At his introductory press conference back in July, Leandro Barbosa sat in front of the assembled media flanked by general manager Ryan McDonough and head coach Earl Watson. Nowhere to be found was the interpreter who followed Barbosa around when he first joined the team as a rookie back in 2003.
Barbosa’s English has improved over the years to the point where he no longer feels the need for an interpreter (even though he still jokes about his mastery of the language), but that’s not all that has changed about the Brazilian. Going into his 14th NBA season, Barbosa is still the soft-spoken and affable player who endeared himself to Suns fans; however, he returns for his third stint with the Phoenix Suns as a former NBA champion and veteran leader.
“This will be my 14th year in the league. I’m kind of old, but I’m not. But looking forward to help the team, to help the young guys, give them my experience like I learned when I was young,” Barbosa said back in July.
For those who remember Barbosa during his first few years in the league, the thought of him now taking a leadership role with a young team is an incredible transformation. He was homesick as a rookie and racked up $2,000 phone bills just trying to stay in contact with his family back in Brazil — when they weren’t already in Phoenix keeping him company, that is. When his best friend on the team, Stephon Marbury, was traded to the New York Knicks just over two months into Barbosa’s rookie season, it devastated the young guard. Most players would have been happy after having a breakout performance in the wake of the deal (27 points against the Chicago Bulls); Barbosa needed to call Marbury.
During the 2005-06 season and with his confidence still flagging, assistant coach Dan D’Antoni would write Barbosa daily notes in an effort to boost his belief in himself.
Fast forward to today, and it is now Barbosa looking to take on that role of resident inspirer with these Suns, saying he will be there for anyone who needs a shoulder to lean on 24 hours a day. “Everything I learned with the old players and veterans, I’m going to try to pass to them,” Barbosa said. “Confidence is the main thing in this league, and I will be talking to them the whole time I’ll be here.
“I hope they will listen to me, just for the years that I have in the league and championship and stuff.”
Barbosa won’t be the only veteran voice in the locker room. Fellow NBA champion Tyson Chandler will be there alongside P.J. Tucker and fellow Suns returnee Jared Dudley — the latter two comprising the vocal contingent of the leadership group. Barbosa’s leadership, meanwhile, will likely come in a form more similar to that of another of his veteran influences: Steve Nash.
“He leads by example,” McDonough said of Barbosa. “I think the young guys, a lot of the guys on our team are so young they probably grew up watching him as a player and look up to him.”
“It’s natural for him,” Watson said of Barbosa’s ability to engage with his teammates. “He can capture a room, he’s great in the locker room, and he carries it on the court to where he bonds his teammates together. And over the years he’s faced adversity throughout his career; he’s overcome it. He’s a great addition to our family. He’s an original part of the family environment that we wanted to capture, so it’s important to have him back and just be exactly who he is.”
Much has changed about Barbosa for his third go-round in Phoenix. Even his new jersey number (19) reflects the evolution he has undergone since being a wide-eyed rookie import over a decade ago. Now 34 years old, he no longer needs to rely on an interpreter to get his message across, no longer needs to lean on veteran teammates or read daily notes of affirmation from assistant coaches. As a veteran, he returns possessing the cachet necessary to shape the environment around him rather than merely adapting to it.
“One thing that I really want to bring to this team is always be together. The group we had over there in Golden State was unbelievable. Everybody was together, everybody was doing stuff together. So I think it starts from there. As soon as we start doing those types of things, everything goes with the flow.”
Those aren’t the words of 2003 Barbosa. Those are the words of a man whose confidence and belief in himself have finally reached the level Dan D’Antoni strove to coax from him years prior. He has returned as that veteran pillar he once sought out, and it is his turn to show others just starting on their NBA paths the way forward.