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Thursday, May 17, 2007
Rolling With Leandro: Gregory Dole's Barbosa File, Part Five


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, third, and fourth parts were published in recent days. There are plenty more to come. When we left them, Dole had just resolved to confront Dwyane Wade, who had been quoted as saying he had killed Barbosa in a pre-draft workout.

We are in New York. The City. Actually, we are far from the city limits, in a leafy suburb with nothing going on. They have flown us in first-class, a first for Leandrinho. As we have long heard, the Knicks do it up.

At the workout, who shows up but Reece Gaines and a skinny guard from St. John's University. Reece relays the rumor that Kirk Hinrich's agent freaked out when he heard Leandrinho was going to be at the workout and pulled his client out.

Watching the workout is the then-injured star of the Knicks, Antonio McDyess. He greets us with a great big smile. No question, he is right up there as one of the nicest people around.

The workout becomes a battle between Leandrinho and Gaines. The third wheel is the kid from St. John's. Leandrinho kills them both. Gaines isn't really all that good. He was great in college, but outside of his collegiate system, he is not impressive. As it turns out, he did not stick in the NBA very long.

Frustrated by the skillful Brazilian, Gaines starts getting dirty. As Leandrinho goes in for a layup, Gaines hits him hard on his hip. The workout was going well up until this point. Having re-injured his hip, the Brazilian takes it down a notch and coasts for the remainder. We leave the practice facility somewhat downcast, Leandrinho all the more so, strapped with a pile of ice to his hip.

The problem is that he has two more workouts in the next two days. I ask Leandrinho what he wants to do. Ever the competitor, his response is simple. "I want to play. That is why I came to the USA. I am going to push it. This is my shot at the NBA and I am not going to quit so easily. It's a long drop back to the Brazilian league and I am not going down without a fight."

And with that, we get into our waiting limo, onwards to the airport and the city of Memphis. At the hotel in Memphis, we both crash out. I later wake up and to go for a walk.

The hotel sits hard by a hospital for children with cancer. Taking the elevator down to the lobby, I am joined by a young family. The child is bald. I assume the worst. Moments like these give great perspective on one's own hardships. I realize that things will work out alright for Leandrinho. He is an awesome talent. Someone in the NBA is going to realize that and give him a chance, even if he seems to be on a run of bad luck at the moment. The fact is, things could be much worse right now. We could both be sharing the fate of that poor kid in the elevator.

When I get around to heading back to the hotel room, I get lost. So many hotels in so few days, I am disoriented. I am on the fifth floor tonight, or is it the fifteenth? 1553 or 1535? 513 or 531? I should go to reception and ask, but with my manly sense of direction, I figure I can find my room on my own. I don't.

An hour later, I do.

Leandro BarbosaThe Grizzlies don't pay for breakfast as it turns out, which only really affects me, as I put a premium on the first meal of the day. When we get to Rhodes College, where the Grizzlies run their workouts, I come across a hastily organized spread of peanut butter, jam and bagels. Fine, by any normal standard, but decidedly minor league compared to much of what we have seen. With all due respect though, as I realize the team had recently relocated to Memphis, I get the feeling I am back in Brazil. It doesn't feel like the NBA.

I make my way to find the team trainer, who will prove to be essential to Leandrinho's workout today. He hears my accent and recognizes that I am Canadian. He asks where I am from. I say Ottawa. Turns out that he is from nearby Renfrew County! Renfrew is a small town nearby where basketball's inventor James Naismith was born and raised. I make the point that it was our people in the Ottawa Valley who invented the game and that the assembled Americans should be thankful. He checks to see if anyone is listening and heartily agrees. Turns out he had been in Vancouver with the team and then relocated to Memphis. Not to downplay Memphis, because I love ribs and rock 'n' roll, but few cities can compete with the sheer beauty and quality of life that Vancouver offers. I doubt that, growing up in small town Ontario, this guy ever imagined he'd be stuck in Memphis.

The trainer, whose name I think was Scott, works his magic. Leandrinho's hip flexor is warmed up and ready to go. We head out to the court. At the far basket, I see Dwyane Wade shooting jumpshots with Troy Bell and the high-flyer from Duke University. I exchange pleasantries with Bell and head right to Wade.

The showdown I've been waiting for.

I launch into my tirade. "Hey. You. What are doing talking s--- about Leandrinho? That you whipped him at the Golden State workout. Are you kidding me? You dunked on him one time when he came to help from the weak side and you're going to tell a journalist that you dominated him at a workout? Because that's about the only time you got the better of the kid."

"Those weren't my words, man," says Wade, "I didn't say that. I don't know where that report came from. Those weren't my words. Those weren't my words."

What can I say?

I take Wade at his word and go find a hole to crawl into.

The workout goes well or as well as it can. At every pause in play, Leandrinho goes back to the training table to get stretched out. He is clearly in pain. But he battles through and plays well. He shoots well. He defends well. At one point he pins Troy Bell's shot attempt on the backboard with his elbow. It is impressive.

While Leandrinho gives it his best, Coach Hubie Brown is clearly unimpressed. The old-timer interrupts the workout and tears apart the assembled potential draftees. "What do you punks think this is? What you guys are too good for Memphis?" he barks. "You think Memphis is no good so you are going to play like a bunch of bums? You think you can come in here and disrespect the coaching staff?" He goes on and on, as only old men can. His language is not suitable for TrueHoop. One too many F-bombs.

But the speech has its effect. The players turn it up a notch. Leandrinho wasn't listening as he used the opportunity to hit the training table one more time. It didn't matter. Leandrinho was taking Memphis as seriously as any other workout. Memphis in the NBA was still a huge upgrade from the state leagues in Brazil's heartland.

At the end of the workout, Jerry West pul
ls up and introduces himself. "Hi, I'm Jerry West," he says.

"No s---," I respond under my breath.

"Tell Leandro that he has been blessed by God."

Taken aback, I turn to Leandro to translate. I tell Leandro and he responds in Portuguese, "Oh. Ok. Umm, what a nice old man."

"Ah, well he's also one of the NBA's all-time best, so that is pretty nice thing for him to say," I respond through laughter.

As West praises Leandrinho, I can't help but to think that these workouts tell a small part of the story of that Barbosa does in a game. If only they could have seen him play in Brazil this past year. Now the NBA teams are only getting a sliver of what the kid can really do.

It is a depressing thought. I need to get my mind right. I have more psychological tests with the Grizzlies resident quack. Once again, the translation of the text takes forever. And then there is a question and answer with the psychologist. I check my watch. We are on pace to miss our flight to Boston. In a classic moment during the Q and A, Leandrinho turns to me and says, "just answer the questions yourself. To make it look like we are going through the questions, let's just chat about the weather or something and then you can respond to the psychologist with an answer."

Mentally exhausted after the grueling exam, we head out the door running to catch a ride to the airport. We might miss the flight.

(Photo: Getty Images)