RIO DE JANEIRO — Two hundred thirty-one days after he was acquired in a trade-deadline deal with the Boston Celtics, Leandro Barbosa finally joined up with the Washington Wizards on Wednesday at HSBC Arena.
Forced to take whatever they could get in an effort to get rid of Jordan Crawford, the Wizards took on Barbosa — and his most importantly, his expiring $1.2 salary – with the knowledge that he would never suit up for the team last season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered on Feb. 11. But the real downside for both Barbosa and Wizards big man Nene, his longtime close friend and fellow Brazilian, was that they were denied the chance to be teammates in the NBA.
“I was happy to be in Boston with [Kevin] Garnett, [Rajo] Rondo, [Paul] Pierce, all those guys, they are legend for me and I learn a lot of things from them. But to me, it was always a dream to play with a Brazilian player, especially Nene. Nene is the most popular player in Brazil. He’s the one who opened up the door for Brazilians who came up to be NBA players,” said Barbosa, who started his NBA career in 2003, a year after Nene was drafted. “For me, it would’ve been a great opportunity, a dream come true to play with him, especially with Washington. It don’t matter. I was happy and it was sad that I couldn’t be on the court with him.”
Nene agreed with Barbosa that it was difficult being on the same NBA roster but not really on the same team. “I told him, it was a little bit,” he said.
The Wizards had to travel almost 4,800 miles to finally have a face-to-face encounter with Barbosa, who was in Boston recovering from his surgery at the time of the trade and returned to Brazil to complete his rehabilitation. Barbosa spent some time speaking with Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and senior vice president Tommy Sheppard as the team conducted drills on the arena’s main court. But the veteran shooting guard actually came to observe practice, at the request of Nene.
“We always talk and he told me he wanted to see me, ‘I want to see you there.’ So I came,” Barbosa said, wearing a T-shirt with his home town, Sao Paulo, written across the chest. “We started talking and I miss him. My situation now, I have to stay here to recover and he was missing me in America.”
Barbosa and Nene have been friends since they were 15 years old. Barbosa credits Nene with giving him the confidence follow him to the NBA. “He became my mentor, like the guy who was telling me what to do, how was the NBA, you definitely have to be here, you have the talent,” Barbosa said of Nene. “He definitely was my motivation here in Brazil, after that, we became best friends, ever.”
But the relationship fractured for a brief period after both entered the NBA when Barbosa fired Michael Coyne, the agent who represented both players at the time. Nene stopped talking to Barbosa but later made amends after he eventually parted with Coyne as well. “You know as friends, you have up and down. We had that,” Barbosa said. “But it didn’t affect our relationship and we became close again and nothing is going to separate us again. He knows that. I love him. He loves me. This is a good thing.”
After practice, Nene grabbed a chair behind the Wizards’ bench and Barbosa joined him for a lengthy conversation.
“That’s my brother,” Nene said of Barbosa. “And it’s always good to see him and I hope he can figure out. I wish the best for him and I hope he get healthy fast as possible, start practicing again in the NBA.”
Barbosa, 30, said his recovery is almost complete and he has been cleared to start playing for Pinheiros in Sao Paulo, beginning Monday, in an effort to make his way back to the United States. He said he has been working out with trainers who have helped soccer players in Brazil recover from similar injuries.
“I came back really early,” said Barbosa, who went down eight months ago. “There is no rush to come back as soon as possible, but I just want to make sure when I come back, I come back one time. Not 100 percent, a 120 percent. It’s a lot of games, the season is long. So there is no rush.”
Barbosa is coming off the least productive season of his 10-year career as he never played much for Celtics Coach Doc Rivers, but he helped the team reel off seven consecutive wins after Rajon Rondo tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in late January. Then Barbosa went down with the same injury.
“It was very tough. I was waiting for my chance. When I got my chance, I got hurt,” Barbosa said. “The good thing about it is, I won a lot of respect from a lot of the players and the coaching staff. [Celtics President] Danny Ainge said he was going to take care of me with the surgery and everything and that was respectful to me. Nobody likes to get injury, especially ACL and at that time, there is nothing you can do about it. You just be patient and try to think about the future and right now, this is what I’m doing. I try to recover without rush, so when I come back, I come back stronger than what I was.”
The Wizards are about to face the Chicago Bulls in the first-ever NBA game in South America, but Barbosa said that it will be difficult for him to watch.
“To me, it’s going to be really sad, because I wanted to be involved and playing the game. At the same time, I’m happy for all the people that is going to come to watch. It’s a great opportunity. Not a lot of people here have a chance to go to America and buy a ticket and watch the game. And it’s a show. I’m sure that a lot of people are very, very excited.”
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