Washington Wizards’ Nene continues to keep the faith, five years after cancer scare
By Michael Lee,
The moment will never be forgotten, because it represented a possible detour — or end — to the life and career of a man who had already overcome such hardscrabble beginnings. But the dates, the feelings, the struggle had mostly been buried into the crevices of Nene’s memory, a chapter in his life that doesn’t require any special celebrations or recognition years later.
For Nene, surviving a diagnosis of testicular cancer at age 25 only serves as a reminder of how much the Washington Wizards forward has been blessed, and how he believes God chose him to handle yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle to serve as an example for others.
Nene, 30, didn’t even realize that last month he had reached the fifth anniversary of his surgery to remove the tumor because he was more concerned about fighting through a stomach virus to help the Wizards defeat the Orlando Magic that evening. Still feeling the effects of his stomach ailment a day later, Nene simply reacted with a smile and surprise when told of the milestone as he munched on a grilled cheese sandwich and sipped soup in his hotel room.
“Wow. I don’t keep track,” he said. “I don’t keep track.”
But when the Wizards made a surprise visit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis a few weeks later, Nene was forced to confront his toughest physical challenge as the players walked through the patient care center and medicine room, where children received cancer treatment. There, Nene was suddenly overwhelmed by the sensations of his own chemotherapy treatments — the burning in his limbs, the goose bumps, the taste on his tongue that he described as “salty and spicy,” and the fear that his organs would eventually shut down.
“It was like, amazing. A long time I don’t feel like that,” Nene said, before reflecting on that difficult period. “For four weeks, I was sick, I was weak. I could feel the liquid moving in the veins. I feel like a science fiction movie, where the liquid comes all over your body. It was like that.”
‘God is going to provide’
Nene credits his deep faith for helping him become the first player from Brazil to be drafted into the NBA and for giving him the strength to get through the many physical and emotional hurdles that have followed.
Before cancer, there was the torn anterior cruciate ligament, sprained medial collateral ligament and torn meniscus in his right knee suffered two minutes into the 2005-06 season. Before the knee injury, there was leaving tiny Sao Carlos as a teenager and adjusting to a different culture while speaking little English. And before moving away from all he knew and loved, Nene had to prove himself as a worthy basketball talent, playing in cheap shoes covered in duct tape after they had completely splintered and surviving on what little scraps his poor family could provide.
“I always remember what I’ve been through to be here,” said Nene, who was born Maybyner Rodney Hilario before having his name legally changed to the Portuguese word for “baby” in 2003. “I have no shoes, I have no clothes, but I was blessed. I remember my mom. She have money to buy the food or give to God like you’re supposed to, because we’re Christian. She give to God and say, ‘You know, we don’t have food today, but God is going to provide our future.’ ”
Nene’s future is set financially: He has earned more than $70 million in his first 10 seasons in the NBA and is in the second year of a five-year, $65 million contract. Those riches were a fantasy for Nene when he first began playing professional basketball at age 15. He was motivated by a trading card of former NBA great Shawn Kemp that was given to him by a friend, and by a former coach who told him that a man of his size would have a career as a nightclub bouncer or grocery store bagger if he didn’t stay committed to the game.
“I was like, I need to bust my butt,” Nene said.
Alex Santos, Nene’s business manager and a longtime friend, has known the 6-foot-11 forward since he was about 15 or 16 and remembers how many scoffed at Nene’s plans of playing in the NBA. When Nene left for Cleveland to prepare for the 2002 NBA draft, packing the Kemp card in his wallet for inspiration, Santos said he wasn’t greeted with overwhelming support.
“If he didn’t make it, everybody expect him to fail: ‘See, you shouldn’t have gone there,’ ” Santos said. “He came here and stayed. Nene is very determined, always been like this.”
The Denver Nuggets acquired Nene with the eighth overall pick that summer. Kiki Vandeweghe, Denver’s general manager at the time, starred in college at UCLA, where the words of John Wooden are gospel, and Nene was a physical specimen with good hands and feet and moved in line with Wooden’s principle of being quick but not in a hurry. Nene was stubborn but patient, and always seeking to improve.
“He never seemed like someone who took things for granted. That comes from his background. A very humble person but also very proud,” Vandeweghe said in a telephone interview. “One thing about Nene, you tell him he can’t do something, he’s sure going to give his best shot to do it. He’s a guy that has a very strong force of will and that’s helped him.”
That will was tested in the first game of Nene’s fourth season in November 2005, when he busted his knee in San Antonio and was forced to miss the remainder of the season. The devastating injury was more disconcerting because it came only a few months after he rejected a five-year deal that would’ve paid him between $30 million and $50 million, with incentives. Looking back, Nene believes the injury came at the right time in his life, because it was in the middle of a dispute with his former agent, Michael Coyne, and former business manager, Joe Santos, over what he claims were mishandled funds.
“Everything in my life happen for a reason. If I don’t tear my ligament, I could’ve done something stupid,” Nene said. “You know your friends in a bad moment. I saw a lot of things. I saw players say: ‘He not going to play anymore. He not going to get back.’ That give me strength to get back better. You think I’m not going to get back better? Okay. I’m going to prove that I can. And I prove that.”
‘Why? Why me?’
Nene came back and his current agent, Dan Fegan, negotiated a more lucrative, six-year, $60 million deal, but he would encounter a greater hardship within two years.
A random drug test revealed hormone readings that meant Nene either had been using performance-enhancing drugs or that he had a tumor. Nene knew that he hadn’t done any drugs, but the other option didn’t make much sense to him or anyone else.
“I was like, ‘No way.’ You look at him. Strong like a bull. This is the perfect example of health,” Alex Santos said.
The tumor was removed on Jan. 14, 2008, but the usually upbeat Nene had his moments of trepidation. In the days leading up to his surgery, his friends and family saw him shed tears and express doubt about what the future held. He declined advice from his doctor to receive counseling, believing that Jesus and his Bible would suffice.
“When somebody says cancer, you immediately think death,” said Nene’s wife, Lauren Hilario. “There is no way to avoid the inevitable thought of cancer kills people. And am I going to be able to have children? And I think there was a brief moment of: ‘Am I going to be able to have a family? Am I going to be able to go back to basketball?’ All of the things he loves and cares about were affected all at one time.”
“I say: ‘Why? Why me? All bad dudes around, why me? I’m a good guy,’ ” said Nene, who has since tossed his Kemp card in the trash after disagreeing with the former all-star’s off-court behavior. “But God, when He want to test someone, He put this kind of test and He bless you after that. I had to prove that I can get back from cancer. From cancer!”
Nene was back on the court roughly two months later. He played the final 77 seconds of the Nuggets’ blowout win over the Dallas Mavericks on March 27, 2008, receiving a standing ovation from fans at Pepsi Center that far exceeded his playing time.
‘God chose me’
But at the same time that Nene had his bout with cancer, Lauren was having problems with migraines and blurred vision in her left eye. A benign tumor on her pituitary gland was diagnosed. She had brain surgery on April 2 of that year, and the two had to be strong for each other.
“It’s incredible, because I thought I had faith before that,” Lauren said. “When you have somebody next to you and you’re going through those things and he says, ‘I put all my faith in God and I know everything is going to be okay.’ It’s hard not to be like: ‘Okay. Let’s go get surgery to remove cancer and go have surgery to remove a tumor . . . and go have a baby.’
Lauren held back tears as she began to laugh, knowing that they have since had the child that Nene was so worried about never having. Mateos Hilario is 19 months old and is often seen at Verizon Center in a miniature version of his father’s No. 42 jersey. The couple will celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary on Valentine’s Day.
“I realize God, He marked me, to understand, back in the day when I diagnosed with cancer, He said, ‘You’re going to have it because you’re going to help a lot of people,’ ” said Nene, who has helped motivate children and other cancer survivors with his testimony. “I’m not nothing without God. The things I’ve been through, I been through because He was with me. If I wasn’t, I would’ve fell on the first wall.”
Nene hasn’t been spared challenges since the cancer, with his wife acknowledging that his current bout with plantar fasciitis in his left foot has probably been the most nagging and unrelenting injury of his career. After each game, he immediately places his feet in an ice bucket and returns home, where he sleeps in a protective boot.
The routine, combined with daily treatments and exercise, has been draining but allows him to compete for a team and an organization that has been supportive since his arrival.
“I’m not young anymore. I’m not that kind of athlete, like a younger, got a lot of energy, could play all day, so I need to be smart, take care of my body,” Nene said. “I’ve been through a lot of things, you know. And if I don’t take care of my body, who is going to think about me?
“That is the thing, but I know God, He bless people who work really hard and trust in Him. God have purpose for me. Everything I been though, I don’t think no one my age could pass. God chose me, because I’m strong enough to battle with the kind of situation and I can change people’s lives.”