Correction: Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the Denver Nuggets won 21 games in Nene’s rookie season. They actually won 17 games.
DENVER — Nene stepped off the Washington Wizards’ team bus on Thursday and onto the loading dock at Pepsi Center for the first time as a visitor. He smiled widely as he spotted some familiar faces, shook hands with a security guard and walked with his current teammates down a hallway he had frequented countless times.
Back in a place where he spent nearly 10 years developing from a raw teenager — a relative baby — named Maybyner Hilario into a skilled, dreadlocked big man who now goes by the Portuguese word for baby, Nene couldn’t dismiss his return as just another game.
“I have a lot of history. I’ve been through a lot of stuff — good stuff, bad stuff — in this city and basically, I think of this city as my mom’s home,” Nene said, “Because I grew up here.”
Colorado will always be home for Nene, no matter where his professional basketball career takes him. He married a woman from Fort Collins and bought a dream home in the Denver suburbs in the summer of 2011 to put down roots. Until the Denver Nuggets traded him to the Wizards in March in a three-team deal that yielded JaVale McGee, Nene had always assumed that he would end his career with the Nuggets.
“When you play that long in one team, yes, you think you’re going to retire because I thought everything was okay, everything was fine,” Nene said. “But I understand this job. You’re not going to be there forever some place. Sometimes you think, but you don’t know your future.”
Passionate and spiritual, Nene knows that he will be overcome with emotion on Friday when he faces his former team for the first time, wearing No. 42 instead of the No. 31 that he wore while helping the Nuggets make eight straight playoff appearances, including the Western Conference finals in 2009. But he hopes that it will subside after the opening tip and he can settle into focusing on helping the Wizards (7-29) get their second road win of the season.
“Definitely going to be emotion. Play here almost 10 years. For sure,” said Nene, who averaged 12.4 points and 6.9 rebounds in 91 / 2 years with the Nuggets. “I’m going to try to have fun, enjoy the game and play hard.”
Nene was understandably hurt when he got traded to Washington and compared the confusion and disappointment to when the New York Knicks traded him to Denver after taking him eighth overall in the 2002 NBA draft. Nene’s only recollection of Denver at the time was struggling through his workout with the team.
“I wasn’t excited. The altitude. I remember when I did the test, I couldn’t breathe, like, ‘How am I going to play over there?’ But God has plan. When he has plan for your life, things can change,” Nene said. “I was scared before, when I got traded. I didn’t know how I was going to be on another side. But I’m fine. The team has been taking care of me. Just need to win. We need to win. That’s the thing. We lost a lot of lot of games that we’re supposed to win, that’s the only frustration.”
Before joining the Wizards, Nene had only been a part of one other lottery team — his rookie year in Denver, as the Nuggets won just 17 games and earned the right to draft Carmelo Anthony. The Nuggets (24-17) haven’t looked back since, even after the departure of Anthony — or Nene — but the 6-foot-11 big man believes better days ahead for Washington.
“You need to fail a lot, to never forget and to succeed. When you succeed, you’re going to maintain, because you have a foundation and that’s what I see here,” Nene said. “God is going to make the change on this team, not me. That’s the reason, I’m still here and I’m going to stay here.”
Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards’ vice president of basketball administration, was the Nuggets’ public relations director during Nene’s rookie season and helped him get acclimated to a new country and culture. But Nene said Sheppard would always joke with him about joining the Wizards.
When the Wizards finally made a move for him, Nene was shocked because he had just signed a five-year, $65 million free agent contract with the Nuggets about three months earlier after some angst-filled deliberations with his wife and manager.
“It was quiet. Nobody mentioned my name in a trade. Nobody say nothing about a trade. And my agent [Dan Fegan], he’s supposed to know everything. He have no clue,” Nene said with a laugh. “When I signed my contract, I thought I was going to end my career right there. And I thought they were going in the right direction.”
Almost immediately after he was dealt, Nene heard whispers that the Nuggets made the trade because of “buyer’s remorse” and fears that they could no longer rely on him to be available on a consistent basis.
Nene recently admitted that he tore the left plantar fascia shortly after re-signing with Denver but tried to play until the problem became unmanageable. His reputation as a malingerer has followed him to Washington, where he has only played 34 of a possible 61 games, mostly because of problems with the same foot. He dismissed assertions that he lacked toughness.
“When people don’t know, they create excuse,” Nene said. “That’s how it is, but I don’t worry about that. I know what I’m capable of. . . . It’s a business. Life, it continues. That’s why you take care of the present and future.”
Nene’s present now involves a reunion with close friends and riding around familiar territory from the airport on a team bus. The game will allow him to officially move on from an important chapter of his career and life, but Nene knows he isn’t done with Denver.
“I just need to play hard and in the summer, I’ll be here,” he said. “So, that’s the good thing.”