A Kid from Coney Island (Review), by Rudy Ralph Martinez
The end of my first Tribeca Film Festival found me reunited with a poetic passion: Basketball.
Having grown up idolizing all things New York, from the city’s aesthetic, the boom-bap style of hip-hop, and especially its ballplayers, Stephon Marbury was an icon to me. His was the first jersey I ever donned. He played with a unique confidence I expected every ballplayer from New York had in their DNA, and the fact he was playing for his hometown Knicks whenever I began watching the sport was storybook, for better or for worse. Though those teams weren’t necessarily competitive, one could argue they were outright disastrous, I never blamed Steph. But, there were those who did. After being bought out by the Knicks in 2009, Marbury played a few games for the Boston Celtics and that’s it, his NBA career was over. Coney Island’s prodigal son had faded away. He was a score-first point guard a generation too soon and though his career numbers were exceptional, he would never get his due. Or, so I thought.
If you didn’t know who Stephon Marbury was going into A Kid from Coney Island, a documentary tracing Marbury’s life from high school basketball phenom to polarizing NBA star to basketball legend in China, you would think he had recently passed away or become a Thomas Pynchon-like recluse. That’s because, for two-thirds of the film, Marbury’s story is told via interviews with family and friends, including hip-hop luminaries Fat Joe and DJ Clark Kent, a multitude of clips from old interviews with Marbury himself, and various not-so-flattering ESPN segments. The co-directors of the film, Chike Ozah and Coodie Simmons (better known as Coodie & Chike), mirrored Marbury’s life in the spotlight: He’s never had a chance to speak for himself. Whether through familial pressure (he comes from a long line of talented basketball players), having his life story “borrowed” for Spike Lee’s He Got Game, or the sweeping generalizations analysts have made about him since he entered the NBA in 1996, Marbury’s context has always been created by others. I knew he wasn’t dead, but I just figured he didn’t want to reopen old wounds. So, one must imagine my relief when Stephon Xavier Marbury appears in the third act, back where it all started: Coney Island. And brilliantly so, the reveal of Stephon comes after he’s been recontextualized by those who love and care for him.
The elder Marbury (he’s only 42) is serene, sitting back after an eventful two decades, eating chicken and quoting Bruce Lee. He’s accepted the different turns his life has taken—yes, he has fallen from grace, but he has also risen. This Marbury, no longer characterized in a Spike Lee Joint, no longer being compared to Felipe Lopez, no longer a Timberwolf, Net, Knick, or Sun, is a synthesis of expectations and reality.
While Coodie and Chike’s film is equal parts insightful, intimate, and comedic, it is worth watching if for the third act alone. In it, we are treated to a serendipitous moment at a Coney Island barbershop where a young man named Xavier strikes up a conversation with Marbury. Marbury asks Xavier if anyone has ever told him he could be the president of the United States, to which he responds “no.” While the NBA seems to be in Xavier’s sights, Marbury assures him of opportunities outside the court. Just as Marbury has become a cultural ambassador during his stint in China, Xavier, getting a Marbury Fade at a Coney Island barbershop, will one day be leader of the free world. If someone had asked Marbury during his darkest days whether he believed he’d win several championships and have a museum erected in his name in China, he’d have taken a mouthful of Vaseline and said “hell no.” But it happened.
A Kid from Coney Island and Marbury’s eclectic life reminds me of rule seven of John Cage’s Ten Rules for Students and Teachers: “The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.” Marbury not only caught onto something after his career in the NBA, but in personifying perseverance, he has brought pride back to his neighborhood.