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, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth parts were published in recent days. This is the final, extra-long installment. When we left them, Dole and Barbosa have just left Phoenix where Barbosa has more or less been promised that he will be picked. It is the day before the draft, like today, when they board a flight for the New York area.
Fast-forwarding, we have just landed in Newark Airport on the red-eye flight out of Phoenix. We are both walking wounded. It is 7 am or thereabouts. We are exhausted. The whites of our eyes are all red.
Leandrinho has a workout in two hours with the New Jersey Nets.
We head to the hotel for an hour nap before going to see Rod Thorn and company. Leandrinho is not going to workout out today. He agreed to go to meet and greet the Nets staff, on the off chance that they might draft him. Of course, they want to see him shoot and run around. Lightning does not strike twice, nor is Leandrinho going to put together a Herculean effort to workout again on a bum hip. So that is that.
Just tell them it is not going to happen.
Can I keep the practice shorts?
They are all yours.
After spending a moment to gaze lovingly on the new Nets shorts I would be rocking at pick up runs from the St. Luke court in Ottawa, Canada to the Sao Carlos Transit Authority Workers Association gymnasium in Brazil, I go to face the music of the New Jersey Nets staff.
Leandrinho is not working out today. He just cant go. He is injured and exhausted from the red-eye flight, I tell the assembled Net-ters. The Nets are not pushy. I think they have already decided who they will be drafting [editors note: they took Zoran Planinic] and worth noting, the guy they drafted is no longer in the NBA.
In any event, we are asked to wait around until Rod Thorn calls us in for an interview. More of the same. We really like your game and you are one of the players we are thinking about drafting. I give my best effort at translating, but Leandrinho is not really listening. He is floating around the Phoenix paradise in his mind, chatting up leggy blondes and basking in the desert heat, surrounded by cacti and rattlesnakes.
Interview over and done, we are in the home stretch. My buddy Will has driven down from Montreal to take in the draft. We go to Spanish Harlem to get Leandrihos hair prepared for the draft. Settling upon a barber from the Dominican Republic, Leandrinho gets styled up.
And then the Seattle Sonics call, wanting to know if Leandrinho is interested in going to Europe for a year. He is not in the least bit interested. Phoenix on the mind.
I then receive word that Danny Ainge has called. His "sources" in Phoenix tell him that Leandrinho put on a show at the "secret" workout. From what I can gather, Ainge is very disappointed. He wanted Leandrinho to put on that show in Boston. To hear that the kid went to see his former employers in Phoenix must have ticked Ainge off a little. (Of course, he is not aware of the near-miracle I pulled off to get the kid to workout.)
Draft night finally arrives, and Leandrinho and I are exhausted.
As the draft unfolds, I get word that the Suns and, surprisingly, the Toronto Raptors are burning up the phones to get an extra pick to select Leandrinho. We are shocked to see both the Suns and the Celtics pass on Leandrinho with their picks, given the level of interest they have shown. The first round is almost over.
Another agent sitting nearby, who represents Argentinas Carlos Delfino, points out that it is probably a good thing if Leandrinho slips to the second round. Being a first round pick is really a sham if you are a talented player. Basically, first round picks are denied the option of pursuing free agency for up to five years, which for many players amounts to a significant portion of their careers. Furthermore, agents cant negotiate much on contracts of first rounders because the salaries are basically fixed.
Delfinos guy was saying Leandrinho could kick butt for two years and then hit the free agent market, like Gilbert Arenas and Carlos Boozer. (This anti-first round argument came to me later when I read about Leandrinhos first workout opponent, Marquis Daniels. He went undrafted but played well for one year with the Mavericks and then cashed in with reported six-year, $38 million contract, which is similar to the deal Leandrinho got after playing in the league for four years.
But that will not be Leandros fate. After waiting through almost the entire first round, the San Antonio Spurs pick him twenty-eighth overall. David Stern hands him a Spurs cap that I still have in a box somewhere in Canada.
I do not see Leandrinho get drafted or take the stage to meet Stern. Arturo and I are too busy celebrating. I practically choke him out, holding onto his neck with both hands as we jump up and down. It is an awesome moment that I will never forget.
Within minutes we are in a suite outside the Madison Square Garden auditorium, phoning Leandrinhos family in Brazil. Now it turns out that he was in fact picked by the Suns using the Spurs pick. The Spurs had no interest in the Brazilian. Already happy to be drafted, finding out that he was indeed a Phoenix Sun makes the moment all the more dreamy for Leandrinho.
Following the craziness of the draft, we might have gone out and painted the town red. We do not. We go to a nice Brazilian restaurant called the Plataforma in Manhattan. To our surprise, the place is empty except for one ongoing party. Derek Jeter and a small group of his friends are celebrating his birthday.
That is Derek Jeter, the top baseball player for the New York Yankees. He is the king of this town, I explain to Leandrinho. Of course, the Brazilian has no idea and no interest in meeting King Derek. He is more interested in helping after helping of barbecued beef, pork, lamb, chicken hearts, chicken medallions wrapped in bacon, cheese, and of course, Brazilian-style
rice and beans. The classic Brazilian churrascaria grub.
When we finish eating, Leandrinho and I are exhausted and ready to sleep. Tomorrow morning we will be heading off to Phoenix. However we have promised William Wesley and LeBron James people that we will stop by Jay-Zs 40/40 club in Manhattan for LeBrons after party.
(Photo: Getty Images)
At the club, Wes is ever the gracious host. Wes ushers us in and brings us say hi to Jay-Z.
At this point I must mention that I remain a big fan of Jays early work, specifically his seminal album Reasonable Doubt. The Evil is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I can still recite it word-for-word. The album is off the chain, to borrow some slang I picked up at the Fairfax community center in Cleveland. (What up Fairfax!)
I am itching to laud Jay for his wonderful work, but for whatever reason, I do not get introduced. My buddy Will does, however. Jay asks him what he did and he responds, truthfully I might add, that he manufactures military accoutrements.
Jay does not know how to respond. Then again, who does? Point being, it kills my opportunity to say What up Jay? and Reasonable Doubt. Wow! Changed my life. And so on.
We then head back to hotel. My mind races over the events of what seems like just a few days. Of course, this is one of the most emotional experiences of my life. Up and down and up and down and up and down, never really knowing where this runaway train from Brazil is going to end up.
Having finally concluded our journey, we can relax and reflect. I think back to a moment in Cleveland.
One of the most poignant memories of my time with Leandrinho was when he received his first pairs of basketball kicks when we first arrived. And One had seen the famous video and were convinced the Brazilian was their man. They sent box after box of And One shoes and clothes. It was ridiculous. Leandrinho was over the moon.
Yet there was a moment when he opened the first And One parcel that I caught Leandrinho and his brother almost crying. Arturo saw that I had noticed the water welling up in his eyes and quickly explained why some shoes had brought a tough military man to tears. We have never had so many shoes in our life, said Arturo. There must have been about ten pairs of shoes. When Leandrinho was a kid, I always wanted him to have good basketball sneakers, not the crappy brands that are made in Brazil. Of course, a good pair of Nikes or Adidas cost about a months salary, and we werent in the position to save a months pay. So I would spend my off-days scouring the streets of Sao Paulo for soda and beer cans. Whether it was hot or cold, I would walk endlessly, dragging a big brown sack and filling it as I went along. It would take several months of weekends to save up enough to buy a pair of shoes, but I would do it because I wanted my little brother to have good shoes.
As he told the story, he was half-laughing. It wasnt really that the story was so funny, I think Arturo was in a state of shock as he looked around and saw the piles of free And One merchandise. He might have been thinking, I wasted all my weekend for months on end collecting dirty cans to buy one pair of shoes, when up here these gringos give this stuff out for free!
I could go on as to how the And One shoes story is a great example of the poverty that Leandrinho confronted in his life, but I dont think that I could give justice to the mountain he climbed to get to where he is this night following the draft in New York City.
What I can say is this: Leandrinho, at this moment in time, regardless of whatever will happen to him in the NBA, is a success. By virtue of a guaranteed NBA rookie contract, he has raised his family out of the day-to-day drudgery that is the reality for low-wage earners throughout the developing world. To my way of seeing it, the urban poor in Sao Paulo live a rotten existence. There is little respite, let alone peace. It is an endless cycle. You need to work yourself to exhaustion just to pay for the bare necessities, and you cant even think about saving money to get an education or learn skills to improve your employment possibilities. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, not in this life at least. Leandrinho has climbed a mountain alright, and he has changed the entire possibilities of his familys future. They now have their piece of the dream. And it is the American dream at that, which going by the exchange rate, was trading at three times the Brazilian dream.
Once again sharing a double room at the hotel in New York, we stay awake chatting about all the events of the past several weeks. The poor Brazilian is now a millionaire, but it hasnt really sunk in yet. He is in a daze.
All I can really think to do is offer my congratulations. Thanks man. I really appreciate it. And I really appreciate your help. I could not have done it without you, the Brazilian offers back. It is a nice thing for him to say. I too am enjoying the successful end to an unlikely initiative.
The first guard drafted out of Brazil. We have made history. Actually Leandrinho has made history, and I am more of an obscure footnote.
When it was all said and done, Leandrinho and I both went back to our respective homes. Some months later, we met again in Phoenix and reflected on the long, strange and exhilarating trip wed been on leading up to the draft.
One moment that stuck out for the both of us was a chance meeting with Brazilian basketball legend and then Vasco Da Gama star Josuel at the airport in Sao Paulo just before we flew to the US. In his day, Josuel was a surefire NBA player. He was 610, could jump out of the gym and could pick and pop with range. Think Amare Stoudemire.
Josuel was blessed with the freakish athleticism that NBA teams crave. I know this because a Toronto Raptors executive told me that his club along with others had offered Josuel a contract on many occasions.
They never understood why Josuel would consistently reject their overtures.
Josuels former teammate and confidante gave me the real story. Josuel had no idea what to do with the NBA contract offer. The opportunity scared him, so to speak. He himself did not believe that he could play in the NBA. He thought everyone in the NBA was as good as the 1992 Dream Team he played against in Barcelona. Eventually Josuel blew out his knee and lost his NBA level athleticism. He was never the same player.
By the time we ran into Josuel, he was on the downside of his career. Meeting us at the airport, he was surprised to hear that Leandrinho was off to try his luck with the NBA. Guards from Brazil did not play outside Brazil. Are you serious? That is amazing. You are going to make it. I believe in you. I always wished that I had given it a shot. Go do what I never did, said Josuel. With that, he wished us good luck and said, Vai com Deus e fica com Deus, or translated to mean go with God and stay with God.
Listening to him speak, I could sense that Josuel was not at peace with the fact that he never gave the NBA a shot. Yet the success of the current generation of Brazilian basketballers was in a way, if even just a small vicarious way, Josuels own shot at redemption.
In Phoenix following the draft, Leandrinho said: I honestly feel like I share my success with guys like Josuel. All the guys in Brazil who had the talent and never had the chance.
Meeting Josuel at the airport brought me back to my days in Africa, where I too had seen so much talent go to waste. I remembered a 68 Congolese kid named Jean who showed up at the Tanesco Electricity basketball court. This amazing physical specimen was a Tutsi tribe member, born in a small village deep in the heart of Africa. He had come to live in Tanzania after being chased out of the former Zaire, Rwanda, and then Burundi because of the genocide that was going on in the region.
Jean was an amazing basketball player, born to play the game. He was so athletic that he could post up above the free-throw line, ta
ke a drop step and dunk the ball. The guy slept on a mud floor and never had more than one meal a day yet he looked like bodybuilder. To this day, I have seen very few athletes of his kind. In my minds eye at least, Jean was like a taller version of Jason Richardson.
I helped him organize a basketball scholarship in the United States but the immigration section at the US Embassy in Dar would not grant Jean a student visa.
He was well known to the Americans in Dar because I would bring him along to the US Marines weekly pickup games at the US Embassy compound. The Marines knew Jean was an unbelievable player, but the US Embassy visa section did not give a damn.
In fact, the immigration clerk at the time said, Jean will never enter the USA. It was so mean-spirited that I can remember verbatim Jeans recollection of the conversation. Jean continued playing basketball, walking his way from Dar to Cape Town, South Africa (about the distance between Boston and Los Angeles) to take a crack at the pro league down there.
Living in a township, Jean caught meningitis and died within three days.
Coincidently, a few weeks after his death, Al-Qaeda terrorists bombed the American Embassy in Tanzania. I assume the US Marines basketball court we played on went up in smoke as well.
For so many of the worlds poor, life is quite unfair and filled with unrealized dreams. As I watch the video recording of Leandrinho taking the stage and shaking hands with David Stern, I drift back to those heady days in Tanzania when things seemed possible for my friends. To me then, Leandrinho, whether he realizes it or not, represents some sort of superstar for the worlds poor.
He made it, from a place where so many other talented people born to difficult circumstances do not. Its one thing to make an idol out of a North American or European athlete, where a system exists to foster that talent from the minute someone takes notice. Those success stories are interesting, but they all are similar. How many players have followed the route to the NBA and Europe through basketball factories such as Kentucky or UNC?
On the flip side of the equation sit countries like Brazil, where the basketball infrastructure is next to non-existent. While the country has produced some NBA talent over the course of the past few years, the number of clubs in the country continues to decrease. Continental, where Leandrinho received his first basketball lessons, no longer has a team. So much talent goes to waste in Brazil because kids who dont have anywhere to play. In Sao Paulo, a city of almost 20 million people, there are some 40 youth basketball clubs. By comparison, the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina with some 10 million people has over 120 clubs.
FIBA, in its infinite wisdom, has made things more difficult in recent years, drafting rules that make it next to impossible for Brazilians to play in Europe until they are 18 years old. It is against all odds for a basketball player from Brazil to nurture and develop their talent and make it to the NBA. Leandrinho is something of a basketball miracle. He made something out of seemingly nothing, along with the help of his mad professor of basketball brother Arturo
The day after the draft, Leandrinho and I meet up with his brother Arturo and his mother Ivete. On most days, Arturo is a constant whirlwind of energy and anxiety. On this day, he is overcome with peace. To my way of seeing things, his work is done. He can go on with the rest of his life. What had started at the Continental club in the industrial suburb of Osasco, Sao Paulo, when a young Arturo decided to bring his kid brother along to his practices, has ended up under the NBAs bright lights of Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.
Typing out my memories, I now realize that my time spent alongside Leandrinho as he battled on his quest to NBA was as intense a journey as I ever expect to go on. He was the sofredor who came, saw and conquered. The conqueror. Getting there was no fairy tale, but in the end, not even Walt Disney himself could have come up with a better storybook ending.
After he had won the Sixth Man of the Year award, Leandrinho gave an interview to a Brazilian journalist and I am told he thanked me for what I had done. Every dog deserves his day. I knew then as surely as I know now that I was part of something extraordinary. I get great joy in the knowledge that I was able to be a part of an incredible sports story.
When I was a freelance journalist with the Montreal Gazette, my editor gave me great support in allowing me to chase down any off-beat story. After I interviewed Chuck Daly at the 2002 NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia, I knew I had found something I might someday write about: Daly commented that he had not yet found an international player who was as athletic as a top-flight American. From my school days in Tanzania, I knew there were incredible athletes all around the world. Six months later, I came across the famous Leandrinho video. I wonder if Chuck Daly would still say that now.
Leandrinho and I kept in touch for his first few seasons. Life moves on and so did we, but I am sure we will reconnect somewhere down the track and look fondly on those days when only the fates knew what was in store for the Brazilian with the extra large left hand.