New York Kurt Thomas was still months away from joining the Phoenix Suns when he stood side-by-side with Amare Stoudemire as they waited for Stephon Marbury to shoot free throws during a game last season.
The former New York Knick does some of his best work on the blocks, chatting up opposing players the way a first baseman talks to base-runners. He's made Shaquille O'Neal double over with laughter; he's brought smiles to the faces of the NBA's grouchiest referees.
And on this night, Thomas cracked up Stoudemire by telling the Suns forward something he'd been pondering for weeks: "I can't stand playing with Stephon Marbury."
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Twenty-seven months ago, the kid from Coney Island thought he had fulfilled a lifelong dream by coming home to play for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The Patrick Ewing era was over and the electrifying run to the 1999 NBA Finals was fading into ancient history.
When Marbury returned to New York in January 2004, Knicks fans believed the explosive point guard who had been a hoops star since his days at Brooklyn's Lincoln High would jolt new life into an aging and uninspired team. Some even believed Marbury would deliver the NBA championship that had long eluded the team.
As the Knicks limp toward the end of what might be the worst season in team history, it's painfully obvious that Marbury isn't the savior of the franchise. The one-time schoolboy hero may now be the most reviled athlete in New York. Fans no longer cheer him - instead, they see him as a cancer in the locker room, an overpaid malcontent who would rather snipe at coach Larry Brown and feud with his teammates than do whatever it takes to win.
The words "excellence" and "commitment" are tattooed on Marbury's body, a constant reminder that he displays neither, certainly not this season.
"It hasn't worked out the way everyone thought it would," says Mark Jackson, the former Knicks point guard who has known Marbury for years. "Stephon Marbury came in with a lot of baggage and hasn't found success in New York. But this is a collective effort. There is plenty of blame to go around."
Several team sources say the only way Marbury can survive is if Larry Brown leaves first, and considering Brown's nomadic history, that's possible. But Brown has repeatedly vowed to return, and the $40 million he's scheduled to make over the next four years gives him a mighty good reason to keep his word.
Knicks president Isiah Thomas, meanwhile, says he is committed to acquiring players suited to Brown's style and temperament.
"I don't know why you play a team sport (if you are not) concerned with making your teammates better and helping your team win games," Brown said last week in the midst of one the most vitriolic exchanges between player and coach in NBA history. "That's the only thing that matters."
Coney Island is a bleak place during the cold months, when the icy wind blasts in from the Atlantic, slamming against the shuttered food stands along the famed boardwalk and rattling the deserted roller coasters and carousels. Trash blows up and down side streets; the junk yards, cheap furniture stores, housing projects and industrial buildings look especially bleak during the gray days of winter.
But in January 2004, as the F train pulled into its final stop at Avenue X, a group of high school boys wearing Knicks jerseys and hats celebrated, cheering and laughing like they had just won the lottery.
"Starbury is back in New York!" one of the kids chanted. "We're going to the NBA Finals!"
Not all Knicks fans were so optimistic, but even cynical supporters saw a reason to believe in Marbury's return to the Big Apple.
Isiah Thomas, hired as the Knicks' president a month earlier, had announced he was ready to shake things up with younger, quicker players. He engineered the trade that brought Marbury to New York from Phoenix soon after he took the job. A few weeks later he canned head coach Don Chaney and hired Lenny Wilkens. Many people thought Wilkens, a Brooklyn native and a former point guard, had the patience, knowledge and experience to transform Marbury from perennial underachiever to truly great player.
Looking back, it's difficult to understand why expectations were so high. It's true that Marbury is a two-time All-Star who has posted big numbers everywhere he's played. He and the legendary Oscar Robertson are the only two players in NBA history to average 20-plus points and eight assists per game for a career. He's also durable, having appeared in 280 consecutive games before suffering a shoulder injury on Jan. 16.
But great players make those around them better - and Marbury's former teams - Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix - all improved after he departed. The Nets reached the NBA Finals the year after Marbury was traded for Jason Kidd. The Suns won 62 games last season with Steve Nash running the point and are close to securing the second seed in the Western Conference this season.
Meanwhile, Marbury-led teams have never gotten out of the first round of the playoffs. He has an uncanny knack for alienating teammates and frustrating coaches. The scowl on his face at times seems permanent.