All around Nene, his Washington Wizards teammates were making their final preparations on Saturday for a game against the Indiana Pacers. A few were getting stretched out by trainers. Others were watching film of the opponent and some were reciting their favorite lines from comedian Dave Chappelle.
Left leg elevated on a folding chair as he received treatment on his injured left foot, and wearing a pair of oversize headphones, Nene closed his eyes and listened to Brazilian pagode music. He was following the rhythms on the back of his iPad mini, tapping along as if it were a percussion instrument.
With the Wizards (0-5) one of just two remaining winless teams in the NBA and John Wall also injured, Nene admitted he feels pressure to return and help on the court, not just serve as some cheerleader or sage veteran passing along wisdom. But the desire to fix a problem that has plagued him for nearly 11 months outweighs the temptation to rush back.
“I want that thing to heal 100 percent, because I don’t want to shrink my career,” Nene said. “I need to take care of it right now. I want to finish the pain, because it is still painful. I try sometimes, like, ‘Hurry up,’ when I have physical therapy. That could be a mistake. I need to be true with myself and know this is a serious situation.”
Nene, 30, visited Mark S. Myerson, the medical director at the Institute for Foot and Ankle Reconstruction at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, last week and said he was told that he was “probably three weeks away.” When asked to elaborate on whether that meant he would play or begin practicing in three weeks, Nene hedged off a specific timeline, simply explaining how he continues to deal with soreness as a result of plantar fasciitis near the heel of his left foot.
For the first time, Nene spoke at length about how the problem began and the frustration he feels about the injury and with outsiders who don’t understand its severity.
“They have no clue,” Nene said, adding that he actually tore a ligament in the bottom of his foot and that another is irritated and causing more problems. “They think it’s simple pain.”
Nene said he started feeling discomfort in his left foot last December in Denver, “because I worked real hard during the lockout.” The culprit may have been “bad shoes,” he said, but he also felt obligated to keep playing through it after the Nuggets gave him a five-year, $65 million contract in free agency.
Denver shut him down for a few games in January — including a win in Washington — with a “bruised left heel” and was forced to give him an extended break after he played 22 minutes in Indiana and the problem spread to his left calf. Nene missed 10 consecutive games to rest and said he also received a cortisone shot to numb the pain.
“That make my bone weak and I don’t take enough time to recover,” Nene said of the shot. “Usually, you’re supposed to take three weeks, four weeks, I just took like 10 days.”
Nene returned to play five more games for Denver before the Wizards acquired him in a three-team trade that shipped out JaVale McGee and Nick Young. But the 6-foot-11 big man admitted that during his final months with the Nuggets, he rarely practiced, choosing to tax his body — and his foot — in games instead.
“It was like Allen Iverson: I practice? Or I play in game? Because the pain was so crazy,” Nene said of his last days in Denver.
In his sixth game with the Wizards, Nene was forced to leave during a win over Philadelphia after the tendon in his left foot became inflamed again. He would miss the next 10 games and the play the final five, all Wizards wins, in limited minutes off the bench.
Nene took time off after the season but began training with the Brazilian national team as it prepared for the London Olympics. He wasn’t at full strength in London, where he averaged seven points and eight rebounds in five games, sitting out a win over Spain with soreness in the same foot.
“It’s a privilege to be in the Olympics. To have that kind of experience in your career. . . is a big thing,” Nene said, adding that he was disappointed with his performance. “I knew I could do better. People don’t know when you go to the hotel room, for the physical therapy, how many times I cried in pain. They don’t know that.”
Nene rested once the Olympics ended, giving his foot the opportunity to heal properly. He has worked closely with Myerson and Thomas O. Clanton, an orthopedic surgeon at the the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., and is taking their advice to remain patient.
The Wizards knew they wouldn’t have Nene for training camp, but they did not place a timetable on his return. He experienced a minor setback last month and needed electronic stimulation to get back on track.
Nene recently started feeling sore as he increased his work load and has since backed off some. He’s now limited to lifting weights, riding the bike and running on an anti-gravity treadmill.
“A lot of motion irritates it a little bit, so I just need to slow down,” Nene said. “Playing a season, playing on it in the summer, that make a hard time to my foot. . . . I’ll be back. I believe God will have good things for me. That’s the reason I pay the hard price right now. He prepare good things for me.
“To be around the team, you try to push yourself, some time you don’t have the patience necessary to recover but we’re talking about my career. I need that straight,” said Nene, adding that until he returns, “we just need to stick together. Keep fighting. Keep playing and at the right time, I know God is going to bless us.”
Tomorrow, 7 p.m., Comcast SportsNet