He’s won an NBA championship. He played for one of the greatest NBA teams of all time. And he made over $25 million during his decade-long career.
But when Marreese Speights and his agent took a look at the NBA landscape, the well-traveled big man knew there wouldn’t be a lucrative market for his talents during this summer’s free agency period. So instead of waiting around for what would likely be another one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum, he jumped ship and signed a deal with the Chinese Basketball Association’s Guangzhou Long-Lions.
“You look at the market now, and you see free agents still out there who played in the league for a long time,” Speights said in an interview ahead of the Long Lions’ preseason game Friday night against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena.
As part of a partnership between Monumental Sports and Entertainment and Alibaba Group, a Chinese conglomerate, Speights’s new team spent the week in D.C., with the trip culminating in a matchup against the Wizards for the second consecutive preseason.
Stephon Marbury became a larger than life figure in China, winning three CBA titles with Beijing Ducks and building a fan base so dedicated that he opened a museum, called the “House of Marbury” in Beijing in 2015. Other players, like Jimmer Fredette and Tyler Hansbrough, who played for the Long-Lions last season, have found success in China after being unable to stick on an NBA roster.
For Speights, he said that after a successful career in the NBA he was curious about what else what out there.
“I did 10 years in the league, I won a championship, I was on that team that won 73 games,” Speights said. “So now I’m like, damn, let’s see what the second half of my career might look like.”
After averaging 15 minutes per game over the course of his NBA career, Speights will play a starring role for the Long-Lions, who finished ninth in the 20 team CBA last year. He gave a glimpse of what that role might look like in the Long-Lions’ 140-111 loss to the Wizards, posting 41 points and draining seven three-pointers.
Ray Chen, Speights’s teammate and last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick in the CBA, said that Speights quickly stepped into his new leadership role after joining the team three weeks ago. Chen, who played college ball at Liberty University, was teammates with Hansbrough last season, and said he’s relished the chance to learn alongside some of the best players on the planet.
“It’s been amazing, especially having opportunity to be a teammate with Mo Speights,” Chen said. “He’s a veteran, has been in the NBA for so long and is very experienced. He’s like a brother to us – he’s always encouraging guys to play with confidence, and telling us he trusts everyone. So we’re just so blessed to have him.”
Speights is still getting used to all the autograph requests on the streets, but outside of that, he said, the adjustment to China hasn’t been too difficult. The team pays for his top floor penthouse suite in a hotel as well as most of his meals, and has assigned him a personal driver. A few of his teammates speak English, he added, and for the ones that don’t, Speights said he keeps his translator app handy. And he said that Guangzhou, a city of over 13 million people, has all the amenities he needs, such as Outback Steakhouse.
The Long-Lions’ season starts Oct. 20 and Speights acknowledged it’ll likely take him a few games to get used to the CBA’s style of play. After three preseason games, his biggest takeaway is a familiar one for many former NBA players in the CBA: “The referees just aren’t the same.”
And CBA teams, which are typically allowed two foreign players per roster, can only play their import players together for two quarters per game, a quirk that Speights and his teammate and fellow American Kyle Fogg have to learn to play through.
“At the end of the day though,” Speights said, “It’s basketball no matter where you’re playing at.”
The CBA season only lasts about five months, meaning Speights could have the chance to latch on with a contending NBA team looking to add depth for a playoff run come spring time. But he’s not looking that far ahead, yet.
“I’d be cheating them, not giving my all thinking about coming to the NBA,” he said. “So I’m gonna make sure I’m giving them my all, and everything will fall into place after that.”