What it Feels Like to Guard Stephon Marbury

And why Starbury is a lost soul

I‘m having a panic attack floating in a black void of space and star-popping cosmos clapping at Stephon Marbury to look at me.

I see you, dooood.

Starbury is a nightmare to guard (like literally, this is an actual nightmare I used to have), and I’m watching my younger self sprint down a court chasing Stephon Marbury, except he is staring at me in the cosmos. That’s weird. Can he see me up here? There are cheers and jaunts and voices whispering as a basketball court opens underneath me like an extraterrestrial slinky pouring into the fifth dimension.

I’m in the basketball upside down from “Stranger Things.? There is anxiety here. Tension. I can see them, but they can’t see me. The crowd watching is snickering and puffing and piffffffing. Everyone can see young Trevor Huffman trying his hardest. I know why everyone is doing this. I have to warn him. I have to warn myself. I start ripping my arms through the weightless black void to get closer.

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Get outta there, Trevor. Get out.

“Trevor, can you hear me? Don’t let him go left. Back up man. Let him hit the jumper, dude.?

But young Trevor is not listening. He is thick and muscled and his eyes are steely brown and full of determination. Young Trevor squats 500 pounds and wants to prove himself. He wants to show the coaches his mettle. He wants to beat Starbury.

To be in the pack, you have to hunt with the alpha. You have to prove your worth.

“Trevor,” I yell. “Seriously. Listen to me. That’s not how you get in the pack! You get in the pack by knowing your role. Your strengths. Your weaknesses. I know you can hear me. Your intestines are going to explode if you don’t step back. Can you hear me??

Frank Johnson is glowering on the sideline. His right pinky slants off his second knuckle to the side and he is mad at something, clenching a basketball-outlined, dry-erase board. Maybe he is mad at the practice squad, at the white guy trying to guard his star player. Next to him, Mike D’Antoni is grinning.

The Phoenix Suns are lined up on both sidelines. One side is the first team, and on the other is the second team. On the first team, there is Stephon Marbury, A’mare Stoudamire, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson, and Penny Hardaway. They are in black jerseys. On the other side is the white team — with Young Trevor (yes me, I’m talking about me), Jake Voskuhl, Scott “The Tank? Williams, Casey Jacobsen, Tony Pippen, Ray Weathers, and 19-year old Leandro Barbosa.

Young Trevor is chasing Stephon Marbury down the court with his barrel chest locked onto the shoulder of Marbury. His eyebrows pinch together and Jake Voskuhl is near the elbow on the right side of the lane. Everyone else is trailing the play.

“Trevor, he is toying with you. He wants you to bite. Damn, he is fast, he’s really fast. Back the hell up!?

In space, I kick and pull towards the court below me, but I’m in a zero-gravity prison cell. I can’t move an inch closer. Young Trevor is too close. His angle is wrong. Stephon is going to break his ankles. The crowd is licking their lips, blood is dripping from their nostrils now, these sick fucks are on the edge of their seats waiting for a gladiator to make his kill.

Suddenly, Stephon Marbury stops and looks at me. His consciousness emerges in bubbled cartoon thoughts floating up to me. What does it say? What is it Steph? Baloop, baloop, they morph and bobble from his cleanly shaven alien-shaped dome:

This… Dude… Is… Garbage… Watch… This…

“No Trevor, you don’t have him. You don’t have help. Jake Voskuhl is on the wrong side, brother. Here it comes. Shit.?

Steph’s landmine move will blast Trevor into smithereens. There will be chunks of bloody skin and flapping meat pockets in the crowd. They will scream and pump and exonerate their champion. Jake Voskuhl is yelling, but young Trevor isn’t listening. When you are a rookie, you don’t hear anything. You are an AM radio station on the FM frequency.

Shhhhh-Bzzzzzz. Hello?

Jake is a seven-foot, one-inch, NCAA National Champion center from Connecticut. He made a living cleaning up Ray Allen’s and Rip Hamilton’s jumpers, roaming the baseline for dunks and put backs. He’s smart and he’s trying to help young Trevor, but he’s caught in the moment, mesmerized by Stephon’s handles too. Young Trevor puts his fingers out to touch the tattoo on Marbury’s arm. Young Trevor wants the ball. Steph’s bicep pulses and stretches like the edges of a King Cobra rising towards its target.

SnapWhip-wop. Pshhhhh.

The leather sphere in Steph’s hand moves at the speed of light and sound. It flashes in and out and then around Stephon’s back as he pushes off his right foot. Young Trevor sees a strobe light. Next he is falling.

Trevor’s cheekbone crashes into the wood. His legs are gone. He is staring incredulously, with crazy, wide open eyes as Stephon takes one punch dribble and leaps into the air to let his venom into the rim. This is actual magic. This isn’t real. Then young Trevor hears the voices. Larry Brown’s voice. Frank Johnson. Mike D’Antoni. Stan Heath. Gary Waters. Don Marbury and my own father are screaming, fighting, and throwing punches in the crowd.

The upside-down world is screaming at me to be better-to do better.

“SO LOOK, DON’T CLAP FOR THE BALL.?

That’s what I think Steph told me. I wasn’t sure though. But if Starbury’s first words to me were to not clap for the ball under his breath, I didn’t ask him again. I looked up to him in an unhealthy way. He was one of the best point guards in the NBA. Naturally, that’s what you do with guys that are better than you. Those guys you watch in high school and college, well they become your role models.

But I was in a shooting drill and we were broken up as guards and bigs and I was trying to outshoot one of the nastiest guards I had ever guarded in my life when I realized Stephon Marbury didn’t care to know me.

Suck it up youngblood. The life of a rookie free agent isn’t an easy one. You see these NBA stars, some of them think they are larger than life. Their egos, their Lambos, their money, their women, their bodies, Jesus, their bodies, what and where are they guys made, on Spielberg’s Avatar ranch?

I don’t know what’s worse, guarding them or having them guard you. Their tall, long, and athletic. They’re faster than leopards, quicker than panthers, and most of all, competitive killers, like Stephon. Guarding Stephon Marbury isn’t like guarding an all-league SEC D1 college point guard or any of the pros I’ve checked in Europe. I can’t put it in perspective for the average basketball fan out there, but I’ll try. It’s like trying to cage “The Hulk? when he’s green. It’s like trying to catch a Formula One race machine with a Smart car.

The only thing that helped me stop Stephon Marbury, was well, himself.

Steph had two blocks (not chips)  on his shoulder. Why? I don’t know. Why does anyone get angry with that much money? Why did Larry Brown want him off the Olympic team? What happened to him? Why did he eat vaseline?

I dunno. But I do know when I became the runner-up and coach’s MVP in Belgium two years in a row, a far cry from the NBA, I started thinking about myself differently. The ego got stroked. My shit didn’t stink. My work ethic diminished. I expected things. Money changed me.  I lacked the self-awareness to stay grounded. Pro athletes, whether they want to admit it or not, all get changed a little each day by the fame and fortune.

I wish things could be different in the NBA, but it’s a fraternity of egos. I didn’t get in and instead, I roamed Europe with a knapsack and some dirty shit-stained underwear and stayed at hostels on the weekends. But I was close, I mean, I got the Suns practice jersey and plush NBA socks, but even when you get in the NBA, there is an invisible hierarchy there. The guys that get paid, the guys that don’t, the guys that should, then there are the guys like Larry Sanders that don’t really care about basketball.

I remember when I was a freshman at Kent State and our junior center, John Whorton, told me not to quit. I wanted to quit, bad. The thing is, you need your teammates, but for some reason, it never felt like the Phoenix Suns needed each other. Was that Steph’s fault? Coach Johnson’s fault? Why do some less talented teams overachieve in the NBA and other talented teams go bust?

The character, leadership, and team attitude of each player is my answer. The problem is, the NBA teams don’t give a shit about that as much as they should.

Halfway through my freshman year, I called my mom, ready to pack my bags. I was going home. Then John Whorton put his arm around and reminded me why I played the game of basketball.

“C’mon my dude,? John Whorton said,  “You are averaging like 10 points a game. Do you know how hard it is to get minutes as a freshman in the MAC? You are doing amazing. Let’s finish out the year. Then see what we can do after that. Okay??

I ultimately stayed because of John Whorton and my team. I stayed because he showed me the next telephone pole and made my goal to run towards it. It turns out I needed validation, or teammates that cared, or the feeling of togetherness to reach my potential. And that’s just it, that’s my observation with Stephon. He was alone like I was. He didn’t interact with the guys, but was he open to it? He played alone, on an island of talent, raw athleticism, and ego. Before practice he’d sit there with his headphones and music, vacantly staring into the void.  If I had been braver, I would have just said, “Steph, what’s up man? How’s your day going??

Money isn’t happiness, money is a magnifying glass. It makes you more of what and who you already are. Stephon Marbury wasn’t going to tell me not to quit. He wasn’t going to tell me how to use a ball screen. He wasn’t going to tell me anything back then. You may say it’s not his job, you are competing against each other. Yeah, I hear you.

But the word competition actually comes from the Latin root peto, which means ‘to go out and seek.’ The prefix com means ‘with’ or ‘together. We can all compete together.

But I get it. I don’t like ball clappers either Steph, it irks me too. Regardless, I’d study Stephon at practice. His dribble moves. His jumper, how he elevated. His game was jerky, explosive.

Once in practice, Casey Jacobson, a 6’7 small forward from Stanford hit a three on him. Steph scowled. The next time down, Stephon sprinted right at Casey and exploded right by him to dunk at the rim. Steph scowled again. I thought the scowl was permanent, but I don’t really know now. Back then, I’m new to the NBA and I can’t understand an All-Star’s body language.

I don’t know Stephon Marbury well enough to talk about his personality. I just guarded him day in and day out for two months of the best months of my life while I was in Phoenix.

Starbury was my teammate and I never saw him smile. I think that takes a toll on you. It’s the reason I loved to watch Magic as a kid. His enthusiasm was infectious. His talent was only outmatched by his energy and smile. I wished I had been able to make Steph laugh, but shit, what does a short, white farm-boy have to say to a guy from Coney Island?

“Hey, you want to go cow tipping??

I’m glad to see Stephon in China, embracing a new culture. I think traveling helps us grow (or maybe it doesn’t). Maybe he’s just getting back in the spotlight, whether he’s fighting Jimmer Fredette, bashing Larry Brown, trolling LeBron, and selling his Starbury brand.

In the end, we all have to get to our own spot of authenticity. 

Trevor Huffman is a former professional basketball player and contributor at Grandstand Central. His new podcast, ‘The Post Game’ looks at the game after the game, as he speaks with retired athletes about life beyond sports. Subscribe here

Trevor Huffman
Trevor Huffman
Trevor Huffman is a two-time NBA failure and a 12-year European pro point guard dropping dimes and telling inspiring sports stories on what really happens inside the huddles and minds of pro athletes.

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