Stephon Marbury Is Building a Sneaker Empire $30 at a Time

The founder on the rise, fall, and resurrection of Starbury.

By Photography By David Cabrera

Stephon Marbury is not one to mince words. Ever since the Brooklyn native first hit the pros in 1996, the former NBA All-Star and current GOAT of the Chinese basketball league has never been afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve, even if it means detracting from one of the world’s most beloved figures in the sneaker business.

“Michael Jordan’s been robbing the hood,” Marbury has said and tweeted several times over the past year. He has even criticized the products that Jordan Brand produces, claiming that they’re not that much different from the $15-$45 Starbury sneakers that Marbury sells out of China.

The Starbury brand has gone through its own ups and downs as well. Originally launched in the fall of 2006 while Marbury was a member of the New York Knicks, the line of $15 basketball sneakers saw relative success in the Tri-State area. Marbury was even featured on Oprah and 20/20 for his attempt to make high-end basketball sneakers more affordable.

But then the bottom fell out, literally and figuratively. Marbury’s tenure with the Knicks turned sour and, after bouncing around to a handful of different teams, he eventually left the NBA for good. Soon after, the Starbury disappeared when the line was discontinued in 2009.

“When you go from making $20 million dollars to zero, that’s a real, true test of how you continue to live,” Marbury said about that darkest point in his career and personal life.

The exiled player found his solace in China. Unlike a lot of other All-Star-turned-expatriates, one could say Marbury had one of the most unlikely career resurrections of all time.

He led the Beijing Ducks to three consecutive CBA championships and reached almost mythical status in the nation, having a statue erected in his likeness, his own museum, and even a movie produced about his life story.

“I love China, for real. I don’t say that just to be saying that,” Marbury told Sole Collector. “I say that because of what went on during that time, they basically revived my life.”

Soon after this newfound success, he announced the return on Starbury brand.

Here, Marbury sits down with Sole Collector and reveals the backstory behind his successes and failures, what’s different in the second coming of his brand, and why selling $30 sneakers is harder than you think.

From hanging out with you for a short time, I get the sense you really like to help people. Is that a fair assessment?
That’s basically how my mother raised us—to always give back—and your blessings come in abundance by doing so. For me, it’s important. That’s my community, those kids are grandchildren of people that are my age and have children who have children. It’s important to inspire all of the culture and inspire the young generation. The leaders of today, there aren’t that many, so you really have to try to be one of the voices so that kids can be drawn towards something positive to keep in mind that sense of responsibly for themselves and it will allow them to do something on Earth.

But you’re a businessman too. When it comes to either helping people or making a lot of money, which is more important to you?
I wouldn’t ever put those two in a category where I would have to decide. I think with helping people, you will always be blessed beyond your life. Money can only live in paper things—it doesn’t make you happy, but at the same time you have to make money in order to help others.

The reason I ask is because you see all of these sneakers brands making sneakers for $5 and then they sell them for $200, but you’re basically selling them for at-cost price. Are you really looking to make a profit?
I look at it as a mass play. I believe in the numbers. I think that what we’re doing is on the right path so my margins don’t have to be as a high as a Nike, Jordan, or LeBron shoe. They don’t necessarily have to be and I’m still able to give the type of quality. The quality doesn’t really change that much. The name is what people are paying for. I could understand it, but when children are getting killed for Jordans and nothing is really getting done or said or spoken about, that’s when I have a problem with it because it’s not just about basketball or shoes. People’s lives are in jeopardy because a pair of shoes. Brands are not conscious enough to put some type of understanding towards what it is that’s being done. It’s not only myself, but other people in other neighborhoods have issues and problems with that.

You mentioned it not being spoken about. For someone in your position who is a well known celebrity or a Michael Jordan or LeBron or whoever, do you think there’s a responsibility to do something?
Of course there is some sense of responsibility. I remember LeBron James made a comment when he was younger that at Nike—they hold their standards high and he would never wear a $15 sneaker. No problem. LeBron is from the ghetto just like a lot of other kids. Granted, it was when he was younger when he said that, so he gets a pass for that. I told him I’d rather be the owner than be owned, because you don’t own Nike, you work for Nike. I don’t care if they pay you $10 billion, you still work for them. From my perspective, we’re trying to teach kids ownership because I think that’s where the younger generation is going to learn to have a sense of responsibility from doing whatever it is that they do.

"I told him I’d rather be the owner than be owned, because you don’t own Nike, you work for Nike. I don’t care if they pay you $10 billion, you still work for them."

Let’s go back to the beginning when you started Starbury about a decade ago. What was your thinking back then when you were still in the NBA?
I always had Starbury [trademarked] since ’96. 10 years ago, there was opportunity to do a licensing deal with Steve & Barry’s. I only sat down with them for about 10 or 15 minutes before the deal was done. I never met with them before, I just knew about what they wanted to do. I knew they had “X” amount of stores and I thought they could produce quality product.

Did they?
When we sat down I told them, “Look, I don’t even want any money. The only thing I want you guys to do is pay for all of the things I need for my company." I wanted it to be established so I could be able to give kids an opportunity to buy something at an affordable price. Completely active for all, that’s basically what I was trying to create and that’s what has been created. There wasn’t nothing more, nothing less. It was only driven by me coming from where I come from in the hood and not being able to buy Jordans. My mom was not spending $100 on Jordans because that’s groceries for the month. There are a lot of parents who are peer pressured into buying their children these shoes and it’s a lot of stress with the kid being unhappy and the mom stressed out because she wants the buy them for her child. But the kids don’t get the fact that it costs a lot of money to get just a pair of shoes and you know parents aren’t making that type of money in the hood. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it as a kid. By seeing these guys not take a stand, I wanted to step outside of the box and do something completely different.

What’s different with Starbury now than before?
There are other ways to get the word out there, especially with social media and how things are set up. This is honestly the key. I have all of the components in order to succeed now. This is the time. There’s no better time to be alive and doing all of what you’re capable of doing.

I think it’s bigger than what it was because of the opportunities I created in China. That’s a whole other component that’s been added. I’ve been doing this all by myself, I haven’t had any big help from a big company or investment firm. I believe that in time that will happen where I’m able to create revenue for myself to be able to make me blow up as big as the companies that are the leaders. No matter if people like me or if they don’t know anything about basketball, at the end of the day I’m providing something for people that’s dope at an affordable price.

So this Starbury 2.0 is all funded by yourself?
Everything is funded by me. I’ve been doing so many different things in order to be able to keep my brand afloat. When I was doing it people were saying, “Why are you spending so much money on a brand that’s basically stalling and it failed already?”

Are you feeling a big risk by doing that?
I don’t feel any risk at all. This is something that has to be in existence. I will work forever doing this. You don’t let a brand slip away that has traction with a new audience. This opportunity is something that I believe is divine. Me being able to have the opportunities to do it in the first place and see impact that it created with so many people already moves me. It’s not like I’m doing it because I’m trying to make money or trying to bank up. It’s a $15 shoe. The quality is good. I’ve played ball in the shoes and it’s not nothing wrong with it.

What were some lessons you’ve learned personally from the brand failing the first time?
At that time, I was having problems with the Knicks. They wanted to go in another direction. Isiah Thomas thought that they needed to see what they could do without me playing. I was dealing with that and during that time a situation came about where I was told that I could leave. I left and then I was told that I wasn’t allowed to leave. When I got back to New York, I see all of these articles, “Stephon Marbury went AWOL.”

I’m like AWOL? What is that? Oh, this is New York. I call my brother and found out that the coach that coached me and all of our brothers had died. A week later my aunt died and my mom had to bury her sister. We buried the coach, a week later we buried my aunt, and then two weeks later, my father died. They say it comes in threes: my coach, my aunt, and then my dad. Then my mother checked into the hospital three weeks later with walking pneumonia.

So career wise, business wise, family wise, would you say that was the darkest point of your career?
It was the worst time in life. But also during that time my spirit was filled with more love because I started to understand that humans will try to break people down when they see them down. Through that time, I learned a lot. I grew a lot and maturity helped me to become different in a way that helps me with myself. Nothing changes who I am but as far as the change in my growth and development as a human being, I started to see things completely different. And when I started to see things differently, I was able to make different decisions.

What was your biggest takeaway from going through that?
You have no control over what people will try to do to you when they don’t care. Keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Stay focused, work hard, and never let them see you sweat when you’re sweating because of them trying to put you in a box. I think when you’re put in a situation to be compromised the first thing you do is you react. If somebody grabs you, you try to break loose. It’s normal.

Looking at that whole experience, it was hard. It wasn’t easy sitting on the sidelines in my hometown. I was in great shape. I destroyed everybody in practice. Everybody that I played against knew what was about to happen and they were going to get it again. At that time the Knicks said that wasn’t going to happen, but I look at that whole experience as a beautiful thing because if all of those events that happened during every moment of that time period, I wouldn’t be here talking to you about my brand. A variety of things wouldn’t have taken place. I honor and I accept it.

What’s the reception like when you walk through the streets of Beijing?
Is it the same as here? I mean it all depends, there will be people in New York that will be like “Oh, yo, what’s up, blah blah, take a picture." People in Beijing are just excited. There’s like 30 million people in one place. It’s a little different.

How is the relaunch of Starbury different?
The shoe is fresher. The style is doper. And I’m approving everything. I’m putting out the creativity on it, trying to figure out how we could do a lot with just a little because this is a small company right now.

How many stores are you in right now?
I’m in 60,000 stores. I have a venture deal with a company called 361. My little bro and their little bro is on it. In time, the shoes will be everywhere, like they’re supposed to be. It’s important, it has to happen. It’s not just for America, it’s for the planet.

You’re closer to the end of your playing days than the beginning. How many years do you think you have left?
I really don’t know, to be honest. You see how I’m running? I don’t think I have to be too much faster than that to play basketball.

Whenever you slow down.

Have you thought about when that day comes, whenever it is, what you’re going to be doing after?
I’m going to be doing what I’m doing now. I’ve been doing what I’m doing while I play basketball for like 10 years.

Have you ever thought about athletes that you would want to represent the Starbury Brand?
Of course.

How would you pitch them on wearing a $30 sneaker?
What I’m offering players, nobody can offer them. I’m offering players 51% of the profit, that’s everything that we sell with their name on it, they’d make 51%. I’d rather own than be owned. I’m not coming at anyone with a monologue, “I’m going to pay you a flat fee and if you put in X amount of years, I’ll pay you a royalty.” I’m not doing that. What I’m saying is, I want you to have your own brand. You can trust somebody who can build it out. I want you to make the 51% after what the cost is to pay for everything. After I make my money back from the money that I have put towards it, I will pay you 51% of the profit. Tell Nike you want 50% of everything that you sold with your name on it. Just imagine if LeBron got 50% of every shirt, every shoe, every short, everything that he sold. You know how much money he’d make? But not everyone is thinking along that manner and not every brand is going to tell them. It seems like guys are happier to be signed to a Nike than to be getting a real deal, which I think is kind of crazy.

"when you go from making 20 million dollars to 0, that’s a real true test of how you continue to live."

Do you think the consumerist lifestyle that we live in the states has a lot to do with that mindset?
I just think that guys aren’t stepping outside the box. Guys are comfortable living with that, but what I do is a lot of work. It’s hard. It’s not easy doing all of the stuff that I do. I’m fortunate, I’m blessed, and I’m in China where I’m able to go and do all of what needs to be done and trying to make sure that things are going smoothly in China while I’m playing or while I’m not playing but I’m there. I’m always on the ground and I’m not that far away.

Now that it’s relaunched, where can you take the brand that it wasn’t before?
I’m definitely going to sign artists. My brand is going to be just like Nike. We’re going to sell everything and we're going to do everything. It’s just a matter of time. The 2024 Olympics are going to be in Beijing, I’m basically going to be looking to go into that lane as far as creating a portal. It gives me an opportunity to have a head start in building a strategy and an infrastructure as far as what person we want to rep the brand.

If we look into a crystal ball to 10 years from now, where do you see Starbury Inc.?
Whatever God wants to give me, that’s where I see it. I’m just doing my part man. If it’s not supposed to be, it’s not going to be. To me it’s a big deal, but it’s not the biggest deal. My team, my happiness, my family is healthy. I’m not in the want for anything because I work, so when you go from making $20 million dollars to zero, that’s a real true test of how you continue to live. When you’re able to get through those times, you really truly understand that there’s something really bigger than you. The NBA could make you lose your mind. I’ve watched guys not play the way they thought they were capable of playing or a coach wanted to go in another direction or you get traded and things don’t work out. I’ve had so many different experiences. I know them all. When I see them, I understand them. This is why I say I was prepared for a lot of things that have happened to me in my later years.

If you could describe your life now in one word compared to where you were in 2009- 2010 what would it be?
Blessed. I say this all the time. Blessed.

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