The night before his Saturday afternoon games, Nene would place those shoes next to his pillow and close his eyes in a futile attempt at sleep. Most of the time, he would give up before sunrise and stare at the ceiling, imagining how well he would perform.
“I couldn’t wait,” Nene said. “So excited.”
On the eve of his 12th NBA season, Nene no longer approaches games with the same nervous anticipation. But as the first Brazilian to play in the NBA, he said he might “freak out” when his Wizards take on the Chicago Bulls on Saturday in the first NBA exhibition game in his native country.
The Wizards will catch an 11-hour flight to Rio de Janeiro late Tuesday night, immediately after hosting the Brooklyn Nets at Verizon Center. Over the next four days, Nene will play the role of host and ambassador on a trip intended to help the NBA establish more traction in a nation that will soon be the center of the global sports scene with the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
But Nene also will have a chance to reconnect with many of the people — some who still call him Maybyner (pronounced my-ben-er) — who helped him make a name for himself in a place more known for producing soccer stars such as Pele, Garrincha, Ronaldo and Ronaldhino.
“To be Brazilian and to be a pro NBA athlete for all these years, you have to think about all the sacrifices, all the blessing I have,” said Nene, 31. “It’s really hard to think about. For sure it’s going to be emotional, because nothing in my life came easy. It was always the hard way.”
‘You’re in the wrong sport’
Basketball was neither Nene’s first sport (he began practicing judo at age 3) nor his first love (like most in his soccer-crazed country, he fell hard for futebol
). But he started playing the sport at age 10 after a coach at a local recreational center noticed how Nene was too agile and powerful for handball and told him that he should consider putting a ball in a hoop.
“He said: ‘I think you’re in wrong sport. Too simple for you.’ That is why I started playing basketball,” Nene said. “Before I had no clue about basketball. My first love in sport was soccer, for sure. My blood was soccer.”
The coach introduced Nene to Nivaldo Meneghelli, a former club-level player who had opened a basketball school in 1991 to give kids in Sao Carlos an alternative to soccer. Nene didn’t immediately embrace the game but he connected with Meneghelli, who mixed a hard-nosed style with a generous spirit and saw potential in the tall, skinny and over-aggressive kid.