RIO DE JANEIRO — The Washington Wizards arrived in Brazil early Wednesday morning, on a long, late-night flight, after just completing a basketball game that went into overtime, and waiting another hour or so for the plane to take off. They had little time to get their legs underneath them, and the crust from out of the corner of their eyes, before they were inside a tiny fieldhouse with awkward fluffy nets hanging from the rims.
But after taking in the views of the Ipanema Beach from their hotel windows, posing for a team photograph with iconic Sugarloaf Mountain in the background and basking in an otherwise perfect, sunny day, the Wizards had nothing to complain about as they prepared for the NBA’s first exhibition game in South America against the Chicago Bulls.
“Kind of hectic. Long flight, but it’s amazing,” forward Martell Webster said. “I think it’s more emotional than anything. Everybody is happy to be here. There are a lot of people that grow up and have a lifetime where they never leave their country or never leave their state, and the fact that the NBA has brought us to this beautiful country and beautiful city is just amazing. It’s an honor.”
The NBA brought the Wizards to Brazil as an opportunity to raise interest in its brand with the 2016 Olympics set for Rio de Janeiro. Though Saturday’s game will feature a former league most valuable player in Derrick Rose and a fellow former No. 1 pick in John Wall, the event will mostly serve as a homecoming and showcase for native son Nene, the first Brazilian to play in the NBA after being drafted seventh overall in 2002.
Nene arrived at the Clube de Regatas do Flamengo facility for practice and immediately began hugging old friends and sharing laughs. Flamengo coach Jose Neto, who led his team to the Brazilian league championship in May and coached Nene as an assistant on the 2012 Brazilian national team, stopped to chat with him at center court.
Neto then asked Nene to pose for a picture while holding up a T-shirt of Flamengo, Nene’s former rival during his days playing for Vasco da Gama. Afterward, dozens of reporters followed Nene to a small chair near a basket stanchion, fought each other for position and crowded around him for a lengthy chat in Portuguese.
“All the media wants to talk to him, I can sit back for the day,” Wall said with a grin. “It’s like him going back to Denver, but this is bigger, because this is where he was born and raised and all of the tough struggles and the hard times that he had to go through to make it in the NBA. It’s great to see.”
Nene joked that he enjoyed doing interviews in Portuguese for once because, “I don’t need to think that much, so the words come and I answer.” Words weren’t required to express how much fun he was having. The huge smile that he flashed while checking into the hotel, as he got on and off the team bus greeting admirers, and went through practice drills was more than enough.
“It’s always good to be back in my home, in my country, to be with my people. It was very warm reception. When I was little, I grew up playing here. Like all the feeling, all the emotion is coming back,” Nene said. “It’s no secret because of the way we live here. We live very simple. And we always respect people because the difficulty here is every day, so they know what they supposed to do to make people feel better.”
Although most of his players used the long flight to nap, Coach Randy Wittman and his staff took some time to break down film of the loss to Brooklyn. Had the Wizards been back in Washington, Wittman would’ve given his players the day off but he wanted them to run out the jet lag so that they get back to business Thursday for practice at HBC Arena. The team still has plenty of kinks to work out, but Wittman doesn’t want that to be the only focus in Brazil — especially with the players’ friends and family around for the excursion.
“It’s a good distraction,” Wittman said of the trip. “We can really bond. We’ve got some team dinners. We’re going to do a lot of things together, seeing the sights, enjoying that part of it. I want these guys to experience, to have the experience of going out and learning the culture, a new part of the world that a lot of these guys have never been to.”
Bradley Beal said he is looking forward to eventually visiting the 99-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue and has already pressured Nene to get some of his teammates tickets to Thursday’s big soccer match between local powers Flamengo and Internacional.
“To be in a different country and just see their favorite sport and their nationality and their culture and how intense it is, it will probably be a great experience. Maybe he’ll have a surprise for us, who knows?” said Beal, who believes the game against the Bulls will be “a great opportunity for us to give back to Nene, to show our appreciation for him and the country that he’s from.”
Nene is thrilled to introduce his teammates to his homeland. “It’s great for them to see my reality, the way I grew up and everything my culture has to offer people,” Nene said. “Brazil’s a very [special] place to get that foundation, to be humble and enjoy the life.”