They have become fast friends in the Suns’ locker room — the 7-foot-1, 325-pound veteran center and the 25-year-old Brazilian Blur.
But then again, not even Grant Hill has known Shaquille O’Neal as long as Leandro Barbosa has — though O’Neal admits he doesn’t remember the first meeting.
Back in 1990, 7-year-old Leandrihno Barbosa was playing for a youth team in São Paulo when the 19-year-old O’Neal, having just completed his freshman year at Louisiana State, visited Brazil and his gym to speak, shake hands and rattle the rims with some dunks.
“It was a crazy day, everyone was excited that he was coming, and there were a lot of people in the gym,” Barbosa remembered. “I shook his hand. He didn’t remember, but it was a big day for me.”
O’Neal has developed a quick affection for Barbosa, and is trying to learn as many phrases in Portuguese with his Latin accent as possible.
“The Brazilian culture likes a fight and never quits,” O’Neal said. “Leandro is a tough, hard-nosed kid and he’s going to be a vital part of our success. He ignites a lot of our guys.”
Barbosa even forgives O’Neal for what he did on that long-ago trip to São Paulo.
“He was dunking and he broke the backboard,” Barbosa said. “It stayed like that for about a week and a half before someone could get it fixed. No one could practice or play, so that was sad. But it was still fun to see him dunk like that.”
When the trade to bring O’Neal to Phoenix was made, Barbosa’s phone rang off the hook.
“All my friends from home called to say, ‘How does it feel? You were shaking his hand a few years ago and now you are playing together?’
“And at the beginning, it was a little strange. But we joked around and got to be friends fast, so the feeling went away.”
In a recent interview with Michael Wilbon on ESPN’s “Sunday Conversation,” Steve Nash was asked if he needed “a championship ring for some sort of athletic validation?”
“No, I mean, I don’t,” he said. “I don’t really care if it does or doesn’t, you know. I’m going for it. If I don’t get it, I’ve had a great career, worked my butt off, I’ve had a great place to challenge myself and be part of a team, and the rest of it is irrelevant.”
Nash’s response has drawn criticism because some assumed he was saying he didn’t care about winning a title. On Thursday, he clarified.
“If I ever play like it doesn’t mean anything to me then they can all say something,” he said. “I think I play my butt off, I train my butt off. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the league who works harder than I do so if anyone thinks that it’s not important enough to me I think they’re mistaken.”
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
Suns coach Mike D’Antoni was asked Thursday why Amaré Stoudemire tends to guard Tim Duncan in the opening minutes of all Suns-Spurs games instead of having O’Neal guard him.
“You know how that came about?” D’Antoni said, before impersonating O’Neal’s baritone voice.
“Hey coach, I don’t start with him. I finish with him.”
O’Neal explained his preference further.
“It’s a tough place to play and I don’t want to get one or two silly fouls,” he said. “If I’m not in foul trouble in the second half I’ll probably guard him.”
Suns general manager Steve Kerr said he is confident center Brian Skinner will not receive a suspension after being ejected from Wednesday’s game with Portland after an altercation with the Blazers’ Jarrett Jack. “I don’t think he even should have been ejected,” said Kerr, who said he plans to talk to NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Stu Jackson in the next day or two about the incident. …
Sixteen high school seniors from throughout Arizona have been named winners in the Phoenix Suns Charities’ SunStudents Scholarship program. Thirteen of the students will receive a $2,000 scholarship to be used for educational expenses at the college or university of their choice. In addition, for the first time, three students will be honored with the Kevin Johnson Scholar Award and will receive a total of $5,000 in scholarship funds. The announcement was made at halftime during the Suns-Trail Blazers game on Wednesday at US Airways Center.