The Boston Celtics had no choice, really.
When I first heard in the wind awhile back that the reigning NBA champions were looking to sign the NBA’s reigning castaway, Stephan Marbury, I laughed out loud. I mean scared-my-kids out loud. Needed a tissue and a glass of water (or something) to catch my breath.
The notion was absurd, I thought. Marbury was the game’s ultimate contradiction – a great talent void of any head for the “game” whatsoever. He could score, certainly. He can pass, no doubt. And there are nights when he made you forget about, well, all the other nights.
So could J.R. Rider. So could myriad other talented players through the years.
But there was one label Marbury could not shed: loser.
It’s a harsh shingle, and one I do not hang on him lightly, nor without trepidation. Despite his tenuous relationship with many of us who cover the games, and his checkered public persona, Marbury is a polite, affable young man.
He deserved every dollar owed to him by the Knicks and, frankly, I admire how he handled what could have been an even uglier mess as he was benched, then publicly flogged, then exiled by his hometown team.
Yet throughout his 12 pro seasons, throughout stops in Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix and New York, in the midst of all the nights when Marbury showed us all that he could be (and has always been expected to be since his days as a young phenom from Brooklyn), his teams rarely made the playoffs.
And even worse, his teammates seemed to grow weary of him, at best.
At worst, they loathed him.
And yet in spite of that dossier, Stephon Marbury is now a Celtic. He is a member of one of the four most venerable franchises in all of sports.
Moreover he’s a member of a team that will make the playoffs and, indeed, may win a championship.
Seems like all he can do, as his presence has done in the past, is bring them down. I don’t use the words “poison” or “cancer” very often to describe an athlete, and I’m not using them to describe Marbury, either. But every team he’s player for has gotten better upon his departure. And upon his arrival every team has gotten … no need to finish the thought.
But the Celtics had no choice. Not if they are hoping to squeeze another championship out of their holy trinity – Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
The three stars and all-but-certain Hall of Famers are 32, 31 and 33, respectively. Their title run last season was a true testament to what can happen when talent, teamwork and sacrifice decide to become loyal friends.
This season, Garnett, Pierce and Allen have been no less great, proven by their 46-13 record before Marbury’s debut on Friday against Indiana.
Yet the Celtics’ mantra this season has been “lingering doubt.” An uneasiness fueled by a bench weakened by the departures of James Posey and P.J. Brown.
In short, this Celtics team was simply not good enough – top to bottom – to repeat, and they knew it. From the locker room to the owners box, they knew it.
The Celtics survived three seven-game series last spring to reach the NBA Finals last season. That wasn’t going to happen this season, not with that bench. And not with the improvement of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic, teams that are talented, young and ravenous.
In short, like our nation ravaged by an economic tsunami, the Celtics were desperate. Desperate enough to reach for a stimulus packaged highlighted by Marbury.
All that said, I think it will work. I’m not saying these Celtics will repeat because of Marbury (along with the Celtics’ other recent signee, Mikki Moore). Not that crazy.
But I don’t think they’ll be dethroned because of him, either.
It will work because Marbury is reunited with the one former teammate who’ll have him: Garnett. “I just told him,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers said, “to be free.”
It’ll work because the holy trinity has already laid down Celtic Law to Marbury. Stephon Marbury is a Celtic, not Stephon Star-bury. Fall in line. Be a good teammate. No, a great teammate. It’s not about you, Stephon, it’s about the ring. Now, welcome aboard.
Desperate times. A desperate measure. But one that had to be made.
Photo by Reuters