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MARK HEISLER ON THE NBA

When character counts, can Stephon Marbury be counted on?

The talented, mercurial guard, reputedly 'a guy who kills locker rooms,' has landed in Boston, where tradition and self-sacrifice are paramount. It'll be interesting to see how this works.

March 01, 2009|MARK HEISLER

If there's a guy who finally deserved a break, it's not Stephon Marbury, who isn't the devil incarnate but is the hardest-core, most clueless mercenary of his era.

Nevertheless, there he is, in Boston, home of the Keepers of the Flame, where character is, or was, considered synonymous with tradition.

It's not surprising that, even if the Celtics got a two-time All-Star for nothing, and their Big Three signed off on it, they're leery of rolling a Trojan, er, Knick Horse, into the cast.

Someone told a Celtics official, "The only way this doesn't work is if Steph is a raving lunatic."

Said the official, not ready to dismiss the raving-lunatic possibility out of hand: "We'll see."

Paul Pierce noted Marbury's "reputation as a guy who kills locker rooms."

Said Coach Doc Rivers: "Once upon a time, he was a talented player."

Marbury isn't crazy, as he showed upon arrival, saying the right things and getting a standing ovation from Celtics fans in Friday's debut.

He's a spoiled jerk, but he's not crazy. He's also a great player when his head is on straight, rare as that has been.

For the Celtics, he won't merely help, he's the cavalry riding over the hill in the nick of time.

The Celtics' accomplishments with so little size and depth were astounding, but their rivals were making huge strides and they were falling behind.

The Lakers beat them once before Andrew Bynum got rolling, then with Bynum out, looking as if they could outclass them by spring.

Just to get to the Lakers, the Celtics would have to get past the bigger, deeper Cavaliers, an ever-trendier pick in the Eastern Conference.

Worse, if the Celtics finished second in the East -- a looming possibility as Kevin Garnett, Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine suffered injuries -- they might have to beat Orlando, just to get to Cleveland.

All those dire equations changed Friday when Marbury poked his head, with the star tattoo on the side, into TD Banknorth Garden.

All that now teeters is the entire balance of power.

If the Cavaliers can't get past the Celtics this season or next, their chances of losing LeBron James go way up.

With New York being James' most probable destination if he leaves, buying out Marbury was either a brilliant move by President Donnie Walsh, or an incredible unintended consequence.

Unfortunately, now comes a barrage of Marbury-was-maligned stories. (The word everyone is looking for is "criticized." "Maligned" means it wasn't true.)

It's not because he changed, but because fate took him from the middle of the standings to the top. All he had to do was make the Knicks 1) suspend him, and 2) buy him out, which was child's play for him.

It was true, all right.

Marbury has had to make himself over since adolescence, which was when Darcy Frey met him in 1991, researching "The Last Shot," his remarkable street-level book about basketball in Coney Island.

Marbury was 14, only 5 feet 9, already the local star of stars. Frey introduces him at the local playground, through the eyes of an older Lincoln High teammate, Cory Johnson.

Suddenly a ferocious grind-

ing noise fills the air. It gets

louder and louder and then

a teenage kid riding a Big

Wheel careens onto the

court . . . hops off his ride

and watches it crash kami-

kaze-style into the fence.

"Ah yes, Stephon Marbury," Johnson remarks dryly. "Future of the neighborhood."

When Frey approaches Marbury's father, Don Marbury says he'll talk only if he's paid. Courted, wined and dined by AAU teams, sneaker reps and already by college coaches, Don Marbury is upfront: "This is a business -- ain't nothin' but."

The Marburys are Coney Island royalty -- three older brothers were local hoop legends -- with Stephon their last hope to make it big. Materially, they have nothing.

"The elevator seldom works," Frey writes of their building in the projects. "The long halls reek of urine; the dark stairwells, where the dealers lurk, echo with the low rumble of drug transactions."

Stephon is gifted and driven -- one of his brothers has him running the stairs in their building at age 6 -- but has a matching sense of entitlement.

"I wasn't a very nice kid," he tells Sports Illustrated's Alexander Wolff during his year at Georgia Tech. "I thought I was it. . . . I'd just come out on the court, just talk junk, with this walk and this look."

Within three years, he'll force Milwaukee, which drafts him, to trade him to Minnesota to play with Garnett, then force the Timberwolves to trade him because the new cap rules won't let them pay him as much as Garnett.

No accomplishment in Marbury's subsequent 11 seasons would come close to making up for the rising power he abandoned.

Few words -- and no deed -- suggested he learned anything, but this is so simple, he can do it standing on his star-emblazoned head:

Follow the program, smile, and the world will finally smile with him.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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