They were just shoes, but they represented so much more to young Maybyner Rodney Hilario. A gift from the coach who molded the man now known as Nene into a basketball player, those wine-colored Nike high tops were with him as he developed the passion for a game that would take him from the city of Sao Carlos, Brazil, to his current job as a big man with the Washington Wizards.
Wearing the sneakers until they were tattered and held together with duct tape, Nene stood out at school, church or when he ran to a friend’s house to watch NBA games on cable TV. And of course, Nene kept them on when he was learning the game at the gym of a tiny basketball school in his home town.
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.”
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.
“I always believed he was going to be a member of the national team when he started getting really good at it. I also thought he would play for one of the many powers in Europe,” Meneghelli said recently through an interpreter. “But as far as the NBA, that was too far away to me. Because back in the day, it was not the global game that it is today, for somebody to make it from a different country was extremely hard, so it wasn’t necessarily in someone’s plans.”
Nene’s basketball career was nearly cut short after his father, Jose Paulo, lost his job and the family could no longer afford to send him to the school. Meneghelli noticed that his prized pupil had missed almost two weeks of practice and became concerned. Nene’s mother, Carmen, would later explain the situation to Meneghelli, but he wouldn’t let that be the end of the relationship.
“We have about 200 kids here, that practice here. If we can practice 200, we can have 201,” Meneghelli said he told Carmen.
Sensitive to Nene’s financial plight, Meneghelli gave Nene some athletic apparel and his first pair of basketball shoes. When he became a more prominent force on Meneghelli’s travel teams, Nene repaid his coach by assisting him on recruiting journeys throughout remote parts of the city of 200,000, located about three hours northwest of Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo.
“That man, he made tons of basketball players. He teach the right way. All my foundation, it’s because of him,” Nene said of Meneghelli, who currently coaches Nene’s nephew, Lucas. “It’s very hard to catch that pure diamond, when it’s dirty to make bright. They don’t want to do that job. It’s a lot of sacrifice, a lot of dedication, a lot of love.”
By the time he turned 16, Nene had already established a reputation as one of the more talented young players in Brazil and attracted the attention of Vasco da Gama, one of the best professional clubs in South America. Carmen had resisted overtures from the soccer club programs that showed interest in Nene a few years before, but she felt he was old enough to move out on his own.
The youngest member of his family, Nene — whose name means “baby” in Portuguese — left behind the modest, three-bedroom, orange cinder-block home that he shared with his parents, his brother Maykon, his sister Mayaramy and his grandmother. But because he was set to take on a salary of about $18,000 — which was more than 10 times what most earned in Sao Carlos — Nene couldn’t pass on the opportunity.
“I didn’t have luxury or nothing like that. My mom did the best. My dad did the best, like they could,” Nene said. “It was hard. The beginning is hard. You know you’re going to have bad times, some day you’re going to feel alone. But all the experience I had made my life better, to be where I am today. And who I am today. When I came to the league I was by myself. I didn’t speak the language. That’s how I was.”
Five months after he started playing for a smaller club team in Barueri, Nene was quickly moved over to Vasco da Gama in Rio de Janeiro. At the time, he was a 6-foot-9, 230-pound athlete with a sizable wingspan and undeniable talent.
“He would play like an American guy. He was so athletic, every time he gets it, he goes at the rim and dunks it on everyone,” said Alex Santos, Nene’s former club teammate and his current business manager. “The young kids would be into it, but the older ones [said], ‘He’s being disrespectful toward us,’ because he would be banging on people.”
Nene admitted that he had a fearless attitude but was respectful of the veterans, who kept him in line with playful hazing exercises like shaving his eyebrows. He helped Vasco da Gama win Brazilian titles in 2000 and 2001, but he announced himself on the international scene with an impressive performance at the 2001 Goodwill Games in Australia, where he led Brazil to the bronze medal.
In the semifinals against an American team that featured young stars such as Baron Davis, Shawn Marion, Kenyon Martin and Jermaine O’Neal, Nene had eight points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots as Brazil lost in overtime. Nene couldn’t leave the arena without hearing pitches from agents about his potential. TNT analyst Kenny Smith even tried to recruit him to play at his alma mater, North Carolina. The experience mostly opened Nene’s eyes to the possibility of playing in the NBA, something that he never seriously considered.
“Nene exploded really quick,” said Sandro Varejao, Nene’s teammate on the Brazilian national team and Vasco da Gama and the brother of Cleveland Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao.
“He was handling any man, any competition. It was pretty obvious he was going to take it to the next level. He was a fast learner and with the attitude that he had, you can’t go wrong with a kid like that.”
In his third season with Vasco da Gama, Nene grew increasingly frustrated with the team’s refusal to pay him his salary. He said that he sometimes had to borrow money to eat and get by. Eventually, Nene had made up his mind that he would have to leave Brazil.
Nene claimed that he had orally committed to a six-figure deal to play for Spanish club Barcelona, where he would join Anderson Varejao, his teammate with the Brazilian national team. But before Nene signed the contact, his former business manager Joe Santos — a contact for Cleveland-based agent Michael Coyne — had traveled to Sao Carlos, befriended Nene’s family and convinced him that he could play in the NBA, where he would make considerably more as a first-round pick.
After going more than three months without a paycheck from Vasco de Gama, a 20-year-old Nene decided to leave with Santos for Cleveland, where he would train in preparation for the 2002 NBA draft. Nene, however, encountered a problem upon his arrival.
“I just see white. It was my first time seeing snow. I said, ‘I trade Rio for this place here?’ ” Nene said with a laugh. “Think about it. I left Rio de Janeiro, it was almost 82 degrees. Nice. You land on Cleveland on ice. All white. I couldn’t see nothing. I told my guy: ‘I don’t want to stay here. Are you kidding me?’ ”
But Nene had come too far to turn back. He was determined to take the next step in a journey that began in a pair of dingy, wine-colored shoes.