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Renegade Athletes

Professional sports teams have decided the toxic antics of athletes such as Stephon Marbury, Terrell "T.O." Owens and Manny Ramirez are not worth their superstar abilities
Michael P. Geffner
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

It's a Monday night in late February, nearly three-quarters of the way through the 2008-2009 NBA season, and the pasty-faced man who single-handedly whacked point guard Stephon Marbury from the New York Knicks' existence is holed up in his office in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, sifting through a mass of papers while taking quick drags of water from a plastic bottle.

When Mike D'Antoni passed up the cushy Chicago Bulls' coaching gig to take on the same position with the dreaded Knicks in May 2008, some friends thought he'd totally lost it, if not committed career suicide. Why would a coach with such a stellar track record, building the Phoenix Suns from a nothing, spiritless bunch into a Pacific Division run-and-gun powerhouse, do a crazy thing like that? Why would he follow the self-destructions of Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas into such a black hole of an organization—a bottom-dwelling team of hopelessly negative vibes, terribly disconnected parts, and a ridiculously bloated payroll, which not only hadn't cracked above the .500 mark in seven straight seasons but suffered through two years in which they lost more than 70 percent of their games? Well, everybody needs a challenge, is how D'Antoni essentially would put it later, smiling as if he knew something the rest of us didn't.

His biggest challenge, of course, was what to do with the chronically unhappy Marbury, the team's highest-paid player (at an obese $21 million a year), lone legitimate star, and resident problem child, whom D'Antoni's Suns, coincidentally or not, had traded away to the Knicks in January 2004. In the time since, the man who once proclaimed himself "the best point guard in the NBA"—to mostly rolling eyes and snickers—had not only become the grim, if not glowering face of a once-great franchise, but its abysmal body language: slumped over on the bench, head hung low, white towel draped over him.

Marbury's highlight reel with the Knicks, his fourth pro team, featured neither a single play-off victory nor a shred of any ability to make those around him better (to where, under his shoot-first, pass-second guidance, the team plummeted to dead last in assists one season). Instead, there were a string of protracted beefs with coaches, including an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Isiah aboard a team plane, in which afterward he reportedly issued the cryptic threat: "Isiah has to start me. I've got so much shit on Isiah—and he knows it." There were suspensions and fines, and one odious appearance in the Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment case against Isiah and MSG in which Marbury admitted on the witness stand to an extramarital romp with a Knicks' intern in the back of a truck.

D'Antoni's answer to the Marbury situation was simple, shocking, and unprecedented: a preemptive strike of addition by subtraction. From Day One of the regular season, without a triggering incident or a hint of forewarning, he performed a David Blaine trick, if not something taken from an episode of the "Sopranos": He made the perfectly healthy, tatted-up guard all but disappear right before our eyes, pinning him to the bench and keeping him there, ultimately having him dressed in civvies and listed among the "inactive" walking dead, as if to say: "I'll be damned if I give this guy a chance to screw it up for me the way he did all the others."

It not only stunned Marbury, but supposedly caught MSG owner James Dolan and Knicks team president Donnie Walsh completely by surprise as well. While some felt the unusual move was entirely understandable, if not well deserved, others viewed it as mean-spirited with the Knicks refusing to release him to play elsewhere and Marbury doing a decent job of painting himself as a powerless, pissed-on David fighting a soulless "billion-dollar" Goliath. "[Marbury] was actually looking like the victim, for a change," says the ever-frank ESPN basketball analyst Stephen A. Smith. "It seemed to me that [what the Knicks did at the beginning of the season] was juvenile. It created an unnecessary soap opera. Keeping him on the bench in street clothes? Just send him home. It was almost like [D'Antoni] wanted to embarrass him. Stephon deserved to be out there, in his jersey, competing for a spot. Besides, how can you sell Knicks fans that you're trying to win when your best player is sitting on the bench?" Adds a former head PR man for a major sports team, requesting anonymity: "[The Knicks] essentially robbed a year from a 30-something guy who has a limited window of playing opportunity. I hope a lot of thought went into that."

Yet what happened to Marbury was only the most enduring episode of a startling wave of events this winter, a seemingly righteous cultural shift, as if the collective powers that be in sports, finally fed up, said, "Enough's enough," and thusly conspired to unleash a karmic comeuppance, by any means necessary, on the most notorious malcontents and misanthropes, oddballs and yammer mouths, bad boys and drama kings.

Character suddenly mattered. Consequence suddenly appeared. Payback, long overdue, suddenly prevailed.

Like the Dallas Cowboys, despite having to take a $9 million hit to their salary cap, dumping Terrible T.O., Terrell Owens, one of football's greatest wide receivers but who has spent a career alienating his quarterbacks and sucking the air out of every locker room in which he's resided.

Like Manny Ramirez, one of baseball's scariest hitters but also a dreadlocked flake, declaring free agency with virtually no one caring. The man rumored to have peed in water bottles behind Fenway's Green Monster, who seemingly thinks running full-speed is too much of an effort at times, and who's prone to sitting games out with dubious ailments was ultimately left to re-sign—for no longer than a piddling two seasons—with the Los Angeles Dodgers, apparently the only team still willing to let Manny be Manny anymore. On top of that, his former Boston Red Sox teammate, ace reliever Jonathan Papelbon delivered a less-than-nostalgic goodbye note, quoted in Esquire as saying: "(For Manny) not to be on the same page as the rest of the team was a killer, man! It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that's exactly what was happening. It's like cancer...He had to go."

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