Leandro Barbosa's private struggles
Leandro Barbosa was at the center of NBA trade talks on Thursday after ESPN Brazil reported the Boston Celtics guard requested to be traded.
Both Barbosa and Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge shot down the report.
Barbosa found himself in the media spotlight for something he insists is not true. All the while, he has spent his life privately dealing with issues that are undeniably challenging to overcome.
Barbosa received the call in mid-December. A few days later, he was on a plane back to his native country of Brazil.
He missed four games for personal reasons and joined the Celtics in Sacramento against the Kings. Noticeably tired, he played four minutes on December 30. It was easy to assume Barbosa was jet-lagged from the travel. The reality was, the events that occurred during the trip were the most emotionally draining.
"My mother-in-law, she's in a coma," Barbosa told CSNNE.com. "I have to go and try to help, so it's kind of hard. At the same time, I have a job and I have to be here, so I had to come back. The situation is still going on."
Barbosa's mother-on-law needs a kidney transplant to survive. Last month she was placed in a medically-induced coma while doctors attempt to find a donor. Barbosa has been juggling the NBA schedule with a race against time to help his family. They look to him for a source of strength.
"The doctors were telling me she could have passed away any minute because she needed kidneys," he said. "She's in a line to get the kidneys so we're trying to figure what we can do to have them. I've been talking to some of the people here in America and internationally to see what we can do to fly kidneys over there, but it's a lot of work. It's hard. We know that she's in that situation that she can pass on."
The angst in Barbosa's eyes deepened as he continued to speak. The recent trip to Brazil evoked memories of another flight he took five years ago.
"The only time I had to do that (leave the NBA and fly to Brazil) was when my mama passed away and I had to go to the funeral," he said. "It made me think a lot about what happened with my mama. I had to be strong."
Now in his 10th NBA season, Barbosa, a 30-year-old guard, played for the Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers before signing with the Celtics this fall. His basketball career has taken him to five-star hotels and luxury living accommodations with top-of-the-line amenities, a stark contrast to where he grew up in São Paulo.
"When you have time, Google 'favelas' in Brazil," he urged. "You will see houses on the hills and it is the most dangerous thing you can see . . . I don't think you guys have that here in America and probably can't even imagine how it is."
"Favelas" have been referenced in the media as "slums" or "shantytowns." Barbosa described houses pieced together by wood, constructed closely to one another. There were leaks. There were bugs. There was a bathroom that functioned inconsistently. And there was violence.
"The streets are really small," he said. "I would walk and I could see guys with guns shooting people or putting fires on the people, all that kind of stuff. I had to (look straight ahead). I couldn't look or say anything or say anything to anybody else or the cops because I could be the next one to be killed."
He continued, "When I was in school, I didn't know if I was going to come back to my place alive or if I would leave my place alive because there were people shooting people. It was surprising for me a couple times that nothing happened, no shooting. It could have happened any time."
Barbosa grew up caught between the constraints of his reality and the endless possibilities of his dreams.
The youngest of five children, he was raised under the watchful eyes of his parents and four older siblings. Together, the seven family members slept in one space that could hardly be called a bedroom.
"We didn't have beds to sleep on," he said. "It was just blankets and we would sleep on the ground."
Each morning the family would awake unsure if there would be food on the table that night. His mother, Ivete, sewed clothing by hand and his father, Vicente, worked as a hospital laboratory technician. By the time he was 3 years old, Barbosa joined his mother and brothers at the local food stores to help earn money. He offered to carry groceries for elderly women while the rest of his family sold fruit, hoping they made enough to pay for their next meal.
"Sometimes we had food, sometimes not," he said. "I always had food because I was the youngest, so my sisters and brothers always saved food for me if we had a hard time to eat. I was the lucky one and I really appreciated that."
Barbosa's parents tried to provide him with the best childhood they could. They emphasized the importance of hard work and education, and they also encouraged him to do what most children his age enjoyed -- play sports. Barbosa began playing soccer when he was 4 years old. His family could not afford proper footwear and he often played barefoot -- "That's why my feet are so ugly," he laughed as he looked down at a bright green pair of sneakers now protecting them.
He took an interest in basketball when he was 5, tagging along when his older brother shot hoops. Barbosa enjoyed the game but did not know much about it outside of Brazil.
"Many people come up to me and say, 'Did you think you were ever going to be an NBA player?' " he recounted. "I had a dream. When I used to go to school, all my friends used to talk about Michael Jordan and all those guys, but I really didn't know them because I couldn't watch [the games]. We didn't have a TV and cable to see ESPN and those kinds of channels. I only heard them say things, and that's why I got really interested in them. When I got older, that's when it was possible for me to watch. I would sleep over my friends' house when my mama would let me and I could see the NBA."
Barbosa's mother recognized her son's passion for basketball. She sat him down for a very mature conversation when he was 8 years old. What he did want to do with his life? There she listed out three options based on his environment. Then she included one based on his drive.
"She said, 'It's either you're going to go to school, be a builder, [or] be a criminal -- you choose which one you want to be and then you let me know,' " he recalled. "Then she put basketball last and I picked basketball. That's when I realized I really needed to work really hard in my life to be somebody. She was proud of me because I could have said basketball but at the same time done other things. But I really focused on basketball and I started to build up a dream, and that's when I became really tough and a man. I had to think old. I had to think big to change in the situation we were in. It was really hard. It was either you're going or you're not going. It was when I had to change everything."
Barbosa couldn't control how much money his family had or the material items they could afford, but he could shape his own career path.
There were costs associated with the sport, though. Take sneakers, for example. Barbosa admits there were opportunities when he could have stolen from his teammates, but his parents' influence of right versus wrong steered him in the best direction.
"I'm really happy I didn't do it," he said. "I learned when you want something, you definitely have to work for it and go through what you have to go through to have it. It's not easy, it's hard, but nothing's impossible. Everything's possible."
Instead, he found creative ways to get the sneakers he needed to sprint up and down the court. Barbosa received hand-me-downs from his teammates. Others who were more financially sound gave him extra pairs. But when he needed to buy a pair on his own, one of his older brothers would dig through garbage to find empty soda cans and sell them for money.
"Many times, he did that for me," said Barbosa.
The efforts would not be in vain. Barbosa dedicated himself to basketball and turned his back to the negative influences in his life. He ignored the temptations and lures to go down the wrong path. He saw the roads people he knew were traveling on, and none of them pointed to the NBA.
"I think I would be dead [without basketball]. I'm being realistic," he said. "[My parents' influence] was high, especially making sure I was growing up and being a good man. I definitely wouldn't be here. I had many opportunities to be in drug situations and maybe not be alive, be stealing, shooting people, all that kind of stuff. I had my friends and they're all killed or in jail. So I think the impact that they had in my life was unbelievable. Not only them, but my sisters and my brothers, too."
As a teenager, Barbosa earned national recognition and began playing in tournaments against other countries. Houston Rockets forward and Argentina native Carlos Delfino met Barbosa when they were 15 years old. He recalled a quiet, laidback athlete who exploded on the floor.
"I always remember the first time we played against him," said Delfino. "It was in a South American tournament and he was a big star from Brazil. When you're a kid and you have a competition, you find out people are really good. Leandro was already a beast. It was like, 'Wow, this guy is really fast. He can play. He can handle the ball.' We won the tournament, I was MVP (laughs) . . . but you could see [Barbosa was] somebody who could play in the NBA."
When Barbosa began traveling more often, his mother made the trips with him. Fellow Brazilian - Cleveland Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao was introduced to Barbosa when they were 17. Ivette was always nearby.
"His mom used to be everywhere," Varejao said. "She followed him everywhere. I even remember being in the Dominican Republic playing with the National Team, she was there."
Barbosa took his mother with him, figuratively and literally. He has worn a religious pendant she had blessed for him every day since he received it as a child. When he plays, he slips it off his neck and tucks it into his sock.
In 2003, Barbosa's mother joined her son in New York City for the NBA Draft. By that time, he had garnered attention from around the world and wanted his mother to be on hand when his name was called. The San Antonio Spurs selected Barbosa with the 28th pick and traded him to the Suns that night.
While Barbosa began to plan for his new life in Phoenix, his mother headed back to Brazil where she had been able to protect her son all his life. But when she returned, there was no one there to protect her.
"My mama got kidnapped," Barbosa said. "When I got drafted, it got really big news in Brazil. When she went back, that was when it happened. She was kidnapped for three days."
Barbosa said at that time, criminals were targeting the relatives of Brazilian soccer players who had signed contracts in Europe and demanding a ransom. His family kept the news from him as his brother Arturo, a member of the Brazilian Army, worked to get their mother released.
"It was a really, really tough situation," said Barbosa. "I didn't have to pay anything but I almost had to because it wasn't easy to find her. But my brother, someway, somehow did, he got her. [They told me on the] last day, when they found her. They tried to hide it from me so I wouldn't be worried. When I found out, I was shocked."
This would not be the only time Barbosa would have to deal with distressing family issues in Brazil. He lost his father to cancer in 2005. Years later, his mother was also diagnosed with the disease . . . and beat it.
Their bond strengthened. The mother and son spoke multiple times a day. She offered him words of encouragement before every game. Her voice drove him through four quarters of basketball.
But Barbosa suffered a devastating loss at the start of his sixth NBA season. His mother was hospitalized with pneumonia for over a month and passed away in November of 2008.
"When I lost my mama, I felt for me that I lost my legs, like I couldn't do anything without her," said Barbosa. "It was everything for me. Especially sometimes I still remember that every time before the game I would talk to her. She would give me a lot of power for me to do well on the basketball court. It's hard because now I don't have that. I'm using my brother as my mama, but it's not the same. The voice is not the same. The spirit is not the same. But I know where she is right now, she's safe. She's in a better place than here."
The long plane ride back to Brazil last month stirred up memories of the most difficult flight of Barbosa's life. Five years ago, he said goodbye to the woman who gave her all to her youngest son.
"Losing her, I know, was really, really tough on him," said Varejao. "I still think that to these days, he feels the loss of her. At the same time that it was bothering him, he was tough. He tried to not let it affect his career. He handled it the right way. He's a funny guy and cares about people."
Today Barbosa is one of the friendliest faces in the Celtics locker room. Fellow guards Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee both used the word "positive" to describe him, and noted his approachability and kindness to his teammates.
Always sporting a smile, Barbosa gives no inkling to the turmoil he suffered in his past and is currently coping with in his personal life. Instead, he emits the optimism his parents instilled in him as a child.
"My mama always said before she put me to sleep, 'Be happy no matter what,' " he recalled. " 'Life is short and you never know what can happen the day after tomorrow. So enjoy the day you have so you can be happy and smile.' I try to enjoy every single day I have to be happy."