RIO DE JANEIRO — Eschewing their traditional warmup tops, the Washington Wizards decided to go with a look that signified the importance of playing the first preseason game in the homeland of their one-named big man. With Nene back home to play his first game in front of his countrymen in more than 11 years, the Wizards donned gray T-shirts with green, yellow and black lettering that read, “One Game. One Love. Brasil.”
Nene is a pioneer, the first player from Brazil to play in the NBA, but he is not universally revered here. In fact, Nene got a jolting reminder at HSBC Arena on Saturday that the opposite is actually the case for many. Booed during introductions, when he addressed the crowd and later as he shot free throws, Nene encountered a reaction that was vastly different from what he experienced during an emotional week of handshakes, hugs and smiles for the native of Sao Carlos.
“What we did this week, I had an impact on many lives, many children. So the boos are something that happened,” Nene said after finishing with five points and six rebounds in the Wizards’ 83-81 loss to the Chicago Bulls. “But you have to remember, when I left Brazil, I left Brazil alone, but when I come back, I’m coming with a team. I’m coming back with the NBA, and I’m coming back with my whole family supporting me, and this is something which is very important for me to share with everyone.”
The game forced Nene to face several fans who have been upset with his decision to play for the Brazilian national team only twice since he was drafted seventh overall in 2002. Nene has sat for different reasons — from disputes with Brazilian Basketball Federation officials over money and insurance to injuries.
One of his harshest critics has been Brazilian basketball legend and recent Hall of Fame inductee Oscar Schmidt. Schmidt, known here as “Mao Santa” (“Holy Hand”) for his scoring ability, remains beloved in Brazil, and fans in the sold-out arena showered the man with admiration the moment he entered the building Saturday.
Ignoring the action on the floor, fans gave Schmidt a standing ovation and chanted his name. Later, Schmidt walked to center court as a video montage of his career highlights played on the jumbo screen above, and the fans gave him another ovation, chanting, “Ole, ole, ole Oscar. Os-car! Os-car!”
Coach Randy Wittman had just pulled Nene before the crowd acknowledged Schmidt. Wizards teammates Garrett Temple and Chris Singleton stood to applaud the legend whom they met the day before atop the famed Christ the Redeemer statue. But Nene stayed seated and just slipped on his T-shirt.
“That’s not my fault,” Schmidt said when asked about Nene’s reception. “Everybody knows what he’s done. If you don’t want to play for national team, don’t talk about your country. Ever.”
Asked about his decision not to play for the national team, Nene said, “I don’t have to defend myself because I didn’t steal, I didn’t kill and I didn’t rob.
“Sometimes people try to create a bad situation when one doesn’t exist, but I know everything was the best that could be done,” Nene continued, speaking through a Portuguese interpreter. “I’m here as an example. I know I’m a role model to many people. What I was able to conquer, the people can’t take away from me. That’s one of the reasons basketball has a problem developing in Brazil, but I’m sure that in the future it will be able to grow.”
The Wizards adjusted their usual pregame introductions, with Wall allowing Nene to go last. Nene admitted his relationship with some fans in Brazil was complicated and that he was worried he would get “a little negative” reaction. But he appeared startled when the initial cheers were drowned by jeers.
Nene then grabbed a microphone and smiled uncomfortably as he was booed again. After giving a speech in Portuguese thanking the fans and the NBA for making his dream come true with a game in Brazil, the tone of the fans softened as many began to cheer. Noticeably rattled, Nene got the ball in the low post on the Wizards’ opening possession, backed down Bulls forward Carlos Boozer, turned and shot an air ball — to the delight of his detractors. The boos continued the first time he stepped to the foul line, but he was cheered after his first miss and applauded after he made the second. Nene then pointed to the ceiling as he ran back on defense.
In staging its first game in South America, the NBA paired Nene and the Wizards against a team that has a large following in Brazil.
Former MVP Derrick Rose received the loudest ovation during a fan appreciation event earlier this week, but he was a late scratch after developing soreness in his surgically repaired left knee during Friday’s practice. That didn’t stop the fans from acknowledging the Bulls superstar as they chanted his last name in Portuguese during the fourth quarter.
Nene never received such a display of affection.
“The important thing is that I’m feeling very good, I’m feeling very happy and I’m representing all of the Brazilian players playing abroad,” Nene said. “Instead of celebrating this very special and unique moment, people are sticking to some very small things. We need to forget those things to be able to develop and grow. I know sometimes the truth hurts, but sometimes it’s the best remedy.”
Nene then rose from the podium and walked to the interview room exit. But once he hit the door, Nene stopped to reflect on his journey to the NBA and his incredible four-day return with its dramatic emotional turns, and he was paralyzed. With nothing left to say, Nene sobbed.