Those of us raised in Brooklyn know there are two Coney Islands. There is the famed amusement park (once called Astroland, now dubbed Luna Park) on the boardwalk where revelers fight to hold down their funnel cake as the world-famous Cyclone coaster whips them along its wooden arteries. But there is another Coney Island, where NBA All-Star Stephon Marbury honed his craft. Beyond the beach, out of earshot of the old Himalaya, are stone and glass towers like The Surfside Gardens housing project where “Starbury” sewed the seeds of his legend. This is where the story begins and ends in the documentary A Kid From Coney Island.
Directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah are from Chicago and New Orleans respectively, but connected on a spiritual level to Marbury’s story. It’s a universal narrative of the rise, fall and rise again of a talented Black kid with high expectations fighting to survive on his own terms.
Despite making their names directing music videos for the likes of Kanye West, Erykah Badu and Yasiin Bey, the two filmmakers move as if they are just starting out. On the day of our interview they’ve just landed in New York after attending NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago, but Coodie arrives for our chat on a bicycle and later on noshes on a brown bag lunch while waiting for a subway train to their next appointment. “A lot of my peers wish they could ride the subway,” he says through a broad grin, grateful for the anonymity.
This do-it-yourself drive has aided their transition from music videos to creating documentaries and feature films. In 2012, they released the ESPN 30-For-30 special Benji, about the life and death of Chicago basketball player Ben Wilson, who was shot to death at just 17 years old. And they’ve recently earned an NAACP Image Award nomination for their documentary on Martin Luther King, Jr, Martin: The Legacy Of A King. Their latest work, A Kid From Coney Island, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 and is about to be released nationwide.
“We screened the doc at the Soho House out there. It was dope,” Chike says of their All-Star weekend itinerary. “The reception was dope. The weather messed up a lot, so not as many people came out as we’d have liked. But outside people are connecting to the story without necessarily knowing too much or being personally invested in the story.”
“We didn’t go to the games, we mostly went to the events,” Coodie adds. “I got to speak on a panel with Ron Harper and BJ Armstrong and that was something special because I grew up in Chicago in the 90s. That was crazy.”
The two watched the actual All-Star game from the comfort of an Airbnb that was around the corner from where civil rights activist Fred Hampton was assassinated in 1969. Their large flat screen TV was filled with hometown hero Common opening the festivities with homages to both Hampton and Benji, making the moment all the more surreal.
“I’m sitting next to Billy Moore, who killed Ben Wilson, and Mario, Ben Wilson’s best friend. That’s who I’m watching the game with,” says Coodie. “A little fun fact about Fred Hampton. He went to Proviso East High School. My mom was the president of Junior Achievement and Fred Hampton was the vice president. I’d hear that name without realizing who Fred Hampton was.”
As aligned as their stars seem to be, making a documentary about Stephon Marbury was not in Coodie and Chike’s plans. While working on the MLK film, they received a call from their producer Jason Samuels, who connected them with Nina Bongiovi, producer of Fruitvale Station, Dope and Roxanne, Roxanne. After a quick Facetime call with Nina, she set up a time for them to meet with Steph in New York City.
“It was crazy because we were all so similar. Our faiths were super strong in God. We all lost our fathers. Even the way we were sitting, we were in the order of our age group,” Chike says of the meeting in 2018. “Next thing we knew we were in China filming.”
After getting drafted number four overall out of Georgia Tech in 1996, Stephon Marbury spent the next thirteen seasons in the NBA as one its most exciting guards. He was a two-time All-Star and played on five different teams—including the Nets and Knicks. In 2009 Marbury moved to China to play in their league from 2010 to 2018, winning three championships with the Beijing Ducks. Combine that on-court achievement with Steph’s outspoken and dramatic life off-court, and it’s a story ripe for the screen.
“Steph’s in season, so our access to Steph is kind of limited because he’s preparing every day for these games,” says Chike. “But we had these fleeting moments where we’d go eat together and then Coodie would bust out the camera and we’d get these real personal interviews.”
Combining this footage with video gathered by Steph’s personal photographer, they reached out to Steph’s family, friends and peers to weigh on his personal life and career.
“When you’re doing docs, what people don’t realize is it gets real strategic as far as who you’re interviewing,” says Chike. “Who you decide to interview is what’s going to shape your story. You don’t have to be into sports to watch one of our films. A lot of that has to do with who we decide to interview. The stories with his first coach, his mother and in the barbershop…that’s where the story is.”
“We wanted to get (former coach) Larry Brown and (former teammate) Kevin Garnett but since we didn’t get them, we did get Ray Allen and Chauncey Billups,” says Coodie, noting the help of Samir Hernandez in getting Allen. Casting director Melanie Massie helped land rapper Cam’ron, who played basketball against Marbury in high school. “Cam is a good friend of ours. We went to his house real early in the morning, he was just getting out of bed. So, we apologize for not fixing him up all the way right when we started. [laughs] He was saying so many great things that we couldn’t put it in.”
Even with the trip to China, the heart of the documentary takes place in Coney Island. In a great homage to Do The Right Thing, DJ Clark Kent, Bonz Malone and Chris Lattimore offer candid commentary on everything from Marbury’s sneaker line to his infamous meltdown in 2009 set against a red brick wall near a local basketball court.
But it is Steph’s triumphant return to his home barbershop that gives the documentary a finale fit for a king.
“You can always tell a lot about a person by how their community responds and embraces them. He’s a hero in the community. The streets are not gonna lie. The block is not gonna lie. To see in the movie when he goes to the barbershop you can see the love. Steph is not almighty bigger than life in there. He’s just another person in that space.”
Stephon didn’t see the finished film until it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 and it brought him to tears.
“Coodie knows how to make the thugs cry,” says Chike. “I learned so much about his journey. I knew about the statues he had in China, but there was this whole gap that I didn’t think about. Like, why did he have to go to China? I remember his break down but I never put it in context. You’re not realizing what’s going on with him. I didn’t know that part. It’s very important for athletes to have someone they trust to disseminate their message so that when the media does spin it, they can give the context.”
A Kid From Coney Island premiers March 10 in limited theatrical release and via video on demand on streaming platforms.