Nene’s return to Brazil became a more emotional ordeal than he could’ve anticipated. The overwhelming display of affection and admiration that he received from fans as he walked through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, contrasted with the unrelenting boos that he heard while playing in his native country for the first time in 11 years, were only part of the story.
Nene was already aware that his father, Jose Paulo Hilario, would be unable to attend the Washington Wizards’ exhibition game in Rio against the Chicago Bulls as he battled a serious illness in Nene’s home town of Sao Carlos. But after the game, Nene also discovered that another member of his family was dealing with a life-threatening medical problem.
The Wizards granted Nene permission to spend extra time with his family. When he rejoined the team at Verizon Center five days later, fresh off his 10-hour flight, Nene embraced Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and began to refocus on playing the game that has always helped him through tough times.
“Man, after what I’ve been through, right now, it’s good to be close to my team,” he said. “Just try and think positive. I know a lot of negative things outside. But I know I’m a pro, I have experience. I just try to keep my mind and help my team. That’s what I can do right now.”
After sitting out the previous two exhibition games, Nene contributed 10 points and eight rebounds in the Wizards’ 93-89 preseason loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday in Lexington, Ky. Coach Randy Wittman supported Nene in taking the time he needed but believes that returning to the routine of practicing and playing will also help the 6-foot-11 big man move forward.
“This is his family, too,” Wittman said. “We love him here. We care about him and I think getting back here is a comforting thing for him. All of the guys feel the same way and kind of expressed that to him, too, when he was gone.”
Now that he is back, Nene is learning to adjust to playing center and Wittman continues to search for the right piece to pair with him at power forward. Jan Vesely started with Nene before the team left for Brazil but Trevor Booker has since replaced Vesely.
With a back-to-back set against Detroit and Cleveland all that remains before the Oct. 30 season opener, Nene is hopeful that he can develop better chemistry with Booker, Vesely or Kevin Seraphin in the absence of the injured Emeka Okafor.
“It’s a little hard, it’s a little different. We try doing our best. The whole time trying to do our best,” Nene said. “Try to close the gap, the big hole. That’s what we can control. We can play hard, give our best. Everything else, we leave to our manager and to the coach.”
Wittman said he doesn’t think Nene’s responsibilities will change much with his position. But Nene could always depend on Okafor to defend bigger, bruising centers, have his back if he made a mistake and also to know when to switch on defense.
With Okafor out indefinitely because of a herniated disk in his neck, Nene — who has dealt with knee and foot problems throughout his time in Washington — must prepare for more of a pounding inside.
“That’s why they have Emeka here, to play physical, grab a rebound, to take all the pressure from my back. But he’s not here. We can’t wait for him,” Nene said. “We can count on the people who’s here. Everybody give a little bit extra. We need to bring it, we need to bring it because nobody is going to give anything to us. We need to take it.”
Despite the lineup shuffles, the Wizards have played solid defense throughout the preseason and have been outrebounded in only one of their five games.
“What we try to do is play better defense, communicate more,” Nene said of the Wizards’ front-court rotation. “We can give advice, but the initiative, it needs to come from them. I believe they’re trying to do their best. That’s what we can do. Everything else, we leave in the hands of God and the person who is supposed to take care of things.”
The Wizards’ trip to Brazil went a long way toward helping them bond and develop a better understanding of what Nene had to overcome to make it to the NBA. Martell Webster is among those grateful to have Nene back in the fold.
“You could definitely see he had some pain in his eyes. You know him having to be down there with his family and his father going through what he has to go through,” Webster said. “It’s good to have him back and we welcome him with open arms, let him know we’re here for him. It’s always good to have one of your family members back.”