ESPN The Magazine: The Invisible Man
Editor's note: This article appeared in the April 23 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Shawn Marion adjusts his Yankees cap and slips on a pair of white Gucci shades before stepping into the midday Arizona sun. Standing in front of a Tempe auto-body shop, he beams like a proud papa as he shows off the latest addition to his brood: a fully restored 1971 Cutlass Supreme convertible. He found the black classic with its 66,000 miles on the Internet and landed it after haggling some guy in Illinois down to $2,100. Now that he's put another $15,000 into it -- including matching black 22-inch deep-dish rims -- it's ready for the street.
Today's cars are pieces of junk compared with this retro Dee-troit muscle, he thinks. Steve McQueen would be happy to drive this baby. Marion loves everything about it: the horizontal speedometer, the square headlights, the steel bumpers. But mostly he loves the 15-inch subwoofers that can rattle screen doors up at UNLV, his alma mater. At the moment, Jim Jones' "We Fly High" booms. Marion turns the volume to 23, igniting a car alarm symphony, before heading out for a spin.
As he rolls through the Arizona State campus, Marion hears a large man in a suffocating blue polo call out. It's Michael Clarke Duncan of "The Green Mile" fame, one arm around his LA Clippers cheerleader girlfriend. "What up, Trix?" the actor says through a huge smile in that familiar grumble. "I see you, boy."
At least someone does.
Marion just wants to be noticed. His invisibility is never more evident than in the Suns' 129-127 double-OT epic with the Mavericks on March 14. With eight ticks in regulation, Steve Nash launches a potential game-tying three from the top of the key that caroms long and appears headed into the hands of Dallas' Greg Buckner. In an instant, the man they call The Matrix materializes to snag the ball and kick it back to the two-time MVP, who promptly drills a three from the elbow. The announcers roar that Nash has just gotten a leg up on Dirk Nowitzki in this season's MVP race. Not a mention is made of Marion's game-saving work.
Moments like that have Marion wondering, Where is the love? The résumé certainly demands it: 18.6 ppg and four All-Star Games in eight seasons. And this season, Marion is the only guy in the top 20 in rebounds (10.0), field goal percentage (52.5), steals (2.0), blocks (1.6), double-doubles (35) and minutes (37.9). "Steve is the MVP of the league," says Marion, "but I've had people tell me I am the MVP of the team." Warriors coach Don Nelson might be one of them. Nellie says Marion is "as important as anyone they've got."
Don't misunderstand. Marion is not trying to steal Nash's thunder or pick a fight. There is plenty of respect and a healthy appreciation for their symbiotic relationship. But he'd still like you to pass the sugar, please. "I want the recognition," says Marion, who got fewer votes for February's All-Star Game than Shane Battier. "I feel I've done what it takes to get it, but for some reason it hasn't happened."
Respect is the final piece of the puzzle. A career of being overshadowed by higher-profile teammates despite his box score stuffing has left him thirsting for attention. But it's hard for Marion to get anyone to feel sorry for him.
He is, after all, a single, 28-year-old star for a team on the short list to win the title. And let's not forget he's the highest-paid Sun of all, sitting on a max deal that's paying him $49.3 million over three years. Those who don't know him -- and even those who do -- have to wonder what the problem is.
Back in Tempe, Marion and his Cutlass reach their destination: Hooters, and its half-price, happy-hour Buffalo wings special. The waitresses, in shiny orange short shorts, who have been milling around the bar, snap to attention, giggling as he walks by. Marion takes a table in the middle of the restaurant, near a wall-mounted TV that is tuned to an ESPNEWS feature on Kobe's recent scoring tear. Marion would pay to see Kobe, but not many others. "I don't watch a lot of basketball," he says. "I find it boring. You gotta understand, I play for the Suns. Everything else doesn't match up."
After a brief chat with his mom, Elaine, Marion cracks a menu but is quickly distracted by a perky waitress who suggests the ribs. "Did y'all win last night?" she asks.
"Yeah," says Marion, slightly disinterested.
"Woo! You go, boy! We love you!"
It's a scene that plays out over and over in his world -- getting recognized just for being Shawn Marion -- but it's not the support he's looking for. If gushing girls in tight T-shirts gave out postseason awards, then he'd have it made. Alas, the props he covets are those doled out by basketball people who matter, in the form of bronze statues. They aren't served up at the Hooters on South Mill Avenue with a side of crinkly fries. So no offense, miss, but Harry Potter's invisibility cloak would really come in handy right about now.
Two dozen wings and a tumbler of lemonade later, Marion is back at his three-bedroom town house in a gated complex in northern Phoenix. Kicking off his untied white Air Force 1's, he flops on an oversize brown leather couch. He slides off his cap, rubs his head and lets out a sigh, like something is on his mind. And these days, something is always on his mind. A sense of incompleteness preoccupies him. His subordinate role in the offense, on the team, is never far from his thoughts.
Marion clicks on the 39-inch flat screen, and there's Stallone racing away from the psychos in "Cobra." Sly, in a modified 1950 Mercury, hits the nitro and disappears over the horizon. Invisible.
And that could be Marion. He has the juice to force the issue and demand a trade to another NBA town, one in which he'd be the center of attention. So what about it, Shawn? Would you rather be a 30-point scorer and an MVP candidate on a lesser team, say, one only flirting with the postseason, than the sidekick to the sidekick in Phoenix? "Wow, that's interesting," he says thoughtfully, as if he's never entertained the prospect before.
Marion pauses nearly 10 seconds to concentrate on the question. Only the muted sound of late-afternoon traffic outside the two-story living room breaks the silence. He fiddles with the remote as if it holds the answer. "I've never been asked that," he continues. "That would be an interesting situation to be in, to really show people what I can do.
"But we'd be in the playoffs, right?"
Like the fuel that breathes life into one of Marion's cars, the Suns offense is famously high-octane.
But unlike in his metal-and-rubber rides, Marion sees himself as but a passenger in that other, blood-and-guts machine. He'll say he is a victim of his own unique style of play, because it allows coaches and teammates to figure he'll fend for himself, to fit in wherever. The upshot is, Marion is a freelancer in his own shop. If he doesn't feed himself, he starves.
"A lot of people don't understand how the NBA works," he says. "They look at the Suns as a running team but don't realize that many nights, we play a two-man game. Everything we do starts with Steve and Amaré's pick-and-roll. I have no plays called for me. I have to go get everything."
Which he does -- better than anyone. He leaps quicker than just about any other player in the league, because he pogos while the rest of the humans take time to gather. He launches his unorthodox eye-level shots with an unblockable Dan Marino-like flick of the wrist, but in fact, he is the rare player who doesn't need the ball to put up 17 a game. Most of his opportunities come on backdoor cuts, offensive putbacks and quick strikes on the break. In a March 25 game against the Kings, he got his usual 17 while possessing the ball for less than 60 seconds of real time. "The beauty of Shawn's game is he thrives in whatever style we play," Nash says. It's a blessing and a curse.
Marion knows all anyone has to do to neutralize a player who doesn't get plays called or picks set for him is box out. "You see me averaging 18, but some nights I struggle to get a bucket," he says. "People don't realize how hard the NBA is. I have to move constantly if I want to survive."
The star's hand-wringing amuses the most recent addition to the team, Jalen Rose. "He may feel unappreciated, but everyone here appreciates what he does," Rose says. "We know that without him there is no championship." Rose, who speaks with the confidence and insight of an elder statesman, continues. "How can he be considered underrated with that résumé? Of course, the reason he's as good as he is is because of that chip on his shoulder."
But if a lack of credit for the Suns' success bothers Marion, you wouldn't know it by watching him interact with his teammates. He organizes poker tournaments on team flights. When he's on the bench, he is often the first one dapping the players coming off the court when a timeout is called. Before every opening tip-off, he hugs head coach Mike D'Antoni, a ritual he started four seasons ago to show support for the rookie coach. "Shawn is a smart guy, and he knows how good he's got it," says D'Antoni, who's been one of Marion's biggest fans.
If there's one thing that sticks in Marion's craw more than anything else, it's the lack of recognition for his work at the defensive end. Regarded by coaches and players as one of the league's preeminent stoppers, Marion can keep a point guard from getting into the lane on one possession and force a power forward into a bad shot the next. "When he's out, it's like we're missing four players," says D'Antoni. "There's no way to replace him. We just try to cover as many holes as we can."
What is most striking is that because of the Suns' small-ball system, Marion has played out of position at power forward for much of the past three seasons. At 6-7, 228, he can't dominate the paint with brute force. Instead, he uses cunning and hustle, deftly anticipating the bounce of a rebound or blocking a shot of a taller player from behind. "Boxing him out is impossible," says Amaré Stoudemire. "You have to face-guard him the whole time." That's not going to happen either. "Players are trained to follow the shot," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "And when you turn your head, he's gone."
Even at his size, Marion snags more defensive rebounds per game (7.8) than 54 of the 59 other starting power forwards and centers. And his 1.6 bpg is nearly double that of the next best shotblocker of equivalent height, Charlotte's Gerald Wallace (0.97). He also leads the Suns in deflections.
Despite all that, guess who has never made an All-Defensive team? "I just don't understand how something like that can happen," Marion says. "It's one thing to ask a guy to guard another position every now and then, but for a whole season? That is rough. Are they watching the same league?"
Two diehard Suns fans in particular have seen all they need to. Acting on their own, David Nelson, a UC-Irvine grad student, and Damien Walker, a season ticket-holder and professional online poker player, recently compiled a 12-page report titled "Surprise! An Objective Analysis of the Defensive Player of the Year Award." After crunching numbers from a variety of categories, the study concludes that Marion is their guy. "That's not us saying he should win it," says Walker. "That's the data."
Marion spends much of his time away from the court alone, but not in a self-imposed Kobe sort of way. A month from turning 29, he's too old for the club-hopping of younger teammates. And the older ones have responsibilities. "You can't just pick up the phone and call one of your teammates in the afternoon and say, 'Let's hang out tonight,'" he explains. "They've got kids and they gotta eat dinner and check with their wives. You've got to plan."
His hobby of restoring classic cars gives him a creative outlet. A 1970 Chevelle and a 1966 Lincoln, "like the one from the opening credits of 'Entourage'," round out his collection of older models. His late-model stable includes a BMW 760, Mustang GT, Hummer H2 and Porsche Cayenne. All white. "It's just my thing," he says. One car you won't find in his garage is a Maybach. Waste of cash, he says. "People may find it strange, but I'm just really smart with my money," says Marion, who opts to fly commercial rather than go by private jet. And you're more likely to find him staying at a Holiday Inn than a five-star hotel when he travels.
But to everyone around him, he is first-class goods. On a crowded thoroughfare near Marion's house, a black Lexus pulls up beside the Cutlass. The passenger-side window sinks to reveal an attractive woman in her mid-20s. "Excuse me," she says, "I just want to say you have a beautiful car."
"You want to wash it for me?" Marion replies.
The moment hangs for a beat like an offensive rebound waiting to be dunked home. But Marion just smiles politely. Just another instance of his getting attention everywhere but where he wants it most. The light turns green and he makes a right turn for home, vanishing once again.
Chris Palmer is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.