By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007
LAS VEGAS, Aug. 25 -- Nene watched Brazilian teammate Wellington dos Santos get shoved into a basket support on Friday and rushed to his defense, giving the offending party, Venezuela's Jose Vargas, a menacing look as he was restrained by an official. Moments later, with Brazil leading by 21 points late in the fourth quarter, Nene chased down a loose ball, cupped it in his hand and saved it before crashing into the scorer's table.
Toughness and hustle, two of the qualities that Nene provides for the Denver Nuggets, are back on the Brazilian national team after the 6-foot-11 power forward ended an almost four-year dispute with the Brazilian Basketball Confederation over issues such as money and insurance.
Phoenix Suns point guard Leandro Barbosa was among those who pestered Nene to return and help Brazil qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time since 1996, when Oscar Schmidt was the star of the team. "I was a pain in his [butt]," Barbosa said. "I'm very happy he changed his mind and is here. We've been needing him for four years, but finally he's in and we're very happy about that."
Brazil needs to finish first or second here to earn an automatic berth in the 2008 Olympics. And, with Nene and Barbosa, the reigning NBA sixth man of the year, on the roster, it is considered one of the top challengers -- along with 2004 Olympic champion Argentina -- to the United States in the FIBA Americas Championship. That assertion will be put to the test Sunday when Brazil faces the United States.
"It's going to be a hard game," said Barbosa, Brazil's leading scorer. "I'm happy that people have been saying that [Brazil is one of the best teams here] but we need to do well, so that what they've been saying is true. Nothing has happened. We have a lot of work to do."
The United States has been able to dominate smaller teams such as Venezuela and the Virgin Islands with 6-foot-8 Carmelo Anthony starting at power forward, but Brazil isn't lacking for size with four players 6-10 and taller, including Nene and Tiago Splitter, a first-round pick of the San Antonio Spurs. "They have a lot of tough, physical guys," said Anthony, Nene's teammate in Denver.
Forward Marcus De Souza, a member of the New Orleans Hornets, is also on the team, but the Brazilians don't have NBA players Anderson Varejao or Rafael Araujo, as they are still negotiating contracts as free agents.
The depth of this team is obvious, though, as Brazil won its third consecutive Pan American Games last month in Rio de Janeiro without Nene or Barbosa. "I really like Brazil," Canada Coach Leo Rautins said. "They've played together for a while. They all know each other extremely well and they have quality players at every position. They can go big. They can go quick. Subs come in and there is no drop off. Even their stars, Nene and Barbosa, they are team guys."
Barbosa and Nene have risen in the ranks of Brazilian national teams since they were 15 and developed a tight bond. But Barbosa didn't know when he and Nene would be teammates, much less friends, again after they had a falling out almost two years ago. Barbosa fired the agent both players shared when they entered the NBA, Michael Coyne, and Nene stopped talking to him.
Nene, who has since parted with Coyne as well, approached Barbosa after a Denver-Phoenix game last February to make amends. "I think he recognized that he made a mistake and I was waiting for him to come up to me and say, 'I made a mistake,' " Barbosa said. "I knew that one day, we would be close again."
With the relationship healed, Barbosa was able to help persuade Nene to join one of the best teams Brazil has assembled. They are roommates in Las Vegas, laughing and joking as if they were teenagers again. "That's my brother," Nene said. "It's a pleasure to be together, because during the season, we don't have the chance."
Although they haven't played together since 2003 and Nene joined the team less than two weeks ago, Barbosa said the reunion on the floor has been seamless. "I know what he likes to do on the court, where he wants to be," Barbosa said. "He give me a look, I give him a look and we know exactly what we're talking about."
Ask why he is finally back, teaming with Barbosa and Brazil, Nene said: "Ask God, God knows the time. I'm here. I come back at a good time."