Essay: The Unappreciated Strangeness Of Shawn Marion
Once upon a time, Shawn Marion was nicknamed the Matrix for his ability to defy the dual existential forces that are gravity and reality on a nightly basis. But the nickname might be better tailored for another non-physically related reason: Mysterious unpredictability. Marion’s abilities on the basketball court and his sometime selfish off the court persona disagreed so vehemently throughout his career that had it not been for this very playoff run with Dallas, the professional v. personal confrontation almost certainly would have provoked his collapse. He was this close to falling off the edge, but thanks to the cure- all-ailment that is winning, Shawn Marion is now living to fight another day.
On defense he’s known for boasting a slightly exaggerated ability to defend all five positions, from the 5’11” ball handlers zip lining through defenses to the 6’10” World’s Strongest Man wannabes. He was everywhere at once, patrolling the paint, locking down swingmen on the perimeter, and making his case—with Steve Nash as a teammate—as the Most Valuable Sun during Mike D’Antoni’s reign of entertaining, marketable terror. While Nash was the team’s face—and brain—the floor leader remained one-dimensional; an extreme liability on the defensive end and, as great as he was, more associated with the offense’s free flowing, chicken-with-its-head-cut-off appearance than grinding his squad through the necessary half court sets that go hand in hand with an NBA playoff series. Marion and his uncanny athleticism were able to play both ends with equal competence. He was so good at everything but great at nothing. Complete yet limited.
Playing alongside the game’s best passer and shooter at the time (Nash), a defensive stopper (Raja Bell), and an athletic marvel, budding elitist, and go to scorer who also fit the role as Nash’s primary partner in the pick and roll (Amar’e Stoudemire), Marion’s reputation as the high-spirited team’s resident ingrate began to swell as each of them received more attention. With an inability to understand why he wasn’t the one getting MVP consideration or league wide admiration on a national scale, he became frustrated. It got to the point where Marion, a player who most excels in the peripheral, wanted much more of the spotlight. Being one of the highest paid players on the team wasn’t the issue, he was a glue guy who always pictured himself as the popsicle stick house’s foundation rather than the necessary, albeit unseen, fixative that goes into its construction.
Defining Shawn Marion’s importance was too difficult a task: Plays weren’t called for him and the perception eventually grew to be that no player in D’Antoni’s rapid fire system benefited more than the Matrix. His strengths were accentuated by what went on around him and no matter how successful and consistent he was on a nightly basis, Shawn Marion’s contributions were more overlooked than any player in recent memory.
The 1999 draft class was stockpiled with league mainstays and familiar names, producing a generation of players who peaked a notch below the traditional level we reserve for our superstars, and at one point or another each met heavy criticism for a variety of on and off the court incidents. But through it all they worked hard enough to hold tenure at the sport’s highest level. A commendable group, the list includes Elton Brand, Baron Davis, Jason Terry, Lamar Odom, Jeff Foster, Ron Artest, Manu Ginobili, Andrei Kirilenko, Andre Miller, and Richard Hamilton. Shawn Marion, the class’s ninth player selected, has more rebounds than them all, logged more minutes than everyone except Miller, and scored more points than all but Terry, his current teammate. He also made the most All-Star games (four). Marion just turned 33 earlier this month. He’s led the league in steals twice while putting up two 20 point per game seasons and never shooting lower than 44% from the field. To tell the truth, it’s been one of the most unrepeatable careers ever put together.
While watching Game 5 of the Mavs/Thunder series—the game where Marion gave Father Time a devastating right hook, made Kevin Durant’s life a nightmare and scored a season high 26 points—I made a quirky, almost ironic observation comparing the movie Marion’s adopted as a moniker with the man himself.
There were three Matrix movies (the original, Reloaded, and Revolutions) and, like most trilogies produced in the American film industry, each was more flawed than its preceding installment. In a five year window they spiraled out of control, going from cultural science fiction paragon to an overloaded nationwide mockery. Before this extraordinary playoff run by Dallas came to be, the movies eerily ran parallel with the player who happily adopted its title. If you split Shawn Marion’s 11 year career up into three stages—the first being his time in Phoenix, followed by a few purgatorial years in Miami and Toronto, and finishing with the last couple seasons in Dallas—it wouldn’t reflect the film franchise’s run quite like was expected.
Hopefully, we can all agree that the beginning chapters of both were the most successful. The first movie was the most entertaining, original, and crowd pleasing, much like Shawn Marion in Phoenix. There weren’t many players like Marion before him, and therefore nothing existed as a fair comparison. His shot was hideous yet effective, and in a sport filled with men known for possessing unrivaled jumping ability, few came close to equaling Marion when he gave his knees a slight bend and began his ascent.
The second chapter, Reloaded, was two hours of over the top hype commencing in cosmic disappointment. The film’s most noted scene was an authentic looking high speed car chase along a straightaway stretch of highway. It ended in a fiery crash. How symbolic. Marion’s time spent in Miami and Toronto was disastrous in an unexpected way. (It was around this time that as Boston was attempting to attract superstar level players to join their rebuilding effort, Marion’s name was one of the most achievable possibilities.) He fell out of shape, which is something a player whose main competitive advantage is energy can’t afford to do, and ended up producing the lowest numbers since his rookie season in several categories, including points, rebounds, steals, and blocks.
Then the third movie came along. It was unnecessary and a bit tacky. Expectations were low as people wondered what else it had to offer. At first this was the Shawn Marion acquisition. Why would Dallas, a team which already possessed championship level chemistry and a transcendent franchise player, risk Dirk’s prime by paying a guy who was not only showing statistical decline, but had gone on record saying he’d like to be a team’s focal piece for a change. The deal that shipped him to Miami for Shaquille O’Neal had signified a change of philosophy in Phoenix and in all likelihood marked the end of Shawn Marion’s day as a meaningful, relevant basketball player.
We know what happened, though. Marion flipped the script in these playoffs with his defense, unselfish attitude, and retro do-it-all play. He’s now set to defend the world’s best player—something he recently described as a “fun” activity—in the first NBA Finals of his career. Even if statistics don’t tell the story, at the age of 33 Marion’s career is coming full circle. No matter what happens henceforth, his time in Dallas won’t be seen as regretful, like the Matrix trilogy’s final feature. This will be a different, rejuvenated portion of his basketball existence; one that was unexpected and unforeseen by even the greatest Shawn Marion believer. Despite the worst statistical era of the three stages, he’s receiving the most recognition and praise. Hell, he’s even getting his own TV show.
This is it for Marion, the holy grail of a career’s journey. For the past 10 years points, rebounds, and steals represented nothing but a hopeful means to justify a personally celebrated end. Money was a welcomed comfort, but, like his numbers, it meant nothing without his name making top 10 lists or All-NBA squads. He wanted fame, he craved acceptance.
(There was a time when Marion spoke like a player who’d happily trade five or six wins for inclusion on the All-Defensive team.) Ironic then, isn’t it, that the moment he intentionally sacrificed numbers for a winning cause the fame followed. Instead of hopping around, throwing alley-oops through the rim like you or I would toss a crumpled piece of paper in the trash, he’s achieved relative notability with cerebral subtly. It’s all he wanted in the first place. This is Shawn Marion’s moment in the sun.