I Have to Tell You a Story About the Big Nude Cactus

Jun 7 2017
Photo by
Ross D. Franklin/AP Images
Leandro Barbosa
Phoenix Suns
Jun 7 2017

I want to talk to you about the friends I’ve made on my NBA journey.

And I promise, before this article finishes, Shaq will be sprinting through what was then the U.S. Airways Center — buck naked.

Not yet, though. We have to talk right now about Golden State.

You’ve been watching the playoffs, right? The Warriors, man … they’re unbelievable. Everyone knows that. But what people maybe don’t know is all the work that it took to get to this level. I remember. I was there. After we won the title in 2015, we actually got even better the following season, which is crazy.

My friend Steve Nash came on as an assistant in 2016 and he helped us out a lot. But it was weird at first. I had known Steve as a teammate from my first stint with the Suns. We were always laughing and having a good time back then. But as a coach he was serious. He was all business. He didn’t even change his haircut as often as he used to.

And he wanted our Warriors team to improve — especially Klay and Steph.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images

Klay was a great player already, but Steve saw something in him. Klay would stay after practice most days and shoot threes, from a standing position, for hours. Steve didn’t like that. He told him that in real games you almost never shoot standing still. And Klay was making all his threes, so he was sort of like, Why would I change anything? So it took Klay a little bit of time to get what Steve was saying. But Steve had a point, and Klay put in a lot of time. Eventually, Klay incorporated more of a dribble-step into his routine and you can see the results now.

With Steph, it blew me away how much he knew about our great teams in Phoenix. Steve and I would be shooting around after practice and Steph would come up and start asking Steve questions about those Suns team. He loved our offense and wanted to know how the Warriors could become more like those teams.

This made me proud to hear. One of the best players on the planet, on one of the best teams of all time, asking how they can be more like our teams in Phoenix. Our small ball style felt sort of out of place back then — nobody even called it that — but now it’s mainstream … and working better than Steve and I could ever have imagined.

If you had told me 12 years ago that our team of misfits would inspire the Warriors to do what they’ve been doing the last few years — I would have called you crazy. But my entire journey to the NBA has been crazy.

I grew up in a favela in São Paulo, Brazil. It was a tough place. If you came into my neighborhood without knowing anybody, you weren’t coming out.

I sold fruit with my mama during the days and played basketball at night. I slept on the floor in our house. When I was eight, I remember seeing Michael Jordan on TV at a friend’s house. After that, I was thinking to myself, I have to get to the NBA no matter what. I wanted to play in Jordan’s league. More important, I was getting my family out of that home.

If I didn’t, somebody was going to die there eventually.

Basketball was a game for me. But it was my way out of our neighborhood. It was our way out. And in 2003 I got my chance to get out.

Leandro Barbosa

More important, I was getting my family out of that home. If I didn’t, somebody was going to die there eventually.

Leandro Barbosa

I remember riding through Manhattan on our way to Madison Square Garden for the NBA Draft. In Brazil, everyone speaks very highly of America. It’s sort of a dream world. Even being there, it didn’t seem real. And New York … I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was shocked. Everything was so different. The buildings, the people … all of the people — there were so many. I don’t think I said more than 10 words to anyone that night. I just watched everything. It was surreal. Even when they called my name at The Garden, I still felt in shock. Everyone else stood up and clapped. I just sat there.

I was drafted by the Spurs originally. A few minutes later, though, some people from the Suns came up to me and told me that I was going to Phoenix. I couldn’t really understand what was happening. Both were cities I had never heard of. I just nodded my head and went along with it.

The next day, I was in Arizona. I went from the airport straight to the arena. A few staff members from the Suns took me to the locker room and showed me my stall with my name, my jersey and my shoes.

When I saw my locker … with my name … man, it was something else.

I told them, through my translator, I wasn’t going back to the hotel that night. I wanted to sleep there.

“But you can’t sleep here. There is no bed. This is just … the floor,” they said.

I told them that this was way better than anything I had back home in Brazil. I said if they could see where I lived in São Paulo they would understand. I don’t think they could believe it. But I didn’t care. I wanted to be there that night.

There was a big TV, a fridge, and my name was on an NBA locker behind me. What else did I need?

I slept on the carpet of the locker room the whole night. It was one of the best sleeps of my life. The next day, I met two guys who would become family to me: Shawn Marion and Stephon Marbury.

Shawn came into the locker room first and didn’t know why I was there.

“Man, what are you doin’ here? You are crazy, man. You are crazy!” he said.

He kept saying I was “crazy” and kept smiling. I knew he was a good guy already. We laughed a lot that day — and for the rest of our careers together.

Shawn showed me around a bit more and introduced me to some of the guys on the team. I met Stephon that afternoon. He asked me about my mama, my brother and how we were all adjusting to life in America. Over my first couple of months on Phoenix he took me under his wing. I’d spend hours at his house playing video games and chillin’. Whenever we went anywhere, he’d drive us in one of his fancy cars. I still couldn’t speak much English, which I think he liked because he could say anything to me. But when he played rap in the car … then we spoke the same language.

I knew the same music he did. Jay, Snoop, Dre, all those guys. My rapping was pretty bad, but Steph loved it. He’d turn the sound system all the way up in his Range Rover. Steph had so many cars. They were all so nice.

One day, a few weeks into our summer training, he pulled me aside after practice.

“Hey, man, I got something for you.”

He took me outside and pointed at an Escalade. A brand new one.

“No … no. I’m not going to take.” I said.

“I want you to have this. It’s a present from me to you. I love you, man. This is for you.”

I started crying right away. I really did. It was kind of tough for me to believe that he was giving me a car, you know? My life had been tough. I was used to struggling for food. But now, somebody was giving me a car?

I never ever forgot that feeling. Steph, man, he is family to me forever.

He even taught me English! Well … just the bad words. But he taught me how to use them, like in a good way — a trash-talking way.

He would be like: “Look, Leandro, this is how you use these words. So, when a game starts, look the guy you are guarding in the eyes. Look right into the back of his eyes. If he puts his head down, then you’ve won already. You’re on top of him. Go out and kick his ass. Then you start talking your shit. Say whatever you want to say. Get in his head.”

Steph did that so well. He’d go out there, talk his shit and back it up. He was a star.

But you know who was the best at that? My friend Shaq.

Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images

In 2008, you couldn’t get to the paint against our Suns team. Well, maybe you could, but you weren’t coming back. I’d be around the hoop when opposing guards would cut toward Shaq. He’d smack the ball out of their hands and across the court, and then yell at the dudes. Shaq was a friendly giant one moment and the most dominant center of all time the next. And his opponents never knew which one they would be facing. It was so fun to watch. Shaq would yell:

“If you come over here again … man. I swear to God, I’ll f*** you up. I will. I’ll f***ing do it.”

Next possession, the guard would cut for the paint, look at Shaq, and kick the ball right out.

Shaq was a scary dude, for sure. But once you see somebody naked, you just see a different side of them. You ready for this story? You’re not ready.

It’s a game day, early in the afternoon. Shaq picks me up because we’re both heading to the trainer’s room to get some work done before tip-off. We get to the locker room, take our clothes off and go over to the rehab room. But the trainer isn’t there. We wait 15 minutes. We’re all there in towels, just sitting around waiting. Shaq is kind of upset at this point. So he takes off his towel (not sure why) and heads down to our trainer’s office. He opens the door and is like, “Are you coming? Or am I going to have to pick you up and take you?”

At first, the trainer can’t tell if Shaq is joking or not. Shaq takes a few steps closer and our trainer knows he’s not. So the trainer takes off — sprinting down the hall.

Shaq follows him, of course. Still butt-ass naked. Now Shaq is in a dead sprint down the hallway, running past arena workers and other staff, screaming at the top of his lungs. This is a normal business day. It’s a weekday.

Everyone is in official Suns gear or in suits. Shaq is in his birthday suit.

Just picture that, if you dare.

Future Hall of Famer, one of the greatest big men to ever play the game of basketball. And here he was, naked, chasing our tiny little trainer through the arena halls. I think the chase lasted 15 minutes. Which is a long time for the Big Nude Cactus to be loose in the arena.

That’s my friend, that’s Shaq.

Nate Gordon/The Players' Tribune

Inside, I still feel like I’m just a boy from Brazil. The NBA, and the friends I’ve made along the way, helped to raise me into man I’ve really become.

My journey is not finished yet. I still have more time ahead of me, fortunately. My legs still feel young. I still have the competitive fire in me. Most of all, I am grateful. As another season has ended, and my friends continue to have success in all of their different and special ways, it felt like a good time to share some stories. And say thank you.

Obrigado, everyone.

Leandro Barbosa
Phoenix Suns