Caught In The Middle: Stephon Marbury article in '96

1. Every team that traded Marbury (Wolves, Nets, Suns) got significantly better immediately following his departure. Meanwhile, every team that has received Steph in a trade (Nets, Suns, Knicks) posted a worse record the season after he arrived.
2. His teams have won 36 games or fewer in 9 of his 12 seasons.
3. He averages 50 losses a season and never lead a team to a fifty win season. His average season is 32-50.
4. Played for 2004 OLYMPIC team that was the first to fail to win gold with pros.
5. Marbury lead Georgia Tech (along with drew barry & matt harpring) to the sweet 16 and the most wins Bobby Cremins had in his last 10 years at Georgia Tech.

January 22, 1996
Caught In The Middle
Stephon Marbury, Georgia Tech's heralded freshman guard, carries a heavy burden as the last, best hope of a Coney Island hoops dynasty
Alexander Wolff

Stephon Marbury pulls a Suzuki 4x4 into a parking lot in downtown Atlanta . He pays the attendant in advance, Brooklyn -dodges his way across the street, then ducks into Hasan's Atlanta 's Finest Barber Shop.

Hasan's is a hedge against Atlanta 's atrium creep, an antidote to all the Peachtree Thises and Perimeter Thats—an enclave in this Brave New City of the South that's timid and old and perfectly happy to be so. For Marbury, a Georgia Tech freshman who has been called the best guard prospect ever to come out of New York City , it's also a refuge from the indignity of the night before, when Tech lost 71-69 at home to Mount St. Mary's.

Here is Hasan's on a December afternoon with Christmas coming: An urchin in a green sweatsuit kneels in front of the barber chair where Marbury is sitting and flips open a leather briefcase jammed with video-cassettes; Stephon chooses Bad Boys and peels off a $10 from a fat wad of bills. Also sitting for a cut is Atlanta Hawk forward Ken Norman , a living reminder that for Marbury the NBA is the terminus of the road on which Tech is a mere way station. A 10-year-old, left here by his mom while she works in the beauty shop down the street, sits in one of the chairs, facing a mirror, pantomiming shot after shot, his hand and wrist describing a perfect cobra's head at the end of each follow-through.

At this, Marbury allows a smile to break over his face—cautiously, so as not to jeopardize the fade that Philly Mike, his regular barber, is in the midst of crafting.

"How can you not like that?" Marbury says.

For someone who has been considered a prodigy for more than half his 18 years, there could be no more serene and innocent scene. Georgia Tech sank thousands of dollars and man-hours into recruiting Marbury in the hope that, before he lights out for the pros, he'll at least lead the Yellow Jackets into the NCAA tournament that has spurned them the past two years. Meanwhile, Marbury's family has its own interests: It's counting on Stephon for deliverance from the Brooklyn housing project in which Jason Sowell, a high school teammate of Stephon's, was gunned down last summer. But here at Hasan's, in this hothouse of fellowship and easy badinage, Marbury is no one's ticket in and no one's ticket out.

"He got passes and he got shots and he got hops and he got game," Hasan says, casting an admiring eye from the register.

"But if the head grows," says Philly Mike, "I'll know."

For more than a quarter century now, Don and Mabel Marbury's five boys have been apprenticing for the NBA on the basketball courts of the Coney Island Houses. Eric (Sky Dog) Marbury was a 6'2" inside scorer at Georgia between 1979 and '82, only to be cut in camp by the San Diego Clippers in 1982. Six-foot-three Donnie (Sky Pup) Marbury went undrafted, even though he was a shooter of such unalloyed purity that he led the Southwest Conference in scoring as a senior at Texas A&M in 1985-86. Don Sr. calls his third child, 6'3" Norman (Jou-Jou) Marbury, "the purest point guard you'd ever want to see," but Jou-Jou failed to make the grade on the SAT, had a scholarship offer from Tennessee withdrawn and got exiled to the junior colleges. He played one season of Division I ball at St. Francis College in Brooklyn (1993-94).

As each Marbury brother has failed to stick, his professional aspirations have slid down to the next, until all have accumulated in the catch basin that is Stephon. Family members speak about the successive refinements in the Marbury game—of how Eric's raw desire set a tone, and Donnie added the sweet stroke and Norman the nose for the basket—and how these gifts have coalesced in the fourth Marbury boy. There is a fifth brother, Moses, a.k.a. Zack, who in the family tradition wears number 3 for Lincoln High, where he's now a sophomore guard. But Zack isn't the phenom that Stephon is, and that only serves to send the family's hopes rebounding up the line.

Stephon, who's 6'2", embellishes this legacy with skills entirely his own: dial-8 range on his jump shot; a predator's appetite for on-the-ball defense; and an aura, a New York ease with his station that in other precincts might be called cockiness. In November, Marbury suggested to the New York Daily News that he would leave for the NBA after this season, a comment that touched off much hand-wringing in Atlanta , where Georgia Tech likes to think of itself as more than a trade school for aspiring pro basketball players. But Marbury now says that there was much more nuance in his remark, and that he had simply addressed a hypothetical. "If I'm guaranteed to be in the lottery?" he says still. "I wouldn't even hesitate. I'm leaving. In fact, I would hope the people at Georgia Tech would tell me to leave. Because if not, they wouldn't be thinking about anything but themselves.

"I don't feel I'm totally ready. The NBA and college are two totally different games. The NBA is just pick-and-roll, and if the pick-and-roll's not there, throw it to Hakeem and he scores. How hard can that be? It's just physical strength. Being ready means adjusting to being around older players. Right now I don't have anything in common with those guys."

As Marbury ruminates over the differences between college and the pros, his coaches at Georgia Tech think there's still much for him to learn about the differences between high school and college. Mount St. Mary's senior Chris McGuthrie, a 5'9" guard, lit up the Yellow Jackets, and often Marbury, for 37 points—a reminder that even the best on-the-ball defender is of little use if he can't fight through the picks a well-coached college team will set to spring a shooter. So far this season the Jackets have run a gantlet of a schedule, over which Marbury has been reliably inconsistent: horrid against Georgia and splendid against Louisville ; a first-half terror at Kentucky (he went for 17 as Tech forged a halftime lead) and a second-half bust (he failed to score as the team collapsed over the final 20 minutes); and just the reverse at Duke (he followed a four-point first half with 23 in the second of a 86-81 victory). With exhilarating wins over Maryland and North Carolina , and excruciating losses to Bradley and Santa Clara , the Jackets (10-7 after a 91-78 defeat of Western Carolina on Saturday) have been every bit as mercurial as their freshman point guard.

The NBA does not make lottery picks of floor leaders whose teams lose to Mount St. Mary's at home. With Tech up a point and a minute and a half to play, Marbury threw away a blind wraparound pass. "We don't need to be forcing it in a close game like that," says Drew Barry, Marbury's fifth-year senior backcourt mate. "Stephon's a great talent. He's going to be a great player. But right now he has a lot to learn."

With Barry and forwards Michael Maddox and Matt Harpring , Yellow Jacket coach Bobby Cremins has the nucleus of a pretty good team, and he wants to let Marbury, who was averaging 19.3 points and 4.4 assists at week's end, grow naturally into the role of leading it. "Why is he not there yet?" Cremins says. "He's stubborn. And there's the pressure to perform. The expectations are ridiculous. All this pressure. All this hype. It really pisses me off. He's had his mind on other things."

Cremins and his staff have sat Marbury down on several occasions for what Cremins calls "long, heavy talks," sessions referred to around the Tech basketball offices as "de-recruiting." The coaches tell Marbury that the word is out on him: Apply the man-to-man screws—that's what Kentucky and Georgia did—and he panics. Reverts to his roots. Just tries to break everyone down one-on-one. Stephon, they say, you've got to play with their minds. Give the ball up, get it back, then make them pay. "Stephon should never shoot under 50 percent in a game," says Tech associate head coach Kevin Cantwell. "If he does, he's taking shots he shouldn't."

In the aftermath of the Mount St. Mary's debacle, Marbury was the lone Yellow Jacket to ask a manager for a copy of the game tape that night. He watched it in all its horror until 3:30 a.m. But he also spent an hour on the phone with Donnie back in Coney Island . Donnie hadn't seen the game, but his advice distilled to this: Got to play like Stephon. Got to go through the middle, got to get to the basket.

Cremins fears counsel like that only interferes with the message he's trying to get across. The next morning Marbury pronounced his diagnosis: "I've been so focused on what Coach wants me to do—be a leader, get everybody involved—that I haven't been Stephon."

Hooo, boy.

"There's a lot of talk about Stephon's making it to the NBA for his family," Cremins says, "but his mother once told me, 'We're a family, and we're going to be a family whether he makes it to the NBA or not.' And they're a happy family. They could live there the rest of their lives and be happy."

Cremins is a devotee of Pat Conroy's novels—he loves the stripped-down honesty of those dysfunctional-family sagas—and he considers himself something of an expert on sprawling hoop dynasties. But he says he knows no family like the Marburys. Not the Prices, who raised former Yellow Jacket and current NBA star Mark; not the Barrys, who produced Drew and former Tech guard, Jon, now a Golden State Warrior . Cremins says he had "heard a lot of stories, a lot of war stories" about the Marburys, but none quite prepared him for what he came upon when he visited the family's four-room apartment in Coney Island , on West 31st Street between Surf and Mermaid. The unlocked door. The people everywhere. The comings, the goings. "They're extremely close," Cremins says. "It's amazing. Go see. I don't know what the hell makes it work."

What makes it work may be that Don, an out-of-work laborer, and Mabel, a daycare worker, know no other way. He's one of six kids, she's one of nine. You could start at 17th Street and go 20 blocks north and find kin, covering five generations, in every high-rise along the way. One of those comers-and-goers, Stephon's cousin Jamel Thomas, is an orphan whom the Marburys essentially raised. Thomas is now a freshman forward at Providence.

Despite appearances, Stephon didn't spring from chaos. From age three he has followed plans carefully laid by his older brothers, beginning with Eric, who would urge Stephon to run up and down the 15 stories of their building—three times per workout—and then run some more on the beach near the projects. "The whole object was to teach the brothers under you to be better than you," says Eric, "to take this oath and accept this challenge."

As a nine-year-old, Stephon would stage shooting exhibitions at halftimes of Lincoln High games. In 1988 Hoop Scoop, a recruiting newsletter, anointed him the best sixth-grader in the nation. As an eighth-grader he sneaked into a local camp for high-schoolers and played so well that the organizers pardoned his audacity. Up to that point, Marbury says, "I wasn't a very nice kid. I thought I was it. It was, y'all supposed to talk to me, I'm not supposed to talk to y'all. I'd just come out on the court, just talk junk, with this walk and this look."

Adults weren't spared this treatment. In CYO ball he woofed at opposing coaches: I'm just killing your guards. Get someone out here who can stop me.

But he had changed his demeanor by the time he entered his sophomore year at Lincoln. By then he had the tattoo of a panther etched into his right arm. "A panther is quick and smart and always alert to everything," Marbury says. "He's sitting on top of a mountain, with the sun and the clouds. That's where I want to see myself." And he had replaced his badass street act with self-discipline. "I learned to treat everybody with respect," he says. "I've learned to be focused, be a professional person, the kind who is always an honor to be around. When you're a good person, good things happen to you. The guy in the shop? With the tapes? He thought I was a star from the way I carried myself."

Scouts, he says, are always watching. "If you're on the bench, they're watching to see if you're picking your nose or playing with yourself. They want to know if you're into the game, what your attitude is when you're 20 down. Before they give out a million, they're gonna ask, Can we trust this kid?"

Marbury has so sanitized his attitude that he doesn't even talk smack anymore. According to McGuthrie, the guard from Mount St. Mary's, the only thing Marbury said to him was, "Damn, you're hot."

New York City can be unforgiving toward its phenoms. The starmakers ballyhooed former playground legend Dwayne (Pearl) Washington , who never lived up to his precious nickname while playing at Syracuse , and struggling St. John's sophomore guard Felipe Lopez , who sat for Richard Avedon's camera while still in high school, only to turn their backs on both when they turned out to be anything short of great. But about Stephon the older Marbury brothers are irrepressible. Even if Eric's example couldn't see Donnie or Norman safely through, Stephon is on course. He made his college boards, didn't he? And he won a public school city title with Lincoln, a first for a Marbury. Did it wearing that number 3 on his back.

"Eric picked that number out," Stephon says. "Says it's for a third eye or something. I don't know what that means. I gotta ask him that."

Ask Eric, and he won't tell you. "Stephon will see what it means" is all he says.

In The Last Shot, Darcy Frey's 1994 book chronicling basketball in Coney Island , Don Sr. is depicted as a cackling opportunist trying to shake down Frey for cash in exchange for the Marbury family story. Stephon is not much more flatteringly portrayed. He angles for meals and rides, boasts of putting himself up for bid to warring New York City AAU teams, and names the make of car he'll get from the college of his choice. With withering understatement, Frey calls Stephon, then a ninth-grader, someone with "an attitude that needs some adjustment."

The Marburys despise the book. "It tries to make my family look like a bunch of niggers trying to get out of the ghetto and not anything else," Stephon says. But it's a portrait that, rightly or wrongly, has taken hold. Adidas powerbroker Sonny Vaccaro has persuaded the Marburys that with another year or two of forbearance their payoff will come and that a more developed sense of public relations is called for in the meantime.

Lou D'Almeida (SI, Nov. 6, 1995), to whose Gauchos AAU team Stephon ultimately became loyal, keeps him flush with pocket money, in apparent accordance with NCAA rules, while the Marbury patriarch, who over the years had picked up a reputation among recruiters as someone unafraid to assert his prerogatives, is gracious and charming with the press. He'll discourse on Nixon , jazz and New York City politics, and cry honest tears in his living room while recounting the sweep of his and his five boys' lives. "We have a working agreement, my wife and I," says Don Sr., whose progeny have earned him the nickname the Creator in the neighborhood. "If there's something positive, that's hers. If there's something difficult—a problem—I take care of it."

Stephon had verbally committed to Tech last January but had failed to return his letter of intent well into the April signing period. Early that month Jerry Tarkanian happened to take over as coach at Fresno State . Reports indicated that Tark, in discussions with the Marburys, employed the perfectly permissible recruiting tactic of dangling an offer of an assistant coaching job to someone close to his quarry—in this case, brother Donnie. As word of these negotiations filtered out, Cremins couldn't get his prospective signee on the phone. Panicked, he flew to New York . Stephon then reassured the coach he would sign with Tech and on April 28 did. "Why don't people believe a kid's word?" Stephon says now. "I don't even know where Fresno is."

Last year D'Almeida gave Stephon a used Acura—because "he deserves it," D'Almeida has said—but after the arrangement hit the papers over the summer, Marbury gave up the car amid fears that his eligibility had been compromised. (The Suzuki that Marbury drove to Hasan's belongs to Tech teammate Maddox.) "I'm doing without some things that are essential to me," Marbury says. "It's hard without a car here. But I'm doing without one."

A lightbulb seems to appear over his head. "It's good for me not to have a car," he says. "I have no choice but to watch film. Just makes me watch film a little bit more."

That the Marbury men are thick with one another is common knowledge throughout Brooklyn . "Stephon looks up to his little brother," says Tech freshman guard Gary Saunders, a Gaucho teammate. It's the Marbury women few know about. "The father will charm you one minute, then go off on a tirade the next," says someone close to the family. "Give him $1,000 and he'll want $5,000. But Stephon and his mother and sisters, that's a beautiful story. The innocence is there."

The Marbury women—Mabel and her 30-year-old twin daughters, Marcia, an education reporter with KFDM-TV in Beaumont , Texas , and Stephanie, a special-ed teacher's aide in Brooklyn—account for Stephon's soft side. Stephanie in particular deserves credit. She was 12 when her little brother was born. Name him after me, Stephanie pleaded, and I'll care for him—feed him, wash him, dress him, scold him.

Within a few years Stephanie, already large for her age, was regularly taken to be Stephon's mother. After Stephon fell off a bike, she dressed the gash that's now a scar on his right leg. When Stephon lost the city championship game as a junior, it was Stephanie who consoled her sobbing brother, wrapping him up in her arms at midcourt. When he wanted to go to Georgia Tech and the Marbury men stood solidly for Syracuse , she dried his tears and told him, "If you really want to go there, go there." In the second half of the Kentucky game last month, bench-ridden with a bloody nose, Stephon sneezed and more blood gushed forth. Rushing from her seat behind the bench, Stephanie tended to her brother, draping herself over his shoulders. There was no question that Stephon's daughter, whom he calls "the light of my eyes" and who was born last March to his girlfriend, Nicole Thompson, would be named Stephanie.

"We are the stabilizers," Stephanie says of the Marbury women. Then she adds, "Whether we have a house on the hill or in the projects, whether we go to the NBA or not, this is already a success story."

Still, every Marbury stands vigil, each in his or her own way: Stephanie, calling Stephon's dorm room every day; Marcia, monitoring the news wires and TV feeds at the station in Beaumont ; Mama, playing the good cop, Papa, the bad; Dog and Pup and Jou-Jou, watching with their third eye. And Zack, taking notes, just in case the dream must be deferred one more time—passed on down to the last in the line.

It's rare that Stephon's parents and six siblings can all gather to watch him play, but when Georgia Tech takes on UMass in the Meadowlands just before Christmas, the family has a chance to sound its urgency in chorus. Tech is struggling against a team soon to be ranked No. 1 in the nation, and Stephon is on his way to a 7-for-20 night.

"Shoot that, Steph! This is where you take over, Steph!" It's Eric, in the second row, bellowing at his brother as the Minute-men push their lead into double digits. To reach Stephon, Eric's exhortations must wash dissonantly over the coaches and players on the Georgia Tech bench.

Stephon shoots from the outside and misses.

There's a whoop as Stephon makes a steal and scores. "What I tell you?" It's Donnie now, right behind Eric. "The steal! I know my little brother!"

But soon the Jackets' 75-67 defeat is certain. The Marbury men caucus. "Drew," says Don Sr., "he don't pass the ball to Stephon!"

Caught between Surf and Mermaid, between the pounding of reality and an abiding, alluring fantasy, Coney Island 's Original Not-Quite-Famous Marburys shout as they hold their breath.