The images of Real Madrid forward Vinicius Junior and Manchester City defender Kyle Walker greeting each other after the first leg of their Champions League semifinal went viral last month. The moment was one of mutual respect between two elite athletes after an evening of tough competition. For Vinicius, it was also an opportunity to speak some of the English he had recently been practicing with Oklahoma City Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
he Brazil international has an enormous admiration for North American sports. In recent years, often through messages on Instagram, he has reached out to and been sought out by big stars from the NBA and NFL. Sources told that, after the elimination of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA play-in tournament by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Gilgeous-Alexander flew to Madrid to meet with Vinicius and watch him play a match at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. He also went to the 22-year-old’s house and even found time to play basketball at the Real Madrid men’s team’s gym in Valdebebas.
This is just one of many examples of the friendship that Vinicius maintains with basketball and American football stars. In his house, located in the Moraleja area in the north of the Spanish capital, Vini has an enviable collection of autographed NFL jerseys, including those of Tom Brady, JJ Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Justin Jefferson, Joe Burrow and Saquon Barkley.
Vinicius and Brady have tried to meet in the past, but have so far been thwarted in their attempt to connect in person. Sources told that the Real Madrid star was on vacation in Miami in December 2021 when he and Brady, who had already commented on some of the Brazilian star’s Instagram posts, started to exchange direct messages. Brady, who had previously sent Vinicius an autographed jersey while he was still at the New England Patriots, invited the Real Madrid player to watch his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte on Dec. 26. The forward accepted the invitation and went to Bank of America Stadium.
However, because of the NFL‘s COVID-19 protocols, he was unable to meet Brady in person. The quarterback himself apologised afterward, as he was sure that meeting him would be possible. Despite the pair exchanging messages regularly since, they have yet to meet.
As for Justin Jefferson, sources have told ESPN that his relationship with Vinicius is very close. In March, the Minnesota Vikings wide receiver spent a week in Madrid with Vinicius, who took him to meet his teammates. The two are even scheduled to travel together to Brazil in early July.
Two days before the non-meeting with Brady, Vinicius was at the Kaseya Center cheering on his friends from the Miami Heat. Jimmy Butler is an admirer of Brazilian football and maintains friendships with several players, including Vinicius. On this occasion, the former Flamengo forward was able to exchange shirts and also meet Butler’s teammate, Tyler Herro.
His admiration for some of the legends of the NBA is enormous, and their careers serve as inspiration. In his private gym at home, there is a huge mural with images of two Brazilian soccer greats, Pele and Ronaldo, alongside Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Later, Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James were added to the wall of fame. The eternal No. 23 of the Chicago Bulls has an even more special space. In the living room of his home, prominently displayed, Vinicius keeps a huge photo of Michael Jordan.
Jordan is one of Nike’s most iconic sponsored athletes, and interestingly, Vinicius is rekindling ties with the U.S. sports company. He has held a contract with them since he was 18, but had sought to end the relationship as he felt he wasn’t being treated as a priority. However, following the displays of racism against him in Spain, Nike launched a campaign of support for Vinicius with the message: “Stop looking the other way. We stand with Vini Jr.” This has helped to reestablish contact between the two parties. Sources have told ESPN that they are discussing a new commercial agreement, and everything is moving toward a new arrangement that will give Vinicius global prominence within the brand.
Following the racist abuse suffered by Vinicius at Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium in May, he received support and backing from several current and former athletes such as Brady and Gilgeous-Alexander, as well as other sports personalities such as Rex Chapman. FIFA president Gianni Infantino has since announced that Vinicius will lead a special anti-racism committee made up of players who will suggest stricter punishments for discriminatory behaviour in football.
Another thing Vinicius has in common with many great stars of the NFL and NBA is a taste for fashion and music. On May 29, he went to London to watch a Beyonce concert and also took the opportunity to get a picture with Jay-Z.
However, Vinicius’ most important relationship with the United States is just beginning to develop. In early June, members of the board of the Instituto Vini Jr were in Akron, Ohio, to visit the I Promise School, a social and educational project created by LeBron James and focused on his hometown, through the LeBron James Family Foundation.
The idea came from the Brazilian institute, which saw similarities between the two entities; the initial contact was made through the NBA, and Vinicius approved of the idea. After all, LeBron is one of his idols. The visit was hosted by Michele Campbell, who is the executive director of the LeBron James Family Foundation.
“We were very well received, we got to know all their equipment,” Victor Rodrigues Ladeira, executive director of the Instituto Vini Jr, told ESPN. “They even extrapolate education, they perceive education as something beyond school. It has to do with food, with leisure, with health, with family. They identify all the difficulties of the family and seek an integrated space with society. They look at all this in a very holistic way.
Camilo Coelho, director of institutional development, added: “We joke that it’s ‘LeBronland,’ because it’s all theirs, there in Akron. When I started looking, I was very interested in how they deal with the community.”
The Instituto Vini Jr works with the goal of improving the quality of education in public schools, offering new methods and using technology as a tool and sport as a language; around 1,500 children are impacted by the products offered by the institute. The LeBron James Family Foundation started in a similar way, until it required the development of its own school.
Vinicius always made it clear to everyone at the institute that he dreamed of seeing children entering and graduating from a school created by him in his hometown of Sao Goncalo, and steps are already being taken to make that happen.
Ladeira and Coelho already felt, after several visits to public schools that work with the institute, that the opportunity to create a differentiated space with the ideas and methodology of the Instituto Vini Jr was there. Land in Sao Goncalo is already being sought, with the aim of beginning construction in 2024.
The two organisations, the Instituto Vini Jr and the LeBron James Family Foundation, will remain connected to exchange experiences and content, ensuring Vinicius’ love of U.S. sports will leave a legacy that goes well beyond some superstar friendships and an epic collection of signed jerseys.