Rolling With Leandro: Gregory Dole's Barbosa File, Part Four
Canadian Gregory Dole lives in Brazil, and describes himself as a "freelance writer, English as a second language teacher, basketball coach, basketball scout, and world traveller." That's a career that, not too long ago, took him deep into the life of a certain Brazilian Blur (and, to a lesser extent, William Wesley).
In the spring and summer of 2003, before and after the NBA draft, Dole was Leandro Barbosa's translator. In the hopes of landing a book deal, Dole is sharing tales of his time with Barbosa. The first, second, and third parts were published in recent days. There are plenty more to come. When we left them, Dole and Barbosa have endured some disappointing pre-draft workouts, and are on their way to lunch at Chris Mullin's house.
As we wait for lunch to be served, I sit on a couch in [Chris] Mullin's living room and talk hockey with the man himself.
"You want a beer?" he asks.
I'd heard he was an alcoholic at one point in his life. I am not sure what to say. I say nothing. He says nothing.
My team, the Ottawa Senators, is playing against the New Jersey Devils in the playoffs. Being a New York guy, Mullin naturally roots for the Devils. For someone who became a basketball fan in the 80s, the entire situation is incredibly bizarre and surreal. Mullin is a nice guy, but he is pretty normal. It dawns on me that idolizing athletes is moronic, no offense to Chris.
Mullin offers me a beer again. This time he says he is just joking.
Sometime later, in walks Mike Dunleavy jr. and Jiri Welsch. Welsch is a big hockey fan, favoring the Senators as well, because the team features some of Welsch's Czech comrades. Junior favours switching the channel to the basketball game. I begin to protest, as this is Game 7, but then I figure, these guys are basketball players, after all.
In any event, the Senators end up losing. I expected as much. Mullin jokingly offers beers again. What is up with that? I feel like saying I would love a nice, cold, frothy beer.
Lunch is served. We watch some basketball and then hitch a ride back to the hotel with Junior. For a guy who is constantly berated by the media and fans in the Bay Area, I am impressed by Junior's self-confidence.
We spend the rest of the time checking out San Francisco on foot. We head into an internet café and I do an email interview with nbadraft.net for Leandrinho. All is well. We are ready for the next workout in Seattle.
Arriving in Seattle, Dwane Casey picks us up at the airport. He is so nice that it is hard to believe he is being serious, but I think he is.
Leandrinho has it in his mind that he needs to step up his game some more. The stage is set. After we check into the hotel, I see Kirk Hinrich, star of the University of Kansas, walking the hallways. Suprisingly, Leandrinho knows of him, having recently watched him lose to Syracuse in the NCAA championship. He was impressed by Hinrich but hardly intimidated. Leandrinho isn't really impressed by college basketball. The workout also includes Chris Thomas from Notre Dame and Troy Bell from Boston College. We all meet for dinner with the staff of the SuperSonics the night before the workout, and then I find myself having to do more psychological tests. It's a difficult one. It's in English, and even I don't understand it.
Long story short, Leandrinho kills everyone in the workouts. It's a damn massacre. Under the watchful eye of the chairman of Starbucks and managing owner of the SuperSonics, Leandrinho hits every shot. Beats every defender to the rim for easy layups. Makes highlight reel passes to cutters for open layups in the game of two on two. It is a show.
He embarrasses Hinrich so much that Hinrich blows his cool. At one point, Leandro crosses Hinrich over and the Kansas star lands on his backside. He has lost his concentration. The rest of his workout is a wash.
After the show, in walks Sue Bird. Wow. Long live the WNBA. Leandrinho is more taken by the blonde who is with her, Lauren from Australia. Brazilians love blondes. I think I can state that as a generalization that goes across the board.
And then the pivotal moment occurs. As Leandrinho cools down following the workout, the Sonics trainer walks in and asks him to go back out on the court and run a sprint test. Without thinking, Leandrinho heads back out to the court.
I'm not happy. "He has just cooled down. Do you think it is necessary to run now?" I say to the trainer. "Oh it will be really quick. He's okay to run," responds the trainer. "Well I think he better stretch out again. He shouldn't take chances with getting injured," I say.
I turn to Leandrinho and say, "you should stretch out again, just to make sure that you are loose."
"No I am okay, I can go," says the Brazilian.
Leandrinho goes out and strains his hip flexor. Many agility tests later with the team doctor, and we are sitting in the reception area waiting to go back to the hotel. Leandrinho has a pack of ice on his hip. Nate McMillan walks by and idly jokes, "I hope you don't get to work out for any other club! You played great today. I hope you fall to us."
As it turns out, Leandrinho became a point of contention for the Sonics. Some on the staff wanted him, others didn't. To draft him or not to draft him. In the end, I am told they went with the local kid Luke Ridnour, for what I am told were marketing reasons.
In fairness, when asked by a journalist about the draft, the Sonics' Dave Pendergraft went as far as to say, "the one player we were afraid not to draft was Leandro Barbosa. He could become something special in this league."
I later crossed paths with Dwayne Casey when he was with the Timberwolves and he confirmed the story, saying that it was a heated debate among the Sonics staff on the day of the draft. Casey was an instant fan of Leandrinho's, and says that he fought hard to convince his colleagues to draft the Brazilian. As I spoke with Casey, you could tell that he still remembered the moment vividly.
Seattle's misstep was Phoenix's gain, as we can all attest to now. Not that Luke Ridnour is chopped liver. He is a good basketball player, plain and simple. However, I would make the argument, as others have as well, that there really is no telling how much Leandrinho will grow as a basketball player. And therein lies the difference between two athletes. In taking the risk on Leandrinho, the Suns went for broke. All-Star or D-leaguer. The penthouse or the outhouse.
Soon after Seattle, we are at our "home base," the Cleveland Athletic Club in Cleveland, Ohio. Leandrinho has an injured hip flexor. The doctors have told us that he has to rest and stop playing for an undetermined length of time. Not good. We spend every day going for treatment on his hip. In the meantime, Leandrinho's brother is on the phone to Brazil, getting advice from his mother on home remedies for curing Leandrinho's strained hip flexor.
The story takes a Brazilian twist at this point. After a long phone call with Dona Ivete, Arturo starts with a laundry list of requests. "We are going to need to go to a cemetery. We have to pray to the dead for help in overcoming this obstacle," says Arturo. I say nothing.
Later on, at the cemetery, I hesitate in getting o
ut of the car, preferring to let Leandrinho and his brother venture in on their own to pray. But my absence is soon recognized and I am called over to pray as well.
Much praying later, my little group is re-inspired to get back to the NBA pre-draft battle. Over the following days, the combination of medical treatment and all the prayers of the souls of the dead from a cemetery in Cleveland help Leandrinho overcome his sore hip. Looking at the calendar, the next possible workout that Leandrinho can participate in is with the Detroit Pistons. And so we make our way to Detroit.
As I scan the Pistons dressing room, in walks Willie Green. For the love of God, I think. Not this guy again. Green is not a good matchup in a game of one on one or two on two. The kid is tough as nails, as blue-collar as American kids can be. He is the definition of athlete. And he is knocking down jump-shots non-stop.
Bad timing for the Brazilian. Another butt-kicking later, I am hoping that Leandrinho quickly forgets this episode and moves on from it. Green did not miss a shot from behind the arc for the entire workout. I don't know the scouting report on him, but I doubt he would have gone to the University of Detroit if he always shot the ball like Larry Bird. With all due respect to Detroit.
Perhaps the most interesting moment of the day comes from listening to the old man who works for the Pistons club. He tells me he is some 90 years old. Has been in basketball forever. When I ask about the then European sensation, Darko Milicic, his response is priceless: "I don't care who he played against in Europe. Let's see if he can play with black kids."
We later meet with Pistons President Joe Dumars. He is one of the coolest guys in the basketball world -- a former NBA star who has long since left the past behind. The sort of person who, if you did not know much about the NBA, would never bring up that he used to be big star.
Dumars is a fan of Leandrinho, saying "I have watched you play. I really like your game. You are going to do well in this league." Simple words of wisdom. After the workout, we head to lunch with the Pistons staff. Top to bottom, the Pistons crew is classy.
As we leave the lunch area to get into our limo to the airport, the Pistons' resident old man throws out another chestnut. "Willie, I hope to see you back here with the Pistons. Won't happen, but it should and it's a damn shame. You keep playing son."
History has proven the old man to be right. The lightly-regarded Green has since carved out a nice NBA career for himself.
Around this time, I come across a news clipping where a journalist quotes Dwyane Wade as saying that he whipped Leandrinho in the Golden State workout. I can't believe what I am reading. I re-read it just to make sure and start to get furious. Wade may have bested my Brazilian friend at times, but Wade wasn't even on the same level in terms of pure basketball skill. Leandrinho could dribble and shoot better than Wade ever could, and that was on display for everyone in Golden State.
I make a mental note to confront Wade when I next see him, which will be soon.
(Photo: Getty Images)