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.