Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Genius of Stephon Marbury

Commenter Bushwick Bill has expressed in the past some interest in conversations about Stephon Marbury. So this is for you Bill!

Stephon Marbury has long struck me as a fascinating character in the NBA landscape. He's best known, it would seem, for being replaced by hall-of-fame point guards whenever he leaves a team (he left New Jersey and was replaced by Jason Kidd, who took the Nets to the finals two years in a row, then he was replaced in Phoenix by Steve Nash, who went on to win back-to-back MVPs. Knicks fans are eagerly awaiting any rumor of a Chris Paul - Stephon Marbury trade . . .). He also made headlines for leaving Minnesota because he wasn't getting paid as much as Kevin Garnett, despite the fact that the Collective Bargaining Agreement made it impossible for him to receive as much as Garnett (who signed his deal before the current CBA was agreed to). Or he's known for naming himself "Starbury." Or perhaps he's known for having sex with a Knicks intern in the back of his truck, or shooting too much, or whatever.

He also appeared on television before last season sounding kind of, well, crazy, which led people to wonder if he was going through some mental problems:

The thing is, I really feel that with these oversimplifications we're missing an intriguing and nuanced human being, who is much smarter than we give him credit for. He's done quite a bit of charity work, as well as started a line of shoes that cost only $15 so that people could afford them without spending a whole paycheck. He was also laughed at a couple of years ago for saying he'd like to play a few years in Italy after his contract in the NBA is up, before he retires. This was before Josh Childress made it cool for ballers to go to Europe, so it's kind of like if you were to wear your jeans backward before March 17, 1992.

[Sidenote: how unbalanced is our perception of athletes? What other group of people would we scorn for saying they would enjoy making millions of dollars while living in Italy?]

Anyways, I recently saw an outtake from a year-old story about Marbury. I was curious at the beginning because of Marbury's attempts to explore epistemology with the reporter:

"... Why does green mean that's the color green? Why can't you say another word for green being green? Know what I'm saying?"

It's not the deepest question in the world, but it's a question from a dude who's really exploring and interacting with serious philosophical questions. It's a question about language, as well as about the distinction between substance and attribute. Further, given Aquinas's view of language, how does "green" achieve meaning for someone who is color-blind? He might stumble into language games, or maybe he'll try to define "green" as some sort of intersection of a number of different contexts (U.S. currency, the light at the bottom of the traffic light, baking apples, and so forth -- what do they have in common?).

Anyways, today I don't intend to discuss Marbury's philosophy of meaning. Instead, seeing Marbury saying odd things reminded me of a passage in the original article from last year:

They can talk about whatever they wanna talk about me, because I got maxed. I’m a max player. Don’t get mad at me, because I’m telling you what’s real. One plus one is two, all day long, and it’s never gonna change. And that’s factorial.

Basically here Marbury is responding to those who criticize his game by saying "Oh you don't like my game? Boo fucking hoo. I'm going to go cry into a giant pile of money after wiping my ass with your annual salary. Ha ha suckers!" In itself, that's a hilarious and biting response to critics -- "you think I'm dumb? Well wait till you meet that old white dude who's giving me $20 million a year." But what I really want to get into is his uncommon usage of the word "factorial."

It's easy to read "factorial" in this statement as a mistaken adjectivization (see that? that was a mistaken verbization!) of the word "fact." In other words, perhaps he just meant to say "factual." Again, I don't think that's giving Marbury enough credit. A recent conversation with John Rosenberg made me realize what he really meant. Here's the breakdown:

A factorial is a function in math such that n-factorial is equal to the product (n)(n-1)...(3)(2)(1). That is:

Notice, though, that the mathematical notation for the factorial function is visually identical to the English language punctuation mark known as the exclamation mark ("!"). As its name suggests, the exclamation mark is used after an exclamation, to indicate excitement or to emphasize a strongly felt point.

Now, a celebrity being interviewed has to consider the various filters through which his words will pass before reaching a wide audience. Not only are his words being interpreted by the interviewer, but they will be edited and taken out of context before publication. Furthermore, the medium in which his words are presented will affect the meaning they eventually come to have. For instance, a common rule of e-mail etiquette taught in business writing workshops is not to use sarcasm because it is difficult to express sarcasm in text. Likewise in an interview -- if you know the interview is for television, you might be able to get away with sarcastic remarks while knowing that viewers will have the advantage of tone and vocal inflections to dissect intended meaning.

In this particular case, Marbury understands that the interview is to be used in print. Now, how to express the correct level of emotion, when you know the writer might mis-punctuate your comment? Marbury introduces the ingenious device of the dual-meaning "factorial." Basically, he's giving typesetting instructions to the publisher of the interview while bypassing any possibility of a misunderstanding by the intermediary interviewer. Read the above, replacing "and that's factorial" with "and that's an emphatic exclamation," or, more simply, with an exclamation point: " . . . and it's never gonna change!" In addition, though, Marbury is roundaboutly expressing that what he's saying is, in fact, factual. The genius is that he express the factuality of his statement along with the intended emotional emphasis all in one compact phrase that is not susceptible to mis-transliteration by the interviewer. It's one thing to be self-aware, but to also be savvy enough to consider the medium of communication and adjust your comments on the fly to adapt to that medium -- well, I think it's quite impressive. Given the various media through which news is filtered these days, it's not much of an exaggeration to say that Marbury is providing a roadmap for the true 21st century celebrity.


  1. BushmothafckingwickmothafckingBillSeptember 11, 2008 at 2:23 PM

    I appreciate this analysis and am wearing my black low-top Starburys as we speak. Stephon was one of the most entertaining elements of Knicks basketball these last couple of years (and as you mentioned, a guy who does really give back to the community). Is he a misunderstood philosopher, or more like Peter Sellers' character in Being There? Who knows, though I am inclined to believe that if he was so well versed in factorials, he should have been able to compute the odds of him and Garnett winning a championship (and all of the glory and cash windfall that comes with it) instead of landing his "max" deal and playing with Keith Van Horn. Instead, it was the guy who played him (or the character pretty close to him) in He Got Game who ended up winning the title with KG. Hopefully, he can find fulfillment with Olimpia Milano.

  2. Going though some David Foster Wallace essays in the wake of his death, I came across this passage that seems remarkably relevant to this post. Perhaps this is what Steph was referencing/driving at?

    It's sometimes tempting to imagine that there can be such a thing as a Private Language: Many of us are prone to lay-philosophizing about the weird privacy of our own mental states, for example, and from the fad that when my knee hurts only I can feel it, it's tempting to conclude that for me the word pain has a very subjective internal meaning that only I can truly understand. This line of thinking is sort of like the adolescent pot-smoker's terror that his own inner experience is both private and unverifiable, a syndrome that is technically known as Cannabic Solipsism. Eating Chips Ahoy! and staring very intently at the television's network PGA event, for instance, the adolescent pot-smoker is struck by the ghastly possibility that, e.g., what he sees as the color green and what other people call "the color green" may in fact not be the same color or experience at all: The fact that both he and someone else call Pebble Beach's fairways green and a stoplight’s GO signal green appears to guarantee only that there is a similar consistency in their color experience of fairways and GO lights, not that the actual subjective quality of those color experiences is the same; it could be that what the ad. pot-smoker experiences as green everyone else actually experiences as blue, and what we "mean" by the word blue is what he means by green, etc., etc., until the whole line of thinking gets so vexed and exhausting that the a.p.-s. ends up slumped crumb-strewn and paralyzed in his chair.
    The point here is that the idea of a Private Language, like Private Colors and most of the other solipsistic conceits with which this particular reviewer has at various times been afflicted, is both deluded and demonstrably false.
    In the case of Private Language, the delusion is usually based on the belief that a word such as pain has the meaning it does because it is somehow "connected" to a feeling in my knee. But as Mr. L. Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations proved in the 1950s, words actually have the meanings they do because of certain rules and verification tests that are imposed on us from outside our own subjectivities, viz., by the community in which we have to get along and communicate with other people. Wittgenstein's argument, which is admittedly very complex and gnomic and opaque, basically centers on the fact that a word like pain means what it does for me because of the way the community I'm part of has tacitly agreed to use pain.
    …If words’ meanings depend on transpersonal rules and these rules on community consensus, language is not only conceptually non-Private but also
    irreducibly public, political, and ideological. This means that questions about our national consensus on grammar and usage are actually bound up with every last
    social issue that millennial America's about—class, race, gender, morality, tolerance, pluralism, cohesion, equality, fairness, money: You name it.