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Stephon Marbury Is Starring in a Chinese Musical About Himself

Christopher Beam

In the final scene of “I Am Marbury,” the new Chinese musical based on the life of Stephon Marbury, Stephon Marbury delivers a soliloquy about Stephon Marbury. But it’s not just about Stephon Marbury: “I am Marbury,” he intones. “You are Marbury. We are all connected.” After each line, a chorus of Chinese actors repeats the sentence in Mandarin. He goes on: “I am a champion. You are a champion. But it was all yesterday. We will never stop working hard. We will never be satisfied. We will always keep moving on.” 

At this point in the speech—at least the version I saw during a recent rehearsal at the MasterCard Center in western Beijing—Marbury paused and looked at the ceiling. He’d only seen the script a few days before, and he hadn’t quite finished memorizing his lines. “Something regarding hope? New goals?” suggested his co-star, the Chinese-American comedian Mike Sui. That rang a bell. “We have new goals every day,” Marbury continued. “It is going to be a long journey. Along this journey, we are happy. I have one word for you guys: ding zhu!” With this—the phrase means “stand up!”—he pumped a fist in the air, and everyone started dancing and dribbling basketballs to an aggressive metal club track.

“Very good!” the director said when it was over. “Better,” Marbury corrected him, shaking his head. “It wasn’t good.”

That Stephon Marbury is starring in his own stage musical is less surprising if you’ve followed his career since he left the United States for China in 2010. After alienating the country one NBA franchise at a time (first the Nets, then the Suns, then his hometown Knicks) with his spotty performance on-court and erratic behavior off, the “Lone Wolf”—dulang, as he’s known in Mandarin—joined up with the Brave Dragons, a struggling team owned by a deranged coal boss in the pollution-strangled city of Taiyuan in Shanxi province. There, he clashed with the general manager and left after a year. It wasn’t until the Beijing Ducks picked him up for the 2011–12 season that his turnaround began. The team kicked off the season with 13 straight victories and ultimately won the CBA championship. After a disappointing follow-up season, they re-took the trophy in 2014. Fans passed around photos of Marbury drenched in tears. 

In return, Marbury has enjoyed an adoration he never knew in the U.S. After he led the Ducks to the championship, the city of Beijing erected a statue of him outside the MasterCard Center, gave him a key to the city, and made him an honorary citizen. Chinese media fawn over him, awarding him points for riding the subway and eating Chinese food. Rumor has it he is being considered to coach the Chinese national team. “Whoa,” Marbury said, checking his phone during a rehearsal break. “The president of China wants to meet me tomorrow.” He bugged out his eyes at me. “I gotta get a suit!”

The Marbury “rebirth” narrative has appeared in many forms (a New York Times profile declared in 2011 that he had found “success and serenity” in China), but never so creatively as in “I Am Marbury,” an allegorical tale of two Beijing street musicians who get selected for an “American Idol”–style singing competition. Allegorical, because their ups and downs mirror the oscillations of Marbury’s own career. When the pair first arrives in Beijing with a guitar case and a dream, they encounter temptations, including a brothel Madame and a sleazy agent. During one of their musical performances—rendered, somewhat confusingly, as acrobatic basketball games—the nameless protagonist gets a phone call saying his father has died, a reference to a similarly tragic experience Marbury had while playing for the Knicks. The band eventually lands in court, a scene meant to evoke Marbury’s testimony in a sexual harassment lawsuit by a former Knicks executive against coach Isaiah Thomas. The protagonist quits the show and slips into an existential funk, only to be pulled out by the disembodied voice of Marbury, who comes to him in a dream just after winning his second championship with the Ducks. “Live in the moment,” Marbury says, his face looming on a screen above the stage. “Be positive. Believe in yourself. Don’t follow others. … Everything comes from lessons from God. Stand up. Rise up. Cheer up!” Inspired by Marbury, the hero reunites with his band and, through teamwork, they win the song contest.

When I caught up with Marbury during a break, he was wearing a baseball cap with the words “Model Actor” perched backwards and askew on his ample dome, and was tucking into a bowl of Yoshinoya takeout. He described the show as something that had happened to him, rather than his own vision. “I had no role in the creative process,” he said. In 2012, his manager, Yang Yi, who is also a sports reporter, came up with the idea of creating a stage show based on his life. “I thought it was cool,” Marbury said. “I thought it was something different.” Rehearsals began this summer, without Marbury at first—they used a stand-in—and then swapping him in as opening day approached. 

The content he entrusted to his team, including Yang Yi, the producers, and the director, Zhou Wenhong, who also co-wrote the script and described himself to me as “China’s best stage actor.” While creating the show, Zhou read articles about Marbury’s life, from the scandals back home to the triumphs in Beijing, as well as Marbury’s autobiography, I Am Commissar Marbury, which is only available in Chinese. It was important to keep Marbury in his comfort zone, Zhou told me: No singing—although Marbury is a good singer, he added—no Chinese, and not too much memorization. Zhou described Marbury as diligent and easy to work with. He was especially impressed with his reading of the final soliloquy: “He sounded like Martin Luther King,” Zhou said. I asked Marbury whether the religious elements were his own contribution. “That was all them,” he said, referring to his team, many of whom are also Christian. But the religious ideas in the show reflect his beliefs. “I look at this as all God’s will,” he said. “That’s my reality and what I think and what I feel. I think this was all part of the destiny, part of the plan in my life. I feel I like I had to go through all the things back home in order to understand and accept all of the things that take place now.” 

For a show named after Marbury, starring Marbury, “I Am Marbury” actually contains very little Marbury. The audience gets brief glimpses of him, or a gray hooded figure that is supposed to be him, throughout the play, but the man himself only appears onstage at the end. (The real highlight is Mike Sui, a genuinely talented comic actor best known for his knack for imitating various Chinese patois.) And that’s partly the point. Marbury is less a character in the show than an idea, i.e., that underdogs can triumph. Whether or not Marbury is a plausible vehicle for this concept depends on what part of Marbury’s career one wants to focus on. In the U.S., he’s still the fight-picking, intern-shtupping, Vaseline-eating megalomaniac who once took to YouTube for a 24-hour stream-of-consciousness live broadcast. But in China, he’s the downtrodden exile who took a gamble and made it big. At a time when legions of Chinese are migrating to cities in search of new lives, self-reinvention is a promising theme. Whether Americans think it makes sense or not is less important than whether Chinese audiences do. If all goes according to plan, Marbury will be shooting a film about his life next summer with Wanda, the Chinese movie giant. 

“Everything has changed since I came to China,” he said. “You leave America, then you go someplace else, you begin to create something totally different.”