Of all the memories that Nene has from nearly 10 years in Denver, few stand out more than the standing ovation fans at Pepsi Center gave him when he returned to basketball after a bout with testicular cancer. Nene came back roughly two months after he had the tumor removed and the applause lasted longer than the 77 seconds of actually playing time he clocked in a win against the Dallas Mavericks.
“The crowd, the team, was amazing,” Nene said on Friday, flashing a grin as he reflected on the night of March 27, 2008. As the Wizards prepared to take on his former team, the Denver Nuggets, for the first time, Nene added, “It’s a lot of memories. My wife is from here. I grew up here. The team, first time, we made the playoffs. A lot of history.”
Nene wasn’t certain about the reception that he would get 10 months after the Nuggets stunned him with a trade to Washington that he didn’t see coming. Being back in the city that he still calls home in the offseason was “strange” for Nene, especially walking into the visitors’ locker room for the first time as an opponent.
But Nene tried to keep the same routine of eating dinner the night before at Brazilian steakhouse, Fogo de Chao. He connected with friends and colleagues from his past, shaking hands and hugging familiar faces. As he spoke with reporters, Nene shouted out and waived at some of his former teammates walking down the hallway after concluding their morning walkthrough.
When asked if he was going to play harder against the team that dealt him, Nene smiled and said, “No, no, no. I’m going to play because I play hard. And I going to have fun and I going to see my ex-teammates and have fun on the court.”
Nuggets Coach George Karl said he would always feel a special connection with Nene since he relied on the 6-foot-11 forward during his own bout with throat cancer three years ago. But he was frank while explaining why the trade “had to made.” After the Nuggets traded Carmelo Anthony and started to rebuild the team, they wanted more from Nene. The expectations rose when Nene signed a five-year, $65 million contract in December 2011 and when they went unfilled, the team sought a younger alternative in JaVale McGee.
“I think Nene is a team player to a fault. I guess that’s the best way to phrase that,” Karl said. “When we kind of made all of the changes, we kind of wanted Nene to be more assertive and more demanding of his skills and the responsibility of the team. And I’m not saying he didn’t do that. He likes being a team guy.
“The situation came down to, when you’re reshaping a team, it’s better to go younger and that’s the choice management made and I was supportive of that,” Karl said. “I mean, I could’ve very easily kept Nene. I think Nene is easily a 14 [points] and 8 [rebounds], 14 and 9 guy. He’ll probably be that for the next three or four years. But sometimes, I think we wanted him to try to be an 18 and 12 guy. Sometimes, I think Nene enjoys being a major part of a good team and playing as a team. Sometimes, your best player has to say, ‘Give me the ball. Give me the responsibility.’ ”
Nene averaged 12.4 points and 6.9 rebounds in his 9½ years in Denver, but his contributions weren’t lost on former teammate Andre Miller, who spent more time with Nene than any player currently on the Nuggets’ roster.
“Just a tough-minded, physical player that knows how to play basketball. Smart. He loves basketball. He’s done his job throughout his career,” Miller said of Nene. “He came here when the organization was kind of struggling. Been up and down. He fought through that. Fought through some injuries. Dealt with his cancer issues. Hopefully, the crowd gives him his due, he deserves it.”
Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said he doesn’t feel the need to say anything to Nene to keep him from getting too overwhelmed in Denver: “He’s 10 years now, obviously, I think he’s moved through the range of emotions. Whether it’s the highs of the playoffs, to be able to muster, manage the emotions. You don’t say too much. If it was a younger guy, you might talk to him a little bit. But I think he knows how to handle it.”
Nene said going up against his former teammates was “going to be like practice, it’s going to be like normal. Because how many times we practice together, how many times? It’s no big deal. Not going to be different.”
But Miller, a 14-year veteran who understands the emotions of playing a former team, knows to expect a little more.
“I think for every player there is incentive playing against their old team, the team that traded them, to kind of taking it personal at times,” he said. “But for the most part, you want to go out and win. I’m sure that’s what he’s thinking. I’m sure he won’t say much, because he’s a veteran guy who takes a lot of things personal, so I can understand what he’s going through.”