Brazilian legend Leandro Barbosa gets his kicks with Celtics
|11.28.12 at 9:37 am ET|
Leandrinho. The Brazilian Blur. LB.
Leandro Barbosa has many different nicknames, but to anyone who has ever met the man, only one word will do.
“There was nobody who didn’t like LB,” said Jack McCallum, the longtime Sports Illustrated journalist and author of “Seven Seconds or Less,” a phenomenal snapshot of the Suns team — and the league — during the 2005-06 season. ”LB was loved. He had a kind of innocence about him, and a real work ethic with the way he approached everything. He looked at himself as kind of an open book whereas a lot of guys who come into the NBA — guys without LB’s ability or talent — think they know everything, but LB was never like that.”
Barbosa, who celebrates his 30th birthday Wednesday, grew up in São Paulo, the world’s seventh largest city by population, and a hotbed for soccer.
“I’m from Brazil, so everybody knows about soccer,” said Barbosa, whose subtle accent still creeps up in conversation. ”I used to play when I was a little kid, but I decide to play a different sport.”
Barbosa, the youngest of five children, wanted to play basketball for a pretty simple reason. His brother played.
“My brother Arturo played professionally,” Barbosa said. ”I always was around him; whatever he was doing, I wanted to do the same thing. I decided to play basketball because of him. Arturo started teaching me how to play.”
Arturo, 20 years older than Barbosa, became a driving force in his little brother’s basketball career.
“Arturo was a pretty tough taskmaster,” McCallum said. ”I don’t think those of us in the States really understand much about how kids in other countries learn the game. We just know they learn the game differently. LB still has scars from Arturo.”
McCallum wasn’t talking figuratively. If Barbosa made a mistake in his ball-handling drills, there were consequences. Arturo would whack him with a stick.
“I had to be quick with the ball, quick with my hands, because if I wasn’t, he slapped with me the stick,” said Barbosa, who still bears the scars on both hands. ”At the time, as a kid, I was crying. I didn’t know why he was doing that. But if it wasn’t for all the work he put in, I don’t think I’d be here in the NBA. Those drills still stay with me.”
Looking back, Barbosa has a fondness for the lessons his brother imparted.
“I remember many times, a day before I have a game, he used to make me dress up, have my shoes tied up, have the uniform on and the ball in my hands, so I would think about what I would do the next day in the game,” Barbosa said with a smile. ”So when I come to the game, I just play and have fun. It was kind of crazy at that time, but I know why he did it.”
Barbosa was discovered at the 2002 World Games in Indianapolis, following two impressive seasons in Brazil’s pro league. He had kept in touch with fellow Brazilian Nenê Hilário, who was playing with the Nuggets.
“I had a dream,” Barbosa said. ”A couple of times I had an opportunity to go to my friend’s house with a TV and see Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird play. I had a dream to come to the NBA, but I didn’t know if it was going to happen. Nene wanted me to come to the NBA, and his agent started to follow me. After the World Championships, in the middle of the season in Brazil, he signed me and I flew to America and my name went to the draft.”
Drafted by the Spurs as the 28th selection of the 2003 draft, Barbosa immediately was dealt to the Suns. Over the past decade, playing for the Suns, Raptors and Pacers before signing a one-year deal with the Celtics this fall, Barbosa has grown up in the league. He’s evolved from a 20-year old who spoke no English to a fluid-speaking father of a 3-year-old daughter with another baby on the way.
On the court, he proved he could score right from the beginning. During his rookie season he netted 27 points against the Bulls on Jan. 5, 2004, in his first career start. In 2007 he was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year after averaging a career-high 18.1 points and 4.0 assists (and 15.8 points in Phoenix’s 11 playoff games). He scored a career-high 41 points vs. the Thunder on Feb. 20, 2009. For his career, he’s averaging 12.4 points and shooting 39.1 percent from 3-point range.
It all started in Phoenix, which proved to be the right fit for an eager 6-foot-3 speedster who was welcomed into the Suns family.
“Playing in Phoenix was just great,” Barbosa said. ”They really respect me and help me as a friend. It was a crazy situation: As a little kid, I used to watch them, and now I play beside them.”
Said McCallum: “LB’s desire to be one of the guys, even though the language barrier and the culture barrier crept up once in a while, was really endearing. You could always see LB trying desperately to understand everything, to try to immerse himself in the culture. At the end of the day, he was just a very, very endearing guy.”
The international flavor of the Suns helped Barbosa adjust to life in the NBA.
“Leandro was my best friend on the team,” said Frenchman Boris Diaw, a current member of the Spurs. ”Being international, we were both talking with strong accents. We were hanging out together a lot, but everyone loved Leandro.”
Steve Nash also was a big influence on Barbosa’s career.
“Everything Nash liked, I like too,” Barbosa said. “He likes soccer, and many times after practice we used to kick the ball and then a couple of other players came and began enjoying it. We have a really close relationship. He’s a great guy. He made things really happen for me on the court, he was always looking for me when we ran, and we used to run a lot. It was a great team.”
The final key to Barbosa’s success also took place in Phoenix. Dan D’Antoni, the older brother of then-Suns coach (and current Lakers coach) Mike D’Antoni, joined the Phoenix coaching staff in time for the 2005-06 season. A legendary West Virginia high school coach with more than 500 victories, D’Antoni struck a friendship with Barbosa that is one of the main reasons Barbosa still is in the league today.
“It was Danny’s first year in the pros,” McCallum explained. ”Mike [D’Antoni] never really told me this, but Danny was an outsider. He had been a high school coach for 9,000 years. So Mike sort of instinctively saw Danny and LB as two outsiders who needed each other. It was just such a natural pairing, and their relationship really helped them get indoctrinated to the NBA.”
The affection Dan D’Antoni holds for Barbosa to this day remains strong.
“Leandro wanted to become an NBA player, but at the time I got there, he was struggling to get on the NBA court,” D’Antoni said. “I had loved coaching high school. High school kids are there to be molded and want to be molded, and you really get a chance to affect their lives, so that part of it is really rewarding. Leandro was there to be molded.”
Added D’Antoni: “Leandro needed the confidence that what he was and who he was was good enough to be in the NBA. He was trying to mimic other NBA players, and I was trying to convince him that approach is a short path to failure. You’ve got to be yourself. There are certain skills that he had that got him to this level, and if he applied them in the NBA game in the right places, then he’d become an NBA player. He was such a great young man looking to learn, and I happened to be the guy in the right spot at the right time.”
Barbosa played for club teams while he was in high school to help support his family. He never had a coach quite like D’Antoni.
“Coach D’Antoni is more than a friend to me,” Barbosa said. ”I compare him to a second father. We have a great relationship, and I appreciate everything he did for me.”
Though his life has changed dramatically over the last 10 years in the NBA, Barbosa’s humble roots still remain.
“I’m very happy,” said Barbosa, “and very grateful to be here.”