Last week, NBA legend Shawn Marion traveled to Abu Dhabi to support the 2023 NBA Abu Dhabi Games, which featured two preseason games between the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves as well as youth clinics and fan events.
Marion led a skill-development clinic for youth athletes from Dubai's NBA Basketball School — a year-round basketball program in the UAE for boys and girls ages 6-to-18. He also judged a dunk contest, met with fans and took part in other NBA events alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ray Allen, Tim Hardaway Sr., Gary Payton, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, Ronny Turiaf and Salah Mejri.
Marion is an NBA champion, four-time NBA All-Star, two-time All-NBA selection and one of just five players in NBA history to record 17,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 1,500 steals and 1,000 blocks (the other four are LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon). The Phoenix Suns recently announced that they'll retire Marion's jersey this season.
While in Abu Dhabi, Marion joined me on my new show "Running Up The Score" to discuss his legendary career, the Suns' decision to retire his jersey, Mat Ishbia's impact since buying the franchise, the globalization of the NBA, how the game has evolved, whether he'll get back into podcasting and more.
You’re currently in Abu Dhabi for the Mavericks-Timberwolves preseason games and to host a basketball clinic with kids from the NBA Basketball School in Dubai. How is your trip going?
Shawn Marion: "Man, the trip is going amazing. This is a new culture for me; I've never experienced this, never been here. We're in a different part of the world right now and, I mean, I can tell you this: this is a place I'll definitely be coming back to. This is truly awesome. And, you know what, they're very passionate about [basketball]. I just had this meeting; I just came from an office visit and they had like 250 employees, but everybody spoke different languages! There were 16 languages being spoken! That tells you how diverse it is here, and they really pride themselves on that here. It's pretty amazing."
The globalization of the NBA has been a big priority for the league for some time. From when you were playing to now, do you see a big difference in terms of the NBA’s worldwide popularity and international support?
Marion: "Yes. I think as you look at the lay of the land right now, the NBA and basketball is a global sport. But the way that the NBA has been able to grow it, they're taking it to other levels. They're starting NBA Academies and having clinics all around the world, and that just helps it grow even faster. Of course, TV and social-media content help as well, but the level it's growing at right now is unheard of."
The Phoenix Suns recently announced that they are retiring your jersey. Congratulations!
Marion: "Thank you!"
How did you find out that news and what was your reaction?
Marion: "I'm gonna be very honest and candid. Mat [Ishbia] called me as soon as he took ownership of the team and he was like, 'I'm not doing some of the shit that's been done [before]. I'm going to take care of you and reward you by retiring your jersey. I'm a man of my word, and that's what I'm going to do.' That's exactly what he said, and he did! Yep, it was that simple."
Ishbia is quickly winning over fans — he’s spending money, making it easier to watch games, honoring past legends like yourself and so on. What do you think of Ishbia and the fresh start in Phoenix from an ownership perspective?
Marion: "I love it, man. I got a chance to see the practice facility; it's literally not too far from the place that I still have in Phoenix and I ain't been able to see [it before]. I ain't feel like... I feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulders to a certain degree. He's making the transition so easy. And he wants all the players who paved the way and set the foundation for the Suns organization and helped build that team into what the city loves and admires [to be involved]. He just wants everybody to be a part of it, man, and I love it. I think it's awesome. He's doing some amazing things out there."
The Suns have so much talent with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, Bradley Beal and Jusuf Nurkic. What do you think of this year's team and do you think they can win it all?
Marion: "Man, I think they got a chance just like anybody else, but, of course, their [championship hopes] are probably a little bit more realistic than some other teams. I just hope they stay healthy. When you stay healthy, you give yourself a chance. That's the thing. A lot of teams deal with injuries, and they've been hit with the injury bug a little bit as well. But they've got Frank Vogel as the head coach out there now and he's a defensive-minded guy. They just made another trade and got some other pieces to add to it — Grayson Allen and Jusuf Nurkic. I think that happened while I was out here; I was at a meeting when I got the alert and I was like, 'Wow! They ain't playing no games right now!' Listen, at the end of the day, he's trying to give himself and the organization the best chance to win. That's what you gotta do."
You obviously helped change the game and were ahead of your time. Overall, what are your thoughts on the modern NBA?
Marion: "Listen, it's run-and-gun, it's feast-or-famine right now. We set the foundation for what [the game] is now. There's so much positionless basketball being played, and it's dynamic. You're seeing the transition and evolution of what we started back in my Phoenix days during the Seven-Seconds-Or-Less era. That's what we started, and that's what it is right now. And I don't see the game going back to two traditional big men ever again."
Throughout the 2000s, not having a specific position was a death sentence for a player; nobody wanted to be labeled a "tweener." Then, seemingly overnight, the NBA became obsessed with "positionless" players and the tweeners were suddenly the most valuable players. That's one of my favorite examples of how the NBA is always evolving.
Marion: "Here's the thing: people can say [they're positionless], but it don't mean they are. You know, to be a two-way player in this league is very rare, but to be a positionless player is even more rare. You could be a guy who can go out there and guard 1 through 5, but to actually do it — willingly do it — is a big difference! A lot of guys probably could do it, but they don't do it, you know? Right now, teams are playing positionless basketball because everybody's switching everything. Most guys don't really post up anymore either. It's all face-up game and jumpers. So, it's easy to just jump into that narrative and bandwagon, but if you look at the game as a whole though, it's more of a guard-heavy game now than it was prior to when we made that transition. It's just been a shift. A lot of bigs now don't post up anymore; they're face-up players [too]. That's the evolution of the game."
A few years so, you and I did some of the NBA Watch Parties together on Clubhouse. I also love that video where you jumped on Twitter Spaces and educated fans about your career; it was incredibly entertaining. You're obviously passionate about this game. Have you ever thought of doing a podcast?
Marion: "Well, Alex, it's funny you say that. I actually had a podcast with one of my guys in Dallas, so I was one of the first guys to ever do it. I just didn't do any promoting or all of that stuff, but it was something that we did in the Mavs organization kind of early on — like way before everybody started getting into podcasts. And it was great! But the thing about podcasts is unless you got a set thing, you gotta create content all the time, and I was so busy focusing on trying to be a father first. That was my lane. And then I dibbled and dabbled in TV a little bit and thought about doing some broadcasting work, but, like I said, my priorities shifted because I'm a hands-on father. So, I couldn't keep doing it in Dallas because that was the situation, but I have thought about reopening that window.
"I do have a different side of the game that I like to talk about. I know narratives get created easily by the media, and we consume them and we digest them. It becomes part of our thought process of that player, of that team or whatever it is. But I was talking about this with one of my friends. I was telling him: it's easy for a [former] player to say, 'I can do this or that.' But what kind of player were you though? Because it's hard for a point guard to tell how to guard a big, or for a big to tell how to guard a point guard. But when I say it, I actually guarded all of them! I did it all! And I didn't just do it for a quarter or half a quarter. I did it for full games! So, when I sit there and I tell people that, people are like, 'Man, you know, I never thought about it from that standpoint.' I was like, 'Yo, I actually did this.' You know what I'm saying? Like, it's easy for somebody to say, 'I can guard somebody,' or, 'Oh, I'm a two way player; I can guard this player.' I'm like, 'Can you do it for a full game though?' I'm the only person ever to do it for full games."
I love to ask players about big “what-ifs” from NBA history. There was a report a while back that you were nearly traded to the Boston Celtics as part of a three-team deal that would have sent Kevin Garnett to Phoenix and picks to Minnesota. Is that true and, if so, can you tell that story?
Marion: "It is true. But Phoenix wasn't gonna do the deal. They didn't think it was viable because they would have to change their style of play instantly because we're two different type of players. So, they didn't want it. KG was in Minnesota at the time, and I would've went to Boston and he would've came here (to Phoenix). At the time, Boston was losing; I think they had a losing record at that time. I was like, 'Uhh...' But I mean, we have no control over that. Some of the rumors that come out about trades are actually true, but both sides have to agree to it. People throw out deals all the time, [teams talk] all the time, so there's plenty of hypotheticals out there.
"But you wanna hear an untold true story? I never really fully ever became a free agent except my last year playing when I signed with with Cleveland. When I signed with Dallas, it was a sign-and-trade, so I was still under contract basically with Toronto. It was a sign-and-trade deal, so I never really tested the free-agency market like that. So, what happened was I was about to be a free agent or get traded, and this was around that same time as those KG rumors. Kobe [Bryant] called me and said, 'If you're really gonna go out on the market and it's a possibility [that you're changing teams], I want you to come out to L.A.' So, we was texting and he was like, 'Yo!' It ain't happen because they didn't have the money to pay me, but that's a story that a lot of people don't know about."
I love those kind of stories and it's always interesting to think how those potential moves could have changed NBA history.
Marion: "Oh, there were a lot of situations out there like that where [trade talks] were open! It was pretty fun. When you look at the business of the NBA, man, the optimism and [hope] of what could possibily be is what makes it so fun and dynamic — een with the trade that just went down with Damian Lillard. It's funny, Paul Pierce actually predicted that. He called that in July. He said, 'If I'm Dame, I would try to get to Milwaukee.' It's funny that he said that and I could see it [from Lillard's perspective]. But do I think they're better? Ehh, they lost a lot for that trade, you know? [Jrue Holiday]. Grayson Allen was a great player for Milwaukee. He is a great pickup for Phoenix. He's a hell of a player, a great player, dude. Like, he does a lot of small stuff. He's a very tough guy. I like him. It's something about him that I like. I like the little Duke dudes with that little rough-and-rugged side! But he's one of those guys who can hit shots, he's gonna play defense and he competes. He's actually a lot better than people give him credit for. He ain't got a chance to really showcase his skills, but he can play. And if they use him the right way, he can help them."
For sure. Thanks for your time, I really appreciate it!
Marion: "Anytime, man. You know, we have great conversations and stuff. I might contemplate doing a podcast again. I gotta have the mobile equipment. We'll see; I don't know. I gotta have a great co-host. I like people who shoot [straight]. I told this to a reporter, so I'll give this to you. I told this guy who was recording me yesterday: when you are doing your interviews, do not ask the same questions and stuff that somebody else asks. Do not ask the same stuff."
I'm sure that gets really annoying.
Marion: "It's so annoying. It's okay to piggyback off of answers just to get some kind of content to create something in your own way. But don't ask the exact same questions. You sound you are a true fan. I know you are a true fan of the game. Like, you really love this. And so [you] ask the questions that you wanna know from someone in my position! Forget about the stuff that's already been out there already! Create your own. We all got a story to tell."
Marion: "And the thing is, I love my former guys talking about ball and stuff, but some of them talk like they was way bigger and better than they were. Some of these guys were below-average role players, but they talk like they were superstars! I'm like, 'What did you... How good was you? What did you do?!' (laughs) I'm like, 'He was a role player!' He was a solid role player! And look, I became a role player. But you know...
Yeah, but that was because of your longevity. You had four All-Star years before that.
Marion: "Yeah, that's about longevity and understanding that you gotta sacrifice to win. That's the biggest thing, you know? And I could have easily averaged such and such, but I was like, 'You know what? They don't need me to do that. I don't have to do that. If we can win and I'm averaging 16, 17 points, I'm cool with that. We gonna win, so I'm good with that. Let's win.' That was about getting them Ws.
"But that's something to think about though. You asked some great questions. That's the lane to go into. Those are the things to ask — the hypotheticals or something you [researched]. Like, 'You know what, he was pretty good at this, how did you pick up on that?' or, 'What's something that you did differently than everybody else?' Those are different questions, not the same questions [we always hear]. We get repetitively asked the same questions time and time again. It's boring. It sucks. I'ma be honest: it sucks. I hate it. It sucks!"
I can't imagine how old that gets.
Marion: "One thing that everybody was constantly asking me about was my shot. Everybody seemed to want ask me about my shot. But listen, you know what's really messed up about that though? One media person said it, so it went rampant and every media person wanted me to replicate the answer, right? Whether I like it or not, or whether I enjoy it or not. I did so much on the floor, but you wanna focus on something that nobody talks about? Nobody in the league talks about that. Don't nobody in the league shoot the same! ... I [used to get] pissed off, but now I respond and it's fine. 'It don't matter, don't nobody shoot the same. Next!' But why would you wanna talk about my shot, but then you won't talk about how I just had 25-and-15!"
Or that you shot 39% from three-point range one year!
Marion: "You wanna discredit me and what I did just to talk about my shot? Got it. I totally understand. There's certain lanes and narratives that will be pushed. I totally get it. I'm an owner now, so I see exactly what lane [they're in]; it's all marketing strategies. I know how it works and I know who controls it. Being on this side of the business, I know how things work now. But it's all good though. And it's all love. Thank you."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full conversation here.
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