A brother's tough love left mark on Barbosa

Norm Frauenheim
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 26, 2003

His hopes and heroes are a lot like any other. It doesn't matter whether the beginning is in Brooklyn, the Balkans or Brazil. But Leandro Barbosa's journey to the NBA is a little bit different. The Suns rookie has a job in the world's richest global village because of a stick.

Barbosa, 20, has been running from one since he was about 5 years old. At the very least, it was unorthodox. And often it was punishing. Proof of that is in a ragged starburst of a scar near his left wrist.

His brother, Arturo Barbosa, a first sergeant and a paratrooper in the Brazilian military, waved it above his hands, around his shoulders and beneath his feet.

Nothing about it was haphazard. Survival is part instinct, part method. That stick was the method Sgt. Barbosa used to implant instincts learned on do-or-die training missions in Brazil's jungles.

"Everything my brother went through, he wanted me to go through," Barbosa said through a Portuguese interpreter. "I suffered a lot in his hands, but thanks to him I'm here."

Here is a guaranteed contract worth $2.6 million over the next three years.

Here is a chance at stardom.

Here is his dream.

It's here, Barbosa said, because it was a family plan for as long as he can remember.

Stick ball

While growing up in a modest Sao Paulo neighborhood with two brothers and two sisters, his mother, Ivete, and father, Vicente, recognized the athletic talent that Sgt. Barbosa had detected immediately.

His mom, Barbosa said, "would talk about the day that I would bring home some American dollars."

The stick was a down payment. With it, Barbosa said his brother would orchestrate drills that would force him to use and even accelerate his innate quickness.

"He would have me hold out my hands and he would hold the stick," Barbosa said through interpreter Michel Fernandes. "It was for agility. He'd move the stick, and if the hands didn't move, that stick would hit really hard.

"Sometimes, I almost couldn't play in organized games because my hands were so sore."

The various drills included some familiar wrinkles. In one, Barbosa dribbled a ball through and around a course of folding chairs. But even that one differed in one significant way. He dribbled a tennis ball.

The routine was as unique as it was meticulous. The Suns have begun to notice that Barbosa almost goes through his various moves as though each one is a step in a well-rehearsed dance.

"He's got a certain number of moves that he can piece together," said Suns President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo, who engineered a draft-day deal to acquire Barbosa, the No. 28 pick, from San Antonio. "Basically, he can recite a number. It might have move No. 29 and move No. 30. In his mind, he'll know that 29, 30 are the things he's going to do. He's got a code that he can literally understand and memorize. He almost sees it and feels it before he does it.

"He's got patterned things he does on the basketball court. There is an outrageous number of things that he can put into practice, and again it was all part of that training with his brother."'

Longing for home

Sgt. Barbosa, now 41, got creative in the way he taught a game he played as a young man in the enlisted ranks of Brazil's army. In a country mad for soccer, he had to.

"Arturo once played against David Robinson," Barbosa said of the retired Spurs center, a Naval Academy graduate who once played in Brazil as part of a U.S. service team.

Sgt. Barbosa also began to watch NBA games on satellite television. In the early 1980s, he spotted Micheal Ray Richardson, whose great talent was wasted by a drug habit.

In Barbosa's quick moves, long body and startling ability to move between defenders with graceful stealth, veteran scouts see a chance at fulfilling potential once possessed by Richardson.

But that won't be easy. For rookies, there is as much potential peril as wealth. Barbosa isn't much older than LeBron James, the 18-year-old wunderkind in Cleveland. He's the same age as Amare Stoudemire, the Suns' second-year forward and last season's NBA Rookie of the Year.

Stoudemire was a stunning success last year, but only after a string of disappointments throughout the NBA.

For Barbosa, it looks as if the challenges are stacked even higher. He didn't play at an American high school, or at any of the various camps and clinics.

He knows more Xs and Os than English in a league that has its own language. The Suns have worked to make him feel comfortable. They found and furnished an apartment for him. But north-central Phoenix is still a long way from Sao Paolo. His last phone bill was $2,000.

Barbosa concedes that he is often homesick. His dad, an ex-boxer, is in a hospice with cancer. For now, at least, his other brother, 30-year-old Marcelo, is living with Leandro. Marcelo even brought the family dog to Phoenix.

A friend in Marbury

The Suns hope to extend Marcelo's stay for as long as possible. He is currently in the United States on a visitor's visa. But even his Brazilian cooking can't prepare the baby in the Barbosa family for what he has begun to encounter. The NBA is a different jungle than the one Sgt. Barbosa survived, but it can be a jungle, nonetheless.

Enter a surrogate big brother, Stephon Marbury.

The Suns veteran playmaker has been quietly communicating with Barbosa through Fernandes, friendship and a game.

"Off the floor, he has to understand he's a guy suddenly making a lot of money," said Marbury, whose dressing stall in the Suns locker room at America West Arena is next to Barbosa's. "He has to be his own company. That's hard, especially for him. I'm just trying to put him in the forefront, in control of his career.

"We communicate well. He comes to my house. We talk on the phone all the time. He probably understands me better than anybody because I'm talking to him all the time."

But Marbury is doing more than just talking to Barbosa about a new lifestyle. He is buying him a piece of it.

As a rookie, Barbosa is still waiting on his first big paycheck. He's been driving a rental for the past few weeks. But that's about to change. Marbury is buying him an Escalade, a Cadillac-made SUV, that will be delivered once it is outfitted with a top-of-the line sound system.

"I knew he didn't have the money to do it right now," Marbury said. "I'm just helping him. I'm not really buying it for him. Eventually, he'll pay me back. He's got some real game.

"But right now I'm just helping him out, making sure that he only has to worry about basketball."

Without the stick.

Debora Britz of The Republic contributed to this story.

COPYRIGHT 2003, AZCENTRAL.COM. Used with permission.