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.”
A big next step
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.