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Stephon Marbury Talks Lockdown in Beijing and His Plan to Send Millions of N95 Masks to the U.S.

Alex Shultz

It’s Wednesday morning in Beijing, and Stephon Marbury says he’s roughly a week past his quarantine period, still getting used to his new normal. He doesn’t have COVID-19, and as far as he knows, he never did.

But rules are rules: In early March, Marbury got word from the Chinese Basketball Association that he should return from the United States—where he’s spent the last few months—to China, so he could resume his day job as the head coach of the Beijing Royal Fighters. Upon arrival in the country’s capital city, Marbury, like all foreigners, was required to bunker down for 14 days and self-report his condition to the Chinese government. Luckily, he says, he was able to quarantine from his Beijing home. (Others have been quarantining in designated hotels.) Meanwhile, the CBA’s restart is looking less and less imminent. Earlier this week, ESPN reported that the league’s return, once loosely set for late April, is now indefinitely postponed. Marbury is staying put; he has a team to oversee. The 43-year-old also has deep roots in Beijing, where, after an unceremonious exit from the NBA in 2009, he eventually reignited his basketball career, winning three CBA championships. He retired in 2018.

“I wanted to take three or four years off after retiring, but I was told that when they bring food out in China, no one wants to eat a cold dish,” he says. “You got to make a decision, and I made the decision to coach.” In this, his inaugural coaching campaign, the Royal Fighters are thus far a respectable 19-11. Except that’s obviously not the full story—in January, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, and the CBA shut down. Marbury returned to the U.S., maintained a group text with his players, and waited. Now he’s back and trying to go with the flow, even if that means more waiting around. In the meantime, he’s doing press for a documentary about his lifetime of basketball, A Kid from Coney Island, set for digital release on April 7.

The documentary, directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, tracks Marbury’s development from Brooklyn to Georgia Tech to the NBA to the CBA. “The truthfulness and honesty of the documentary gives everybody a real understanding of what it really meant to be a kid from Coney Island,” he says. “It was rewarding to watch.” It follows in the footsteps of other Marbury-centric media: There’s I Am Marbury, a Chinese musical about Marbury, starring Marbury, from 2014; there’s My Other Home, a Chinese film about Marbury, starring Marbury, from 2017; and there’s The Last Shot, a renowned 1994 book about Coney Island hoopers—including a young Marbury—that’s he’s not so fond of discussing.

gq april 2020 Stephon Marbury Q&A.jpg

A Kid From Coney Island
Andy Chan

Below, Marbury relays his experience living under quarantine in Beijing, gives an update on his attempts to ship N95 masks from China to the U.S., and speaks out against the rise of hate crimes against Asian-Americans.

GQ: What is life like in Beijing right now?

Stephon Marbury: When I first got here, I went to get a COVID-19 test on my own. I went through all the procedures, waited five hours, and got my results back, which were negative. I went home thinking I’d be able to go back out. But I didn’t know that 12 hours before that, they passed a new rule that any person who comes into China has to do a 14-day quarantine, because of all the international cases that were raising the numbers back up here. So I did my 14-day quarantine, and I used the WeChat app like most other people here. There’s a button you push that alerts the government about information you put in, like your temperature. They give you a temperature stick. You also tell them if you are tired or feel fatigued or have a dry cough. I didn’t have any symptoms, so after 14 days I was free to go outside.

Everyone here wears a mask. If you don’t have a mask on, you look foreign. It doesn’t even look right. I think I’ve seen one person without a mask on, and he was driving.

How have you been able to stay in touch with your players during all of this?

We have a group chat, but the Chinese players did their quarantine a long time ago. They were okay. It was just the foreign players who had to quarantine. We have three foreign players on our team, and one foreign player [Sani Sakakini] won’t be able to come back. He’s from Palestine and they closed the borders there, so he couldn’t leave. His season is over as of right now. But we only have like 16 more games, and if we had made the playoffs, at this point, he wouldn’t have been able to play in the playoffs anyway. The other two foreign players, one got out of quarantine yesterday and the other has two more days. And one of the Chinese guys, he was in LA for a while. When he came back, he had to quarantine. He just got out too.

You spoke to Rachel Nichols earlier this week about the CBA restart date and mentioned late April or early May. More information came out from an ESPN report on Tuesday that the timeline is now delayed indefinitely. How confident are you that the season will be savaged?

I think the season will still go on, I just don’t think it will go on when everybody thought it would.

It sounds like when the CBA season was first postponed, a lot of guys were traveling for the Lunar New Year. Where were you at the time?

I had already planned to go home [to the U.S.] for my son’s birthday right around then. I left, and three days later is when stuff really got crazy in China.

What kind of messages were you relaying to your team when the pandemic first broke out?

I was encouraging them to stay focused, positive, and safe. Chinese players adjusted real quick. This is their country and they had a deeper understanding of what was needed from them. The foreign players were back home working out.

"People have been leaving comments to me about China because I live here. I want people to understand that China doesn’t view this as over with. It’s not."

When you retired as a CBA player, you acknowledged an interest in coaching, but said you needed to read up and learn more first. What sort of preparations did you make before taking this job?

It was a little challenging at first, because I didn’t want to do it right away. It’s a lot of work, but for the most part it’s very rewarding and gratifying to see these guys go from where they were to where they are now. In practice I don’t have to stand and yell and be up in their faces. They get it and know what’s expected of them. I can sit down and watch practice and blow the whistle and make sure they’re doing everything at the speed I’m looking for. I want it so the game is in slow motion for everyone, not just the best player. Everyone is on the same page, which is pretty cool.

There was a New York Post story from a few days ago about how you’re hoping to help coordinate sending 10 million N95 masks to the U.S. at cost, rather than for a profit. Do you know where that stands now?

We just waiting to hear on the next steps. [Brooklyn Borough President] Eric Adams is a friend, and I want to see him do well. He wants to help. The prices that people were throwing at him for the masks were extremely high. He asked if I could help, and I just made the connection.

I saw your Instagram post about your cousin, Daniel Turner, who died from COVID-19. [Daniel was the older brother of former NBA player Sebastian Telfair]. I’m so sorry for your loss.

You know, no one is exempt. Everybody can be a victim of this. It’s an invisible monster. It also creates pain and depression. This is the reality of what’s going on. Losing our cousin is a big blow to our family. He was inspirational in my life, and he was a great coach. I used to watch him coach, and he encouraged and empowered the generation that was coming up after him, people like Sebastian.

You recently tweeted, “There’s no better time for all nations to rise together. No one country is the winner when other countries are losing.” Was that a reference to some of the rhetoric coming from the United States?

It was more of a general sentiment. People need to understand what’s going on with the virus. No one wants to see anyone leave this earth. People have been leaving comments to me about China because I live here. I want people to understand that China doesn’t view this as over with. It’s not. Things have calmed down, but there could easily be a resurgence.

We need to unite together and create synergy and energy to help push back about some of the stuff that’s happening right now. People are committing hate crimes against Asian people, especially in America. You making people feel so uncomfortable that they don’t even want to get something to eat because they don’t know how they’re going to be treated. No one should be treated like that. Like my mother would say, “All we got in this world is our feelings.” To make people feel that way isn’t right. They’re scared just like you scared. You’re making it even worse for them—they got to live in fear of the virus, and live in fear because people are attacking them? Why?

People keep talking about, “Oh, you’re taking away my rights making me stay home. You’re imposing Martial Law.” But we never seen anything like this. You have to conform and adjust and abide by a new way of living. The curve doesn’t change from what the doctors do. The curve changes from what the people do. It’s us versus COVID-19. That’s it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

One of the NBA's most thoughtful (and most online) players discusses the COVID-19 testing rollout, the reality of NBA players coming back to play, and the economic effect the pandemic could have on the league. 

Originally Appeared on GQ