Goooaaaal!

International players like Leandro Barbosa represent the future of basketball, which the NBA hopes soon to transform into a global game that will rival soccer in popularity—and profit.

By | Boston Magazine |

Editor’s Note: The subject of this story, the Celtics’ Leandro Barbosa, was traded to the Washington Wizards on February 21, 2013.

Leandro Barbosa

Photo by JJ Miller

If I’d never before laid eyes on Celtics guard Leandro Barbosa, it wouldn’t have been difficult to pick out the lone Brazilian on the court when I watched the team practice recently in Waltham. At one end, Jeff Green was dropping a fusillade of free throws. At the other, Jason Terry was planted behind the arc, fine-tuning his three-pointer. Nearby, on a side hoop, another player was working on lay-ups…with his feet. He deftly shifted the ball from one foot to the other, kicked it up in the air and off his chest, and launched it off the backboard for an easy basket. When Barbosa sat down to talk, I had to compliment him on his fancy footwork.

“Oh, thanks. Just warming up, you know.”

The 30-year-old Barbosa donned the green jersey this season after nine years in the NBA—seven of them with the Phoenix Suns, and the rest with the Toronto Raptors and the Indiana Pacers. Early on with the Suns, he was considered one of the fastest players in the NBA, earning him the nickname “The Brazilian Blur,” and in 2007 the Sixth Man of the Year Award, for producing 18 points per game off the bench. Although he saw little court time in the first half of this season, he became a solid contributor off the bench after Rajon Rondo’s season-ending ACL injury in January left a gaping hole to fill in the Celtics backcourt—until, that is, his season came to an end, after he tore his left ACL against the Charlotte Bobcats on February 11.

Barbosa wasn’t the only Brazilian added to the Celtics roster this year. Fab Melo, the 22-year-old 7-footer from Syracuse University, was drafted as the 22nd pick, becoming the fifth Brazilian currently playing in the NBA—alongside Barbosa, Tiago Splitter, Nene Hilario, and Anderson Varejão. When I asked Barbosa how Brazil, a fanatical soccer nation, became an exporter of NBA-level basketball talent, he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders, appearing to be as amazed as anyone by the turn of events that led him to the Celtics. “Where I grew up,” he said, “hardly anyone played basketball. Soccer was the game. If you didn’t play soccer there was maybe something wrong with you.”

As deep as his passion runs for his chosen sport, soccer remains Barbosa’s first love—part of his national DNA. “I never gave up soccer. If I weren’t playing basketball, I’d be playing soccer,” he says. And he’s convinced that his soccer roots have served him well in the NBA. “With soccer, you have to have quick feet, control, and balance. At the same time, you have to have vision for the field. So when I get the ball now, it’s easier for me to dribble and see the whole court.”

Barbosa grew up poor in the shanty towns, or favelas, of São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city. Like most South American players, he was dribbling with his feet long before he ever mastered it with his hands. “When I was a kid—starting when I was, like, three—we’d play soccer barefoot on the street. We’d just set up two rocks on each side to form a goal. That’s how I got quick on my feet,” he says. Melo, eight years Barbosa’s junior, got a similar start. Born and raised in Juiz de Fora, an industrial city just north of Rio de Janeiro, he played soccer until he was in ninth grade. That’s when his coach looked at his size-18 cleats and told him it was time to trade them in for some high-tops.

 

In Brazil, as in most of the world, soccer has long been the number-one sport—the “people’s game,” as it’s often called. An English creation with deep medieval roots, soccer went global in the late-19th century, as the English took it to their colonies around the world. Nation after nation made the game its own. Basketball, a Johnny-come-lately sport invented (here in Massachusetts) in a YMCA gym in 1891, first reached Brazil and many other countries just a few years after soccer. With just a small but growing following in the U.S., and without the force of empire behind it, however, basketball couldn’t challenge soccer’s emergence as the global game. So it’s no surprise that when Barbosa was playing in the streets of São Paulo in the late 1980s, basketball was barely on his radar.

It was his older brother, Arturo, a first sergeant and paratrooper in the Brazilian military, who first introduced him to the sport that would change his life. Arturo was at the time a passable bench player in a local basketball club. Watching his younger brother’s speed and footwork playing soccer, he detected a raw athletic talent that he himself lacked. So, with an eye toward financial opportunities for the family, he shifted his energies toward training the young Barbosa to make the unlikely journey to the NBA. “There weren’t a lot of basketball courts around,” Barbosa recalls, “so my brother attached an old rim to the wall in the street where we lived. The rim was smaller than regulation, and the net was made of chain metal. It was good training for me playing on that smaller rim, because after that, whenever I played on regulation size, I’d make every shot.”

Sergeant Barbosa’s methods were unorthodox, to say the least. For ball-handling drills, he’d make his younger brother dribble a tennis ball through and around a series of folding chairs. To make sure his brother got things just right, Arturo often wielded a stick. “He would have me hold out my hands and he would hold the stick,” Barbosa told an interviewer for the Arizona Republic back in 2003. “It was for agility. He’d move the stick, and if the hands didn’t move, that stick would hit really hard.” Harsh as these tactics were (they left a permanent scar on his hand), Barbosa attributes his success to his brother’s singular focus and discipline. “I suffered a lot in his hands,” Barbosa said, “but thanks to him I’m here.”

Then came 1992. That’s the year many consider the turning point for international basketball, the year kids all over the world began to practice fadeaway jumpers alongside their bicycle kicks. At the Barcelona Olympics that year, the American team featured active NBA players for the first time: the Dream Team, which Sports Illustrated has called “arguably the most dominant squad ever assembled in any sport.” The team steamrolled the competition on their way to the gold medal, winning games by an average of 43 points and setting a new, ridiculously high standard for the game.

For Barbosa, watching the Dream Team play that fabled year gave shape to his own dream. “We didn’t have a TV to watch,” he says, “but a couple of friends at school had a TV and satellite, and that was where I’d go every day to watch Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. Watching them made me want to play in the NBA.”

He wasn’t alone. In the two decades since the Dream Team took Barcelona by storm, basketball has gone global. At the start of the current season, 84 international players, representing 37 different countries and territories, were on NBA rosters—almost a fourfold increase since 1992. Once unpronounceable names like Nowitzki, Ginóbili, and Türkoğlu now trip off the tongues of American fans almost as easily as Pierce, Bryant, and James.

And it’s no longer just Americans who are die-hard fans of the game. Some 50 percent of the NBA’s Facebook followers are from outside the U.S. When Barbosa played for Brazil in London, at the 2012 Olympics, demand was so high for tickets, and the games sold out so quickly, that he couldn’t even get seats for his family. “Basketball,” he told me, “was the number one ticket at the Games!” Barbosa has participated three times in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, which enlists international stars as ambassadors for the sport, and sends them back to their home continents to do community outreach in education, health, and wellness, while also running clinics to promote the growth of the game.

 

Emboldened by the surging interest in basketball around the world, the NBA has now decided to mount a direct challenge to soccer’s global dominance. To kick off the 2012 season, the league staged preseason games in Istanbul, Berlin, Milan, Mexico City, Barcelona, Beijing, and Shanghai—and they all sold out. Capitalizing on the spike in interest generated by the Olympics, the NBA even staged a regular-season game in London between the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons. Games this year will be televised in 216 nations or territories, in 46 languages. International media rights, licensing, and merchandising are estimated to have netted the league $450 million in 2012. David Stern, the NBA commissioner and architect of the league’s international expansion, said in a recent ESPN Radio interview that in the next 20 years he envisions U.S. teams making long trips to play teams in a European league of the NBA. He himself has decided to resign next year, but he has no doubts about where things are headed. “I think multiple NBA international teams,” he told ESPN. “Twenty years from now? For sure.”

Looking to copy the wild success of soccer’s global love fest, Stern has even flirted with putting the NBA’s money and marketing muscle behind some kind of a basketball World Cup, which they’d sponsor in partnership with FIBA, the sport’s international association. FIBA already holds a world championship every four years, which is popular in some participating countries but barely registers notice in the U.S. compared with the Olympics. But Stern and the NBA team owners dislike the current arrangement of releasing their top players to compete in the Olympics, where they risk injury and fatigue without any financial upside for the league. Mark Cuban, the outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has gone further than Stern, suggesting more than once that the NBA should just run its own World Cup. “If done correctly,” he has said, “it can be NBA-owned and operated and have the potential to be just as large as the World Cup of soccer. That is a product, in my opinion, we want to own, not share.”

Barbosa, for his part, is focusing on making it in the NBA—and looking ahead optimistically to 2016. That’s when Brazil will host the Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, which might just be the coming-out party that Brazilian basketball has been waiting for. “Basketball today is getting really well known,” he says. “We’ve got four NBA players who are recognized in Brazil. The national team is doing really well. It’s never going to be bigger than football [soccer], but it’s finally becoming the second big sport in the country.”

Barbosa appears to be as much in awe of his own journey from the favela to the parquet as anyone—if not more so. “As a kid,” he says, “I used to watch Larry Bird on TV. Then years later I’m playing for the Pacers, and there he is rebounding balls for me.” He looks up at the original Celtics banners that line the rafters of the gym. “And now I’m playing in his house. You never know how life is going to turn out.”

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