Before an unprecedented eight-month return from surgery for a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and into a professional basketball game, Leandro Barbosa remembers sitting in the Boston locker room reeling with devastation, wondering how his body could betray him when those Celtics needed him so desperately without Rajon Rondo.
First major injury of his career, rigorous rehabilitation awaited, and Barbosa asked himself over and over those hours, those days after trainers disclosed his fate: Will I ever make it back to playing basketball – let alone in the NBA – from this?
“I did have doubts,” Barbosa, 31, told RealGM. “Many times. Many times. It was frustrating, and tough too. Rehab is a slow process, and you’ve got to be patient. It was tough for me because I wanted to play, and I couldn’t.”
Barbosa had torn his ACL last February, a staggering blow to a player who had finally begun to find a standing within his new team’s rotation. Adjusting to the Celtics’ schemes took time, but everyone noticed him gathering momentum in an increased role.
Forty points in three games, three consecutive Boston wins, and suddenly, the season ended for Barbosa in Charlotte three games later, the Celtics dumped his salary as part of a trade with the Washington Wizards, and an unrelenting career was placed on hold.
People around Barbosa had remained in his ear, and they stressed one aspect over all else: Stay patient. Barbosa was always known as persistent and constant on the court and energetic away from it. He knew escaping the NBA’s tantalizing product, escaping all its free agency noise, would allow a flourishing recovery, and so he went home to Brazil for the summer.
Five months into Barbosa’s rehab, the shooting, the cutting, already started, and it was only a matter of another month until he regained the most natural of moves. As superstar players applied supreme caution healing from significant knee surgeries, Barbosa was steadfast and sought an unconventional technique – training with Brazilian soccer players, consuming their conditioning exercises.
In his mind, Barbosa believed his knee had been fit to sign in the NBA prior to the season. Problem was no one else believed, too. Teams were unsure, and they wanted to test the legitimacy of this uncanny recuperation.
So Barbosa understood, joined a Brazilian club in November for exposure, and averaged 21 points and shot 48 percent to affirm everyone his knee checked out healthy.
“The Brazil people did a great job and they made a good team for my rehab,” Barbosa says. “The league in Brazil helped me out to lose the scare too. The guys I was working with, they worked really well in my head. They said everything was going to be all right. They calmed me. They did a great job.
“And finally, I was back playing basketball.”
When he looks back, Barbosa recollects his first few steps in the gym after receiving clearance from his doctor. No padding, no ancillary body equipment to protect that knee.
“When the doctor said, ‘You can go and play,’ I just went no brace,” Barbosa says. “When you put a brace, you feel insecure, and that’s not good.”
Nothing changed once he returned to the Phoenix Suns in January, signing for the entire season after two 10-day contracts expired. He’s no longer a Sixth Man of the Year and still lacks sharpness in his jump shot, but the “Blur” hasn’t lost his speed, nor his fluidity for the sport.
Barbosa knows the Suns weren’t always interested in partnering again, and the Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls had long shown the most intrigue of all, but injury to Eric Bledsoe opened an old door and made the choice simple. Even still, Barbosa is a fan favorite in Phoenix, a remembrance to those run-and-gun contending teams with Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire.
“Phoenix was the best idea for me,” Barbosa says. “I know the fans love me, and I love the fans. Great city, great organization. The Suns have a good team of rehab, so I thought it was going to be a great opportunity for me, especially for my knee. They’ve been taking care of me well.”
The season had finally been coming together for Barbosa a year ago, a turn of the corner into becoming the lively scorer he’d been everywhere. Except what awaited him was a buckled knee, a season lost, and surgery last March. Out of nowhere, he was in a pro regular season contest eight months later, harmonizing his game and body for the NBA.
Out of his own doubts, Leandro Barbosa is back.