EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 30, 2009

Roller-coaster Ride

Playground legend, savior, scapegoat, reviled, banished. Backup point guard for the defending champions is the latest role for Stephon Marbury in his basketball

Bill Burt

WALTHAM — Stephon Marbury had been in this position before. About 10,000 times.

The ball was in his hands. The game, be it on a schoolyard in Coney Island or in some NBA arena, was on the line. And he took the big shot.

Tuesday night, the score was tied, 91-91, with 17 seconds left in Game 5 of the Boston Celtics series with the Chicago Bulls, when the ball was passed to the wide open Marbury in the right corner.

Two months into the Stephon Marbury Experiment, his moment had arrived.

Two months of being the fourth or fifth option. Two months of feeling his way around the most historic basketball organization in the world. Two months of playing basketball with his hands tied behind his back.

So what did Marbury do in his moment of truth?

He froze. And then he passed it to Rajon Rondo, who had to rush a tough shot, which missed badly.

"It looked a little worse live," explained Celtics coach Doc Rivers yesterday. "When you watch the film, he saw that Rondo was open. Rondo was surprised that he got the ball, but Stephon passed it to the open man."

That's a coach covering his player's back.

"Should I have shot it?" said Marbury. "Maybe. But we won the game. So, everything turned out OK."

Why didn't Marbury shoot? Why didn't his instincts take over? Why didn't he embrace "his" moment as a Boston Celtic?

"I hadn't been in the game for about an hour and a half," said Marbury. "I just didn't feel comfortable."

While we may question his judgment — I certainly do in this case — we can't question about Marbury's willingness to be part of a team.

"The guys are defending champions," he says. "They know how to win. They know what it takes to win big games. I didn't want to blow it for the team. ... And Rondo was open."

Yes, the Stephon Marbury Experiment is still a work in progress.

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As excited as he is being a Celtic, it hasn't totally dulled the pain from his time with the New York Knicks.

They paid him about $19 million this year to stay home this winter. It still bothers him.

"In New York, it was never about basketball. It was always about the drama," said Marbury. "I kept the Knicks relevant even when I wasn't there. It's funny. I wasn't even around yet my name was in the papers every day with the newest Marbury-Knicks saga. That hurt a little bit."

Marbury says he thought when the Isiah Thomas Era ended, bygones would be bygones. But new coach Mike D'Antoni made it clear that Marbury, a New York City playground legend, wasn't part of the plan.

"When the new management group came in I was told that everyone would start with a clean slate," said Marbury, 32. "Well, that wasn't true. I showed up in shape and it was obvious that there would be no clean slate."

Marbury says he was told by Knicks president and GM Donnie Walsh that it would be best if he didn't show up to practice.

Before long, when the Knicks lost four players to injury, Marbury was asked if he'd play.

"It was crazy, man," said Marbury. "First they didn't want me around, then they want me. I wasn't ready. Two days of practice isn't enough. ... Basically, it was just more drama, just like before."

Criticism of Marbury picked up steam by the day. He was called both selfish and greedy, just like he was called in previous stops in Minnesota, Phoenix and New Jersey. It's a reputation that's been difficult to shed. In an early March poll done by Sports Illustrated, 22 percent of the NBA players who responded said Marbury was the player they'd least like to have on their team.

The Celtics, however, have said he's been an exemplary teammate.

"If you know me, and I mean really know me, you know I'm not either (selfish or greedy)," said Marbury. "They basically didn't want me to play anywhere else. And they didn't want to pay me. You can't have it both ways. Let me go if I'm not in your plans. It was sad."

Marbury has learned to accept the criticism from the New York media.

"I grew up in New York. I understand the way the media is there. That's why I didn't let it ruin me," said Marbury. "I knew when stuff was being made up and I didn't let it bother me. I couldn't take it personal."

One bit of criticism, though, hit Marbury real hard. It came from ex-NBA star Reggie Miller, who is now a network analyst.

"It's disappointing," said Miller. "You always want your best player, which is Stephon Marbury, and head coach to get along. When Steph steps on the court, they've got to get on the same page. They've got to right the ship. It's disturbing. He flies home, flies back to L.A. The team votes (for him) not to play. Those are things that can destroy a team. You've got to make an example, but he plays him 40 minutes. What is that saying?"

Marbury is still steamed about Miller.

"What really ticked me off was people like Reggie Miller, who don't know me or never talked to me, saying this and that about me," said Marbury. "Reggie never talked to me. Never. ... A lot of people said the Celtics shouldn't do it, that I'd be a disruption in the locker room. That's bull. The reason I'm here is because of Danny (Ainge). He had been living in Phoenix, and we had gone on visits to hospitals together. We talked a lot. He knew what I was about."

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Marbury has put on a good face since signing here Feb. 27.

"I love everything about being here; the preparation, professionalism, public relations, the coaching staff, the owners, the fans. ... Everything,'' said Marbury.

"Everyone around here has high standards. It's like Ground Hog Day here every day. Everybody works hard and expects to win. I look up at the championship banners all the time. It's really opened my eyes."

Marbury has done everything the Celtics have asked of him. He hasn't complained about playing time. He has accepted the role of backup guard. He averaged 3.8 points a game, after averaging 19.7 points a game over the previous 12 years.

"Of course it's going to be difficult," said Rivers, who often plays Rondo huge minutes while Marbury fights for playing time. "For the last 25 years, he's been the star. Everything revolved around him. He's still feeling his way around here."

Marbury says, despite the smile, it's hard sitting.

"I was talking to my brother the other night about how tough it is to come in say at the end of the first quarter and then come out after a couple of minutes in the second quarter," said Marbury. "Then I sometimes won't go in until the fourth quarter. That's more than hour on the bench, not playing. I don't have the luxury of being like Paul Pierce or Ray Allen. I understand that. Would I love to do what they do? Hell, yeah. But that's not for me to decide."

Compare him to another controversial point guard. When Allen Iverson was traded to the Pistons, he pouted about his reduced minutes and was basically banished from the team.

"It's really hard. I know people don't want to hear that, but it's hard when all you have ever known is being a starter, a go-to guy and then you are asked to be bench player," said Marbury. "When I heard Iverson said he'd rather retire than be a backup, I understood. I wanted to call him to tell him I understand what he's going through. It is a mental adjustment. His ego was in the way. But you know what, that's OK. His ego is probably what made him the player he was.

"People just say, 'Why doesn't he accept it?' Well, it's not that easy."

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When the Celtics signed Marbury, fans were salivating. But "Starbury'' never emerged. He's been more a ballhandler and defender.

The Celtics need a scorer. In the playoffs, the bench has made almost no contribution for the injury-plagued Celtics.

"I'm still not in Stephon Marbury mode right now," said Marbury, who admitted on a recent ESPN E60 feature that he sought counseling after his father died in December 2007. "I want to explode, too, trust me. I knew it would take time to get my game back. A year is a long time to be away. And the playoffs are different than the regular season. My mind and body are in two different places right now. There just not together yet. But they're close."

"We need Stephon to help us. We really do," said Rivers. "With Tony (Allen), Eddie (House), Stephon and Scal (Brian Scalabrine), we need at least one of them to have a good game every game. Just one. I'd love for that to be Stephon.

"I probably need to push him a little bit, to be more aggressive," said Rivers. "But I honestly believe he will have another shot like he had (on Tuesday night). And he will take it and make it. We really are going to need him to do that at some point."

Marbury says he has taken mental notes of the way the Celtics do business for future endeavors, one of which is to buy an NBA franchise some day.

Guess which team he'd like to own?

"I want to buy the New York Knicks," said Marbury. "It's something I've been thinking about for a while. I'm a New York City kid. I'd like to be part making them a winner."

But, he said, there would a Boston-tilt to his organization.

"I would want my team just like the Celtics," said Marbury, "where everything is about basketball and winning. I've really seen the light here. I'm hoping I can be a piece of the puzzle, like Doc always says. It would mean everything to me."

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.