“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.