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Starbury - rebound?

by Anthony Zumpano
January 15, 2007

To most basketball purists, Stephon Marbury is no Michael Jordan.

The New York Knicks guard's reputation is that of a coach-confounding ball hog accumulating personal statistics at the expense of his teammates' victories (and, therefore, championships). In fact, the three teams for which he previously suited up all won more games the season after they traded him away.


Stephon Marbury, like "His Airness," has endorsed a line of sneakers—and in this regard, too, Marbury is no Michael Jordan.

But for many people, including those who can't tell a basketball from a wicker basket, that's a very good thing.

Jordan continues to collect an enormous salary from Nike (most of his income—US$ 32 million in 2006—"still comes from the Swoosh," according to Forbes) for pushing sneakers costing nearly $200 on a market consisting of many who can't afford them and some who have been robbed or killed for them.

Marbury, on the other hand, attached his name to a brand of "kicks" with a price tag that any parent can love: $14.98.

The Starbury One sneakers are part of the Starbury line of clothing and shoes sold exclusively by retailer Steve and Barry's University Sportswear. The line's other sneaker models, plus all the clothing—including a varsity jacket, jerseys, and hooded sweatshirts—cost under $10.

You read that right: ten American dollars.

Though Marbury is not the first hardcourt hero to endorse low-priced sneakers—Shaquille O'Neal's Dunkman line, sold by Payless, includes several under-$30 pairs—if you want to dress like an authentic NBA player from the ground up, your budget will likely reach triple-digits before you get above the ankle.

Marbury, who grew up in the projects of Coney Island, New York—and will earn more than $17 million this season—acknowledges this as he positions the Starbury brand to challenge the perception that celebrity athletes are aloof and out-of-touch with their fans. On his website he declares Starbury a brand "for the people" and a "movement" that is "bigger than basketball"—quite a contrast from "Just Do It."

(Nike does play an indirect role, however: both the marketing agency and the design firm behind Starbury feature people who once toiled under the Swoosh.)

Though the brand was promoted in influential basketball lifestyle publications, a major ad budget wouldn't keep those shoes priced below $15 for very long. So over the summer Marbury embarked on a series of launch appearances dubbed the Starbury Movement Tour to introduce the brand at Steve and Barry's stores throughout the US. (Marbury was paid no money up front, unlike his previous endorsement deal with sneaker brand AND1, but receives royalties on sales.)

Perhaps the highest-visible appearance of the sneakers is on the feet of Marbury himself, who is wearing them throughout the NBA season. Even though Starbury Ones lack fancy styling and won't work in direct tandem with an iPod, Marbury claims his sneakers are as hoops-ready as pairs costing 15 times as much.

Despite initial skepticism from some industry insiders (and one or two basketball bloggers who put the sneakers through rigorous testing), the sneakers have been successful so far in terms of both the bottom line and the court of public opinion. Several sellouts have been reported, plus the shoes have contributed to the purchase of other Starbury gear. And even as his on-court performance occasionally (all right, more often than occasionally) incites 20,000 fans at Madison Square Garden to boo (or worse), Marbury burnishes his good-guy image with a brand that is accessible to nearly anyone. (Donating 3,000 pairs of Starbury Ones to basketball players in the New York City public-school system in December didn't hurt, either.)

All this has compelled New York-area sportswriters—an opinionated bunch known for views as black-and-white as the ink and paper they're printed on—to form a position on a favorite target that's now a little more, well, gray. As one columnist announced shortly before Christmas:

"I don't care that Stephon Marbury is a selfish basketball player. I don't care that his refusal to share the ball, to play the way most of his coaches have asked him to play, is at the crux of the Knicks' problems. I don't care that the Knicks probably won't be winners until Marbury is traded away.

"I am buying a pair of his sneakers for my nephew."


Anthony Zumpano wishes he could palm, let alone dunk, a basketball.

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