I had just finished my PhD and was starting a job as a 'rookie' professor at the University of Minnesota. Marbury had arrived in Minneapolis in 1996, joining the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of the NBA draft. My new university had season tickets for the Wolves' matches and Marbury very quickly became my favourite player.
He was much smaller than the other players, barely reaching 6ft 2in - minuscule by the NBA's usual standards. He played point guard, a position that is usually characterised as being the selfless playmaker for the team. Guards start the move and then pass to the big guys, who get the baskets. But this was far too predictable a role for Marbury, who, even when one of his giant team-mates was open, was just as likely to take a shot himself, leading to howls of derision from fans and players alike.
Point guards are also supposed to be the coach's main contact on the field. But Marbury, who played with a constant scowl, hated his coach and everyone else he came into contact with on the court. Nobody really knew what he would do next. While his team-mates were perfecting the anodyne media skills beloved of all US athletes, Marbury's post-game interviews were as frank as they were dispiriting and inevitably made headlines the next day.
His 10-year career is now drawing to a close, but this season has already proved to be his most eventful. During the last off-season, Marbury worked with shoe designers and a major sporting goods retailer, Steve & Barry's University Sportswear, to release a basketball shoe. Nothing unusual there. Ever since the days of Michael Jordan, most top basketball players have been paid millions to endorse top-of-the-range shoes that sell for $100-$200 (£50-£100).
But Marbury once again made his own moves. His new shoe, named the Starbury One, is a sleek, impressive-looking product with one big surprise: the price. The shoe sells for $14.98.
This is no promotional gimmick. For Marbury, who grew up as the sixth of seven children in the impoverished projects of Coney Island, the Starbury's low price is an attempt to make the shoes he endorses affordable for the lower-income African American boys who buy most of the basketball shoes that are sold in the US.
'We are allowing kids to become more educated (but they) are not allowing themselves to see the big picture,' he said. 'The big picture is not having a $200 pair of sneakers when your mother's income is $15,000. When you walk into a store, you are not being held hostage any more. So it's an outlet for the people, especially from where I come from.'
The marketing team behind Starbury One has also played a very smart game by taking a low-cost, authentic approach to the launch using PR, interactive and Marbury's own direct involvement. Much to the amazement of the basketball media, Marbury spent a month touring the US signing his shoes for kids. He started the season in October wearing his $15 shoes and has pledged to wear them in every single game. Many commentators are now reappraising their view of the player, with one journalist going as far as to claim that the once-surly Marbury has adopted his brand's characteristics: accessible, conscientious and humble. 'Who is this man?' he asked.
The Starbury One has sold out all over the US. As soon as it comes back into stock, every single pair is snapped up almost immediately. Other Starbury shoes are in development and more than 50 other low-priced sportswear items now carry the Starbury logo. One of the US' most unlikely sporting heroes has just become the architect of one of its weirdest and most wonderful new product success stories.
30 SECONDS ON ... STARBURY ONE
- The Starbury One shoe was designed by Steve & Barry's University Sportswear, which began as a collegiate apparel store at the University of Pennsylvania in 1985 and aims to provide quality merchandise at a reasonable price.
- Steve & Barry's currently has more than 150 stores in 33 US states and plans to expand to 200 by the end of this year.
- Stephon Marbury travelled to 40 US cities in 17 days to promote the shoe. So far, about 3m pairs have been sold.
- The US athletic footwear market is worth about $8bn (£4.2bn)
- Other NBA 'signature' shoes include Nike's Kobe Bryant Huarache trainers (priced about $120), Converse's Dwayne Wade sneakers (priced about $100) and - the 'daddy' of sneaker endorsements - Nike and Michael Jordan's Air Jordan line (about $180 a pair). The first Air Jordans went on sale in 1985.
This article was first published on Marketing