The epicenter of culture and entertainment, New York City is known as the land where stars are born and legends are made. The birthplace of hip-hop and the mecca of basketball, the grittiness of life within the five boroughs has cultivated an innumerable amount of creatives notorious for their tenacity in the booth, as well as talented athletes known for their exploits on the hardwood. Stringing rhymes together may not have been Stephon Marbury’s claim to fame, but his story of surviving the projects of Coney Island and using his athletic talent to reach fame and fortune has made him a global hero. His journey is examined in the new documentary, A Kid From Coney Island.
Chronicling Stephon’s journey from Coney Island’s Surfside Gardens housing projects to Beijing, China, the film documents his family’s lineage within the basketball world, his meteoric rise as a high school prodigy, the successful, yet tumultuous NBA career that followed, and how he rediscovered himself thousands of miles away from home. Directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, and executive produced by NBA superstar Kevin Durant, A Kid From Coney Island came to life when producers Jason Samuel and Nina Yang Bongiovio reached out to Coodie and Chike, who were working with Samuels on the HBO documentary Legacy of a King, to jump on board.
From there, Coodie and Chike met with Marbury, with both parties bonding over their spiritual backgrounds and focus on family, earning the trust that would result in a transparent glimpse into the inner workings of his life and the chain of events that led to his most controversial moments. With Hollywood veteran Forest Whitaker in the fold as a producer, the last domino to fall would be Kevin Durant, who, along with his business partner Rich Kleiman, expressed an interest in taking on the project under their Thirty Five Ventures media company. “Kev, him and Rich Kleiman, they came in as executive producers and [out of] his love for Stephon,” Coodie explains. “And then when they saw the final product, they wanted to definitely support it and made sure that we got it out there for these kids to see. It was an important story to him.”
In addition to Marbury’s exploits on the court, A Kid From Coney Island also touches on his impact as one of the first NBA players to fully embrace and embody the look, attitude, and vibe of hip-hop culture, a period which Coodie Simmons recalls fondly. “It was definitely the golden age of hip-hop, 96, that era,” he shares. “And it was the emergence of hip-hop and basketball. We seen it, it happened with Stephon and A.I. and Kobe Bryant and all of them guys who came in, ’cause you’d see Magic Johnson and ’em, they’re suited up. Or even Mike, Mike had his tailor-made suits so that’s all we’d pretty much seen, but when those guys came in, they had to change the dress code because of them guys.”
One of the directors’ goals for the project was to help humanize Stephon Marbury and illustrate the toll that mental health can take on a person’s psyche, whether it be a world-class athlete or not. “For those that don’t know Steph, I think that they will just get a great story of redemption,” Coodie says. “Of not quitting and going somewhere to actually succeed. When we weren’t welcome in one place,we went somewhere else and made it happen. And then I think, two, the whole depression and mental health, people don’t really understand that in our community that’s real big, but we ignore it or we shun it away, we don’t get therapy like we need, so I think people will see Stephon’s story as a redemption and really inspire ’em. His story will inspire so many when they see it and those who knew Steph and remember him from the NBA, I think they will see that he’s a real person.”
Featuring a cast that includes Ray Allen, Fat Joe, Chauncey Billups, Cam’ron, Stephen A. Smith, DJ Clark Kent, Bonz Malone, Set Free Richardson, and more, A Kid From Coney Island is a riveting watch for any sports or hip-hop fan and gives insight to the life and times of one of the most beloved athletes of the hip-hop generation. While the film’s theatre release was thwarted by the coronavirus, it’s now available to watch and own digitally.
VIBE hopped on the phone and spoke with Stephon Marbury about his journey across the globe, his role in solidifying the marriage between basketball and hip-hop, and what it means to be A Kid From Coney Island.
VIBE: How did the idea to document your journey from Coney Island to Asia and back come to life?
Stephon Marbury: Well, it started with talking about my experiences and my journey and all of the stuff that was going on in my life. When we spoke about these different things, about four years ago, we were speaking about doing a biopic movie and then we said there was an opportunity to do a documentary. They said, “Well, why don’t we start it off with a documentary first before we do a biopic movie, that would be pretty cool to tell the story and get people to understand what had taken place.” So then we went into speaking and talking about all of the different things that I’ve done and about us documenting what was going on in China. We did that for a whole season, a whole year, and then it pretty much came to life after putting all of the right people in place and making sure they could execute the flair.
Kevin Durant is one of the executive producers on the documentary. How would you describe your relationship?
Kevin Durant, I’ve been watching him since he first came into college and he ventured off in Thirty Five Ventures, the media company. The opportunity came about where he wanted to be a part of it. After he watched it he asked me. … I have a lot of love for him, his game and what he tries to do off of the basketball court, trying to help people. And he’s one of the best basketball players on the planet. So him coming on board was right in alignment with what we were doing and having his own media company.
What was it like working with Coodie and Chike on the film and how would you describe that dynamic?
Those two, they’re authentic, they’re real. They understand capturing the moments that people need to capture from what we put on the screen, to want to be inspired and want to reach higher. To want to have that motor and that motivation to keep pushing forward throughout the ups and downs of going through life. People can watch, and hear it, people can listen. Those guys have their style and what they want the world to see, and I think working with those two guys, they had the vision. Along with partnering up with Jason Samuel. And having Forest Whitaker basically oversee and make sure it looks the way it needs to look and sounds the way it needs to sound for people to resonate with the story.
New York City is notorious for its crack epidemic and the violence that came as a byproduct of it, which coincided with your own coming of age. The documentary covers how that environment also sheltered you and provided a safe haven for you to hone your talents in. How would you say that relationship with the people in your community shaped you as a man and inspired your drive and will to win?
I was blessed to grow up in the projects, where I was able to have my mom, my dad and brothers and sisters guide me in the way that I needed to be guided. So me, having that spiritual-based background, I’ve always been able to understand what it was that I was pushing for and what I was looking to see for myself. And I had the faith and I trusted a higher power to get me through those obstacles. Coming from Coney Island, you get the bitter and the sweet, as far as growing up in an impoverished area, in the ghetto. whatever you wanna call it. I come from that, and to make it better was the only resort.
One of the common themes that is touched on throughout the documentary is the bond you have with your family and your lineage within the basketball community. How important was it to highlight the role your family played in your journey?
It’s all about stories. I pretty much cultivated all of their thinking and doings on the court, and their ways and how they see the game should be played, I put that all together. When you see me on the court, as the person that’s playing in the NBA, but all of their games are entwined into my game and they taught me all of what I know and I was able to take something from each and every one of them. But for me, having them and my family – my mom and my dad, bless my dad’s soul, he’s not here anymore – to have them be able to give me not only the tools, but to help me utilize the tools [was great].
You were also one of the first basketball players to truly embody and exude an aura comparable to a rap or neighborhood, from the part in your hair to the earrings, tats, jewelry and that whole rugged demeanor. At that time, was it important for you to display that look and attitude for the world to see?
That ’96 era, B.I.G., Pac, Nas, what they did during that time was a correlation to what we were doing in basketball, Iverson, myself, so that was our era. That’s what we were listening to during these times. So because of that, that direct correlation had an impact on the culture and what we did and how we did things, so we grew up with that type of swag. We had that atmosphere around us at all times, which was a motivation and push to inspire us to do great things. To be different, to create abstract things on the court. To go on the court and do what you do, play how you play. You get to paint your vision and your idea of who you are as a basketball player on the court. They gave us that culture side on that music side for that part.
Your draft night moment is one of the most memorable in the history of the NBA and was a moment that was not only about you, but your whole family. What emotions did seeing that footage 25 years later bring to the surface?
It was an amazing time and it was a very emotional, impactful moment, not only for myself and my family, but all of the people from Coney Island. Somebody made it from where we’re from, doing something that we love to do, so all of the emotions they run high and stay high and it’s always something that will continue to be impactful. And that will continue to be monumental because we did it together, it was a team effort, what we were able to accomplish.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the documentary is your relationship with Kevin Garnett and how your careers and journies would become synonymous with one another. How would you say that brotherhood impacted both of you during your coming of age?
It always was love and will always be love. For me, I stay consistent in who I was and how I was as a basketball player and as a person. Sharing the court with Kev, he’s doing something to help me and I’m doing something to help him and we made each other wise when we played [with each other] on the basketball court.
The documentary also highlights you being a host to other future pros like Chauncey Billups and others. How did these relationships form and manifest in kids coming from all over the country to visit you in Coney Island, Brooklyn?
Basketball. I mean, Chauncey was at an All-American camp and when he was at All-American [camp], I was like, ‘Why don’t you just come to Coney Island and stay,’ so when he’s staying he was shocked, he was blown away. I’ll never forget, it was one of the hottest days during that time in the summertime and we didn’t have no air-conditioner and we were on the hunt trying to find a fan, but you couldn’t find a fan. He was like, ‘Man, I ain’t ever experience being in the projects, all of these big buildings and just seeing how people live and all of that.” It was fun to give someone that experience and Chauncey and I are still friends as we speak. I’ve known him since high school and he’s one of the people who I’ve stayed in touch with, talked with, and has just been an inspiration in our lives. Not just in basketball, but seeing all of what he’s doing and how he’s trying to help people. Building these bonds and building these relationships as basketball players is all because of the ball,and the ball gives the opportunity for people to connect.
New York City basketball was very competitive, with players like you, Felipe Lopez, God Shammgod and others in heated competition, and is now considered a golden era for the city. What were those battles against guards like Rafer Alston and Shammgod like and did you feel the weight of that competition for the top spot?
Nah, I just did what I did and went on the court and played the way so that I’d get myself to be where I could be. I always felt like if you wanna be the best, you gotta play against the best, you gotta dominate against the best. You gotta just show and prove what you can do, and in New York, you know you’re always gonna have that competition on the court, you gotta have that drive and that motor in New York in order to be the top. And those guys were some of the top players in the world so everybody was going for it to be one of the top, which was pushing us to fight and try to make it in the NBA.”
With all of the similarities, the belief has always been that He Got Game was inspired by your own story of being a coveted basketball prospect out of Coney Island, which is covered in the documentary. Did you have a relationship with Spike prior to the film and did he ever reach out to you personally during that time?
Yeah, he reached out to me. He wanted me to audition and I wouldn’t audition to play me so that’s how that pretty much went. And I understood what he was saying later, but I still didn’t understand then because I was like, ‘You want me to play me?’ But it was about acting, it wasn’t really about playing the part, which was understandable, but the movie was a well-written movie. It wasn’t all true. Like some of it’s true, a lot of it’s not true, but it was a great basketball movie to tell a story about a player who came from a place [like Coney Island].
You and KG were one of the first athletes to go outside of the traditional system and sign a shoe deal with AND1, who were up and coming at the time. How did you get involved with the brand and what were some of the other opportunities you turned down in favor of working with AND1 that you can mention?
During that time, we could’ve signed with anybody. Anybody would’ve signed us, but AND1, at the time, all they had was T-shirts of, like, Larry Johnson on ’em with Grandmama, so for me it was an opportunity to build something from the ground up. It was something that was different, it was something that was unique because it was different and they were willing to sell shoes at a reasonable price point.
Your transition to Minnesota and being away from your family was touched on in the film. How would you describe that distance between you and that core unit affected your tenure there?
I mean, it was different. I went from New York, where it’s a melting pot, to Atlanta, where it’s predominantly black where I was at, and went to Minnesota, where it’s primarily white. But for myself, around that time, at a young age, that was a culture shock to me, which was part of my decision in me wanting to go back home and play in the tri-state area. I wanted to be in a culturally diverse city, [like] where I was from. That was when I was young and then, as I grew older, I started to see what people were saying as far as, “Oh, you see the possibilities about you and Kevin Garnett playing together for so many years in Minnesota?’ I was like, “Yeah, I can see that,” but I would’ve had to spend seven years in Minnesota and it wasn’t just about basketball with me, I had a life as well. It snowed all the time and it’s always cold, there’s 10,000 lakes. Weather watch season, warning watches. Like, “If you go outside today, you can die if you get caught outside.” There’s things like that, just from natural habitat, to put myself in that position where I would have to make a decision for life and death things, which that’s every day, all of the time, but because of the weather? I couldn’t receive that message at the time and stay in a place like that. It was never about basketball or playing with Kevin.
One of the highlights of the documentary is your performances in the EBC tournament at Rucker Park, which you were a long-time participant in. What are some of your favorite memories from those tournaments and how would you say your impact helped bridge the gap between streetball and the NBA?
When you play against guys that could’ve or should’ve made it to the NBA, not only are those guys reminders of our lifestyle from the street guys that didn’t get to make it, it’s fun because they get an opportunity to see the difference in why you’re playing in the NBA and why some may not make it. Because you got guys in the NBA that can’t play in the Rucker, they don’t know how to get on the court and play that style, but you put them in an NBA game and they can play. Not everyone can perform on that stage, playing in the Rucker. Now, with the way our basketball is right now, you gotta be able to do both.
What’s the backstory to your relationship with Fat Joe, who also appears in the documentary?
I mean, we just clicked since when I was playing with the Nets, and this goes back to ’99, over twenty years. And our relationship has just been love, that’s all. He’s real funny, he’s real, he’s street, he’s Joe (laughs), you know, so our relationship just grew and built from that. He was like, ‘Yo, I’m putting together a team at the Rucker.’ I was like, ‘I’m down, what’s up.’ He was like, ‘Steph, five, I need this chip, five.’ I’m like, ‘That’s done, don’t worry about that. We gonna get that.’
Were there any moments in the documentary that were raw to the point you were a bit hesitant to touch on or revisit?
Nah. My life is my life, what happened is what happened, it’s a part of it. One dude was like, ‘Ah, you were crying on the internet.’ I said, ‘I see people cry every day when people die, I can’t cry about my dad? I can’t cry about me having a moment from my father eating Vaselines?’ I was like, ‘I’ll eat Vaseline right now, in front of your face’ (laughs). People stick needles in their arm or their mom sniffs coke, and I was like, ‘You’re talking about me eating Vaseline?’ It doesn’t make sense. It’s okay for you to speak about something that everybody talked about and that’s all they talk about. And I was like, ‘If that makes me crazy, I’m sorry for the people that are born with the things that make them crazy.
Aside from old video clips, you don’t appear in the documentary until you begin recounting your transition to China. Whose decision was that and what, if any significance, do you think that added to conveying the gravity of that moment?
It’s storytelling. The story speaks for itself, it tells the whole tale until I started talking. The way they did it was perfect. When I come on, it’s picking up from where everyone watched and when I say watched, I mean the time frame of what was going on in my life. But no one knows about China. So that’s why I told the story about China.
Towards the end of the documentary, you visit a local barbershop in Coney Island and befriend a young child, which results in one of the more emotional scenes in the film. Can you take me through what was running through your mind at the moment and why the child’s answer to your question about him being president garnered that response?
Nobody ever told him that he can be anything, that he can be the president. He just thought that, ‘Oh, only these people can be the president,’ no, you can be the president, too. So for us to be able to teach these children and give these kids the idea of, ‘You can do this and you can do that,’ that’s really what it’s about. It’s not really about anything else because we’re gonna leave this space and go to another space when we pass on and they will be the ones that will be here to continue. And then what we want them to pass on to the next generation. Encouraging and giving them the idea that they can do whatever they wanna do on the earth if they aspire to do that.”
China was a spiritual awakening for you, it seems. How would you say that experience helped you heal and grow in different areas?
One of my mentors said to me, “Steph, it’s like going on a retreat,” before I went, and that’s exactly what it was. It was not only a spiritual journey and a spiritual awakening, to be able to have gone over there to do some of the things that I’ve done, it was all in accordance and it’s all in the plan as far as what was bound to happen in your life, but you don’t know there’s something going on 7,000 miles away. Like, if somebody told you, “Oh, if you go over there, these things are gonna happen.” What’s gonna happen? “Oh, you’re gonna have two statues, a museum, you’re gonna have three championships.” You’re gonna be looking at them like, no way, not a kid from Coney Island is gonna receive all of these different things. “Yeah, this is what’s gonna happen, you’re gonna go to China and you’re gonna do this, you’re gonna do that and this is gonna happen, that’s gonna happen and you’re gonna be one of the people that makes China a basketball country.” That’s not something that you think about or dream about. So going there was part of my story, it’s part of my history, it was part of what was going to put me back into a space within myself where it was going to allow me to be focused in my life. So for me, seeing it play out how it played out, I’m blessed and thankful that I was able to see my obstacles, but at the same time, have the guts to continue to go forward. I felt like I wasn’t gonna be able to.
What do you hope viewers take away from this documentary after watching it?
Become more aware of the truth because when you can tell your own truth people can get a better understanding of the lies that were told. That’s how I like to look at it because a lot of people had a lot to say about what happened and what went on with my life and my journey, but they weren’t living in my journey, they were only reading about my journey. I think they see this, they’ll have a better understanding because sometimes people just don’t know and they go with what they think and then they talk about what they think or what they heard. And more importantly, I hope people can become inspired by it, to do what they feel they wanna do in their lives and go for it.