At a glance, Leandro Barbosa doesn't quite fit the Golden State Warriors' mold. The roster is long on defense and high-level passing. Barbosa is a smaller scorer who specializes in head-down drives. Coach Steve Kerr badly wanted him here, though, as did all the other current Warriors officials who claim a Phoenix Suns past. What was it about this guy?
To be sure, Barbosa's play exceeded expectations last season. He's not purely a locker room muse. At the same time, he's an incredible locker room muse. In getting "LB," as teammates call him, you're getting one of the more idiosyncratic, popular teammates in the sport. Kerr has referred to the Brazilian vet's "beautiful human spirit," an uncommon phrase in the cynicized, dog-eat-dog sports world. It's difficult to quantify "beautiful human spirit," let alone explain it, but after spending time with LB, the phrase makes sense.
Barbosa comes off as a peculiar mix of effervescence and soulful sincerity. He loves to laugh, but he takes his job as teammate seriously. He's often thinking about others, how to help them be the best version of themselves. It's something he learned in his early days as a Steve Nash understudy. Nash encouraged Barbosa to channel his score-first id, as opposed to trying out a Nash impersonation. Nash's backup didn't have to be an ersatz Nash. He just needed to be a great Barbosa.
With that lesson in mind, Barbosa tries to get teammates into their comfort zones. It's a job that sometimes means inventing an argument out of absolutely nothing.
"Like for today, I saw Draymond [Green] was kind of upset," Barbosa begins. "And I just got on him, start talking to him, try to get him smiling, you know? Try to bring himself back to what he is, the talker, the guy that always get mad, our leader on the court."
How did Barbosa accomplish this?
"We were talking about burgers. He said have you ever tried this place burger? I say yes I did, but this place I went last night is much better."
"All the people in Brazil, no matter if you do have money or don't, everybody's happy. I was the same way. My family, always happy. We were happy to be alive because the neighborhood was really bad." Leandro Barbosa
In this sequence, Green told Barbosa about a burger joint in San Francisco, talking it up as fantastic. Barbosa transparently lied about having eaten that burger, and insisted that a burger spot in Walnut Creek, California, was superior. An annoyed Green got Barbosa to admit he'd never been to the San Francisco joint, but then Barbosa shifted to another lie about having had that food delivered. Now Green was beside himself, and yet, amused at Barbosa's ridiculousness in this situation.
At this point, Barbosa said to Green, "Now you back. That's Draymond I want to see. That's the guy I want to see. This locker room right here is really quiet without you talking, man. We don't need to see that."
Green, when asked about the situation, laughed and remarked of Barbosa's ploy, "Those moments are priceless."
Some of the comedy Barbosa brings wouldn't work without something beyond his control: A thick Brazilian accent. "My accent, it is my accent," Barbosa says. "I don't try to have this accent. Sometimes I think in Portuguese, sometimes I try to correct into English and it doesn't really work. It's part of the deal. It makes funny."
"It makes funny," is just the kind of malapropism that tickles his teammates.
"Every time I text or Gchat with the guys, I never write it down correctly. It always comes up one word that is not right and that make laugh," Barbosa laments. He interrupts himself, yelling to Jason Thompson across the court, "You're going to make that shot, JT!"
A lesser man might despise monolingual coworkers for mocking his imperfect mastery of a second language. Barbosa just goes with the flow, accepting that, though he'll never be in on this joke, a joke that provides ins. For instance, it allows Barbosa to be bluntly honest in a way other players can't. His barbs are cushioned, wrapped in an endearingly off-kilter version of English.
When Festus Ezeli got dunked on in the preseason by Lakers rookie Larry Nance Jr., it wasn't something Ezeli wanted to relive. After the game, the center looked at his phone, sighed and whipped it over his shoulder, smacking into the locker. The next day, Barbosa went straight for the sore subject, yelling "Eee-zeee-leeee!" in his slow cadence, pantomiming the vicious jam. In film session, Barbosa demanded to see the dunk replayed. Festus could only laugh at the razzing. Touchy subject defused.
Barbosa's too contagiously happy for his insults to read as insulting. He traces his sanguine spirit back to his home culture.
"All the people in Brazil, no matter if you do have money or don't, everybody's happy," he says. "I was the same way. My family, always happy. We were happy to be alive because the neighborhood was really bad."
Young Barbosa struggled to get by on the streets of Sao Paulo.
"When I'm talking about people don't have money, they really don't have money," he says. "I used to sleep on the ground. Not on the wood. I'm talking about on the dirt."
The neighborhood was dangerous. Barbosa's siblings would go hungry for stretches just to feed him, the youngest.
With that perspective, NBA life isn't half bad. There are worse jobs than scoring off the bench and giving the reigning MVP advice. At the end of the home win against Milwaukee, Barbosa, accessing his extensive backlog of Nash observations, told Stephen Curry to start his pick and rolls higher. LB saw it as a way to attack Greg Monroe, who'd returned early from a knee injury.
"They were doubling Steph on the pick and rolls," Barbosa recalls. "I tell Steph, call the angle, call the angle really high. They can't guard you, you're faster than them. The big guy won't be able to stick with you. [Monroe] wasn't in the position to move because he was hurt."
Down the stretch, Curry burned Monroe for an easy layup and an assist.
Barbosa will advise All-Stars like Curry and Klay Thompson (when mired in the rare shooting slump), but his current project is Marreese Speights, who's struggled this season. Barbosa has offered to do extra conditioning with Speights to get him back in better form.
"Mo was a different player than he is this year," Barbosa says. "And I told him you just got to keep working, lose some weight. I will work with you on the side. Every single practice we go, run up and back, and you'll be OK. When it comes the time, you will score."
Barbosa professes a deep belief in the corrective ways of time. It's key to his positive messaging: Keep doing this, and it will all work out. When Thompson fell into a shooting slump, Barbosa insisted he keep shooting, regardless of the result. The important thing was that Thompson keep at it with the same frequency as he did before the slump. The rest would take care of itself.
In Barbosa's world view, time is your friend, a force that eventually, gently returns you to the familiar. It's one of the reasons he loves "Gladiator," a movie he saw countless times back when he was learning English through subtitles. He's especially drawn to the final scene where a friend of Russell Crowe's fallen Maximus says, "I will see you again ... but not yet ... not yet."
It reminds Barbosa of his mother, seven years deceased from pneumonia, whom he plans on seeing one day.
"I will see her again," he says. "I know she's watching for me. I'm sure she's happy about everything that is going on in my life right now. But I will see her again and I believe that."
In the meantime, Golden State's top teammate has more to accomplish, more people to help on this wild, temporal journey through basketball.
"My goal in real life is still going on. I still have to complete some things," Barbosa says. "But when it comes the time I will see her. But not yet. Not yet."