his culture shock in his early CBA career, and turned himself to a Beijing resident.
“This is my home,” said Marbury about what Beijing means to him.
“This is where I live. It’s a city that is supportive of sports. What I loved about Beijing from when we first lost in the CBA, when I saw all those people outside at the train station, I was amazed and shocked. That gave me so much motivation for the following year to come back stronger and to come back better.”
Marbury knows Chinese basketball very well. In the one-year gap before his signing with the Royal Fighters, he did a lot of youth training work and saw great potential in Chinese children.
“The Chinese kids, they love basketball. That’s why I’m really so hopeful for the future. They worked so hard and they trained for hours and hours. What I’m trying to do is get them to train smart.”
Marbury says the CBA is a young league and has much room to improve, noting that physicality is one of the main differences between players from America and China.
“I think the next generation of players, because of the love and the passion that they have for the game, I think that’s going to continue to propel,” Marbury said.
In the latter half of 2019, the FIBA World Cup takes place across eight cities in China. Marbury says the United States are the favorites but adds that there will be strong challenges from Spain, Argentina and Australia.
“China? I believe that they will get out of their group.”