Like most Brazilians, Leandro Barbosa’s formative years were tied to the soccer culture of the country. The Barbosa family’s links to Sport Club Corinthians, considered the most popular team in Sao Paulo, were defining in both sporting and sociopolitical senses.
During Barbosa’s childhood, Corinthians emerged as more than just a well-known soccer club, making a stand against the country’s ruling dictatorship. World-class players such as Socrates were also socially conscious activists, turning games into a political statement as they persuaded management to put “Democracia Corintiana” on their jerseys in place of a sponsor’s logo. And they were credited with playing an important role in Brazil’s transition to democracy.
“My father was Corinthiano and from the time I was born, we had the bandera [flag] of the team and we went to the Pacaembu stadium,” recalled the Celtics guard after a recent practice. “Even now, many Corinthians players are my friends. [Emerson] Sheik is a great friend, a super amigo. We are always together.”
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Corinthians and soccer in Barbosa’s life. By the time he was a teenager, though, Barbosa was also adopting basketball role models and becoming adept at that game.
Barbosa made his mark on the international scene as a 19-year-old at the 2002 FIBA World Championships in Indianapolis, and the next year he started his NBA career in Phoenix.
“When I was a little kid, I played [soccer],” Barbosa said. “In Brazil, futebol is very big, I think all the youngsters play. I liked sports, so I played soccer and basketball. Yes, I think it helped to play both.
“Basketball is similar to soccer, but you use your hands. I always talk about soccer and basketball in terms of vision and facilitating passes and how that happens. At the same time, you get the timing, you gauge the distances, the angles of passes, when to defend, when to attack. You learn a lot from soccer and it makes basketball easier.
“This was a big dream of mine, to come here to the NBA, since I was very little. “At the same time, I worked hard to get here.”
Barbosa, 29, was the final player signed by the Celtics in the offseason and had to await visa clearances before arriving, so he was unable to participate in preseason games. But when the Celtics were struggling in their season opener in Miami, Barbosa was there to keep them in contention.
Though Barbosa had worked out for only a few days with the Celtics, he scored 16 points in the final quarter of that 120-107 loss. He also scored 16 replacing an injured Rajon Rondo in a 98-93 victory over Utah Nov. 14, and the next night had 17 in a starting role, though the Celtics lost, 102-97, at Brooklyn.
Barbosa arrived in Boston almost as an afterthought, willing to take the veteran minimum salary after being courted by the Lakers.
“It wasn’t an offer,” Barbosa said of his dealings with the Lakers. “They talked about giving me an opportunity but they started delaying, going here and there with it. And Boston came in and gave me the chance to come here.”
Barbosa thrived in the Suns’ up-tempo offense thanks to his speed in transition, explosive drives off the dribble, and good perimeter game.
In 2005-06, Barbosa helped the Suns reach the Western Conference finals. The next year, he averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game and was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Barbosa was living his sonho (dream).
“When I was young, I liked Michael Jordan a lot,” Barbosa said. “I liked Magic Johnson a lot and others, but Michael Jordan was the best ever in the history of the NBA.”
Brazil has long been a factor on the international basketball stage, but its players have only recently made an impact in the NBA.
“Leandrinho is very well-known in Brazil, people love him there,” said Lucas Parolin, who covers the Celtics for a Brazilian website. “As far as basketball players, he is the most popular.
“People like Nene, too, but Leandrinho is more popular than Nene, partly because he always plays for the national team and partly because of his personality. But Oscar [Schmidt] is the most popular basketball player from Brazil ever.”
Schmidt was selected in the 1984 NBA draft but spent his career in Europe and South America.
“I don’t know why he never came here,” Barbosa said. “He had a great career in basketball in Italy, some great seasons there. And he is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.”
Brazil has been exporting basketball talent for decades, but the previous generations of players did not always aspire to perform in the NBA. They were more concerned with their amateur status and Olympic eligibility. Also, the NBA was less accommodating to foreigners than it is now.
But when Barbosa was ready for the NBA, the league was ready for him.
Barbosa moves easily between cultures and various celebrity and sporting acquaintances.
In Phoenix, Barbosa developed a close relationship with teammate Steve Nash, who is listed among Corinthians’ famosos followers, along with former presidents of Brazil, actors, and musicians. In Sao Paulo, Barbosa hangs with Sheik, who scored the deciding goal as Corinthians won the Copa Libertadores championship for the first time this year.
In the Boston area, Barbosa is starting to connect with the substantial Brazilian population.
“I know there is a big Brazilian community here,’’ Barbosa said. “I will get to know them as soon as I can.”
Barbosa has been on the move since being traded by the Suns to Toronto in 2010. Last season, the Pacers acquired Barbosa for their playoff push; they lost in the second round to Miami. Barbosa signed with the Celtics Oct. 18.
“And I am glad I decided to come here,” Barbosa said. “There are a lot of reasons for it — all the banners, a lot of good players have played here from the time of Larry Bird. And, now, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Jason Terry, Kevin Garnett — All-Stars.
“This is very important for me. I might not play many minutes, but the fact we have this group and I can learn from them. For me, it is very important to learn all I can and to have all of these players in front of me.
“And to have this coach, Doc Rivers, who was a player, and [president of basketball operations] Danny Ainge, who was a good player for the Celtics. I’m very happy to be here because of all of that.”