The Suns took Stephon Marbury out of New York, but it was the Nets who took the New York out of Marbury.
The 24-year-old phenom with “Coney Island’s Finest” tattooed on his arm, who developed his game on the streets of Brooklyn and who led Lincoln High to a PSAL championship, was reduced to a spectator in New Jersey’s 106-87 thrashing last week of the Suns. Instead, it was the Nets who played with the swagger of Gotham.
Marbury finished the game with 17 points, his quickness and athleticism allowing him to do things like blow by rookie Brandon Armstrong at will. However, he allowed most of Phoenix’s plays to run through Penny Hardaway and disappeared on the floor while teammates clanked shots off the rim. “It looked to me like he was trying to get the other guys on his team involved,” Bob Hartstein, Marbury’s high school coach, told the Voice, trying to explain Marbury’s uncharacteristic passiveness. Maybe, but that’s not quite what you’d expect from a kid called “Starbury.” Renowned hoop junkie Howard Garfinkel once labeled him “the greatest high school guard of all time,” and Marbury agreed, telling reporters in 1995 after winning the city prep championship, “Myself, I think I was a gift from God, and today I exploited my talent.”
In the week leading up to the Nets-Suns matchup, New Jersey coach Byron Scott admittedly played head games with his former point guard (a tactic that Hartstein called “disgraceful” and “unprofessional”). Scott publicly criticized Marbury’s leadership and decision making in an attempt to provoke the emotional guard into taking too many shots.
After the game, Scott passed off his efforts as unsuccessful, explaining, “Obviously, my tactic didn’t work. He didn’t come out and shoot it 30 times.” But if Scott’s plan did fail, then it failed brilliantly. The Suns heard everything that Scott said, according to pre-game accounts in the Phoenix press, and understood exactly what Scott was trying to do; before the game, Marbury’s teammates reminded him not to try to beat the Nets by himself. Apparently determined to one-up Scott by proving that he could be a team player, Marbury passed up open shots and let less-talented teammates fiddle around with the ball.
While Marbury repressed the playground style that made him a legend at Lincoln, the Nets looked ready to step right into a game on the asphalt. Late in the second quarter, Rodney Rogers fouled Kenyon Martin from behind on a fast break. The big Net forward responded by pushing Rogers into a row of photographers. Martin picked up a technical, but the Nets then went on a 12-2 run to close the half.
In the final seconds of the fourth quarter, Marbury struck a pose all too familiar to Nets fans: He sat on the bench watching the other team celebrate. His face was blank; he looked detached. This wasn’t the way his homecoming was supposed to go. As always when he’s resting after a loss, a white towel was draped over his shoulders. Fittingly, it hid his “Coney Island’s Finest” tattoo.