Pirituba: Home of Talent

By Gustavo Cardosa

7 and 8. If it’s a Thursday and your license plate sequence ends with either number you’d better watch. Rush hour (7:00 AM through 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM through 8:00 PM) driving in São Paulo is limited. In 1997 “rodízio”, a traffic control system, was implemented by local authorities as a way of reducing traffic jams. At the time an estimate of 950,000 vehicles were to be off the city’s central streets and avenues during peak hours; however, ten years later, the situation hasn’t gotten any better. Driving in São Paulo still is a stressful experience.

It’s 4:50 PM and I’m cutting through the hectic traffic of Lapa aiming for the Piqueri Bridge, across the Tietê River, where I can reach the “rodízio’s” free zone of Pirituba, in the Northwest side of the city. 10 minutes is all I got, but Guaicurus Street is packed with buses and wild “motoboys” (couriers on 125cc motorcycles) zigzagging across traffic lanes.

Arturo Barbosa, Leandro Barbosa’s older brother, told me that if I wanted to find basketball in Pirituba, where he and his brother spent most of their childhood, I should look no further than to Professor Carlão’s basketball practices. That’s where he, as a youngster, started playing and collecting information on the sport’s basics and fundamentals. Knowledge that would be essential for his younger brother’s development and success as a future top “6th man on the NBA” (I’m bragging).

“By the time he [Leandro] went to his first club practice he was already way ahead of his counterparts” says Arturo of Leandro’s capabilities as a 9 year old. Since the age of 5 Leandro was practicing dribbles with both hands, around-your-back fakes, lay-ups and jump shots in the backyard of their former humble home. That put him on a league of his own in youth league powerhouse Continental’s U12 squad. After that Leandro just nodded every time there was a new invitation for him to play elsewhere. Palmeiras, Monte Líbano, Bauru, and a few years ago the internationally acclaimed Phoenix Suns.

Luckily I managed to cross the Piqueri Bridge on time and with the help of a city street guide found the gym located on Paula Ferreira Avenue, Carlão’s basketball temple. As you walk up the cemented staircase the screeching of the tennis shoes on the color faded cement floor and the sound of the ball hitting the wobbly rim grow louder. A two sided aluminum roof, ideal for high precipitation areas such as Pirituba, covers the court at a 35 feet ceiling height. On the sides aluminum weatherboards, placed one to two feet away from each other, allow the noise, wind, occasional rain drops, and the eventual passer by to be part of the practice.

“Foul” yells Carlão, standing on the sideline, whistle in his right hand, watching the kids running up and down the court. He has been coaching basketball in Pirituba for the last 34 years, and from the straight look in his eyes you can tell he’ll not stop too soon. On Tuesdays and Thursdays evenings, Carlos Alberto da Silva, looks over 20 to 30 kids on a rented basketball court in the steep streets of this São Paulo neighborhood. To rent the court twice a week for three hours he spends R$ 500 (approximately US$ 250), some of it from his own savings. “Some kids are not able to help with the money, so I can’t charge them”, says the Pirituba coach.

Lack of resources has always been a problem in inner cities around São Paulo. If it wasn’t for warriors like Carlão, a lot of kids wouldn’t be able to play the game and hang out in a safe environment after school. With a monthly amount of R$ 2,000, Carlão can manage 8 different teams from U12 through U15 (boys and girls squads), paying for their court rental, uniforms, transportation to games, and enough money for the usual after the game snack. However, without this sum, he can only wait for clubs to pick up the most talented kids, and keep hoping that more kids can help him pay the rent.

But Carlão doesn’t think only about the game, he has a much broader view of his role in the community. His dream project is to be able to support as many kids as he can through a pedagogical, psychological, and nutritional framework. He is aware of the capabilities of citizens that live in inner cities of São Paulo and Brazilian metro areas in general and basketball is just a proof of it. “Leandro came out of Pirituba to the NBA, and I’m sure other kids that live here could do that”, he concludes. But unfortunately that isn’t the way most of the people think about Pirituba kids.

After Carlão’s practice, at 8 PM, his kids have to quickly leave the court. The next slot on the renting schedule belongs to a local company that has their employees every night over there, after work, to play futsal (soccer on a hardwood court, played 5 against 5). Once one of the guys that plays after his training told Carlão to contact some of the companies in the neighborhood to sponsor his efforts. Why not? He drove around the neighborhood and all he could hear was: “Basketball? I don’t think so? Is it an adult league? Kids? No, I don’t think we are interested”.

So most of the local businessmen prefer to spend around R$ 2,500 (25% more than what Carlão needs to send 8 teams to the metropolitan tourneys ran by the federation) to have their employees play after work. Nothing wrong with that, but what’s the compromise with the local community? Ask a business man and they will say that’s the State’s foul. Ask government officials and they say “we will look into that.” Meanwhile, Carlão keeps working hard, dodging through the hard times in the name of a better community and the future of the game. As Arturo Barbosa says, “if it wasn’t for Carlão he would’ve never loved the game, and Leandro would never learn from his backyard drills back in 1987.”

Characters like Carlão are essential to Brazil’s sports and education. In a country where over 180 million people live, few are the ones that can obtain a good education and succeed in life. The potential rests there, untouched. Just a few people are courageous enough to take the matter into their own hands, but they are tiny little ants walking around the lands of the Sleeping Giant called Brazil. Save Carlão!

I produced a 10 minute video piece earlier this month that you can view below, but I can tell you that Carlão and his path deserve a two hour long documentary. Hey Spike, if Phoenix trades Leandro to the Knicks, would you be into it?

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