RIO DE JANEIRO — Nene stood at the center of a fenced-in basketball court overlooking one of the many shanty towns, known here as favelas, sprinkled on the outskirts of this city. Children swarmed around him — some wearing sneakers, some flip-flops and a few bouncing on the concrete with their bare feet — clamoring for his attention, tussling for better position.
And Nene refused to deny any of them a brief encounter, even if it meant he would shake every hand, sign every autograph and pose for every picture for nearly 45 minutes after he hosted an hour-long basketball clinic Friday through the NBA Cares program.
Washington Wizards Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Kevin Seraphin, Al Harrington and Glen Rice Jr. and former Chicago Bulls star Horace Grant joined Nene for the clinic at Favela Alemao — a poverty-stricken area where cable cars oddly hover above, offering scenic views of Rio de Janeiro in the distance and the tiny, colorful houses stacked atop one another just below. As his teammates later went on a heavily secured tour of the surrounding area, Nene stayed behind to engage his admirers.
“It’s amazing,” Nene said of the love he has received and given back since returning to his native Brazil. “You don’t need to do a lot. Simple gestures here, you can change people’s day or a kid’s life. In my way here, I just try to spend time with them as much as I can. Sign and take pictures. For me, that’s nothing. That’s my job, but that makes a huge impact on their life.”
The impact that Nene has had on Brazil will be felt Saturday at HSBC Arena, where the Wizards will take on the Chicago Bulls in the first NBA game in South America. In a nation ruled by soccer, Brazil is at the forefront for the league’s efforts to gain a foothold in Latin America. More NBA merchandise is sold in Brazil than any nation in Latin America. It ranks in the top six countries in Twitter followers of the NBA, and an NBA office opened in Rio in September 2012.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said three years ago the league would have a game in Brazil “likely prior to the 2014 World Cup” while adding that his “backup position is prior to the Olympics,” which will be held in Rio in 2016. With Stern set to step down in February, the NBA has delivered on his promises.
“Certainly, the wheels have been in motion for a long time, and the fact that we can get there now is a tremendous accomplishment for us,” Philippe Moggio, vice president of NBA Latin America, said in a recent telephone interview. “The fact that we’re doing this in Brazil signifies the importance of this market. We’re excited and we think that this game is going to be the first of many great things to come in basketball in Brazil over the years.”
Nene will go down as the first player from his country to play in the league, but that success also has come with a backlash. Some in Brazil have been disappointed by his involvement — or lack thereof — with the national team.
Since getting drafted seventh overall in 2002, Nene has represented Brazil in only two international competitions — the 2012 London Olympics and the 2007 FIBA Americas championship — after feuding with the Brazilian Basketball Federation over money and insurance. His stands have put Nene on the wrong side of harsh criticism from Hall of Famer Oscar Schmidt, Brazil’s first huge basketball star.
Though Nene aggravated a left foot injury while playing in the Olympics, his decision to rest this summer led to more negative commentary — notably from Schmidt — after the team failed to win a game in the FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela. For that reason, Nene is uncertain about the reception he will get from fans in his first game in Brazil since he left his former team, Vasco da Gama, in a contract dispute more than 11 years ago.
“It’s going to be amazing. Very positive and a little negative because you can’t make everybody happy. You always have the haters. But I’m not mad at them,” Nene said. “People who know [me], they know my situation. They know I was injured. But the negative, it doesn’t matter what kind of answer you give, they always going to take their own side, so save your words. Save your energy.”
Nene has encountered little negativity this week. Fans have rushed him at almost every turn. “He’s a rock star,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said.
“Nene is the most popular player in Brazil,” said NBA free agent Leandro Barbosa, Nene’s longtime friend. “He’s the one who opened up the door for Brazilians who came up to be NBA players.”
Nene didn’t grow up in a favela, but he understands what the children he worked with on Friday have had to endure. He was pleased that his teammates took the time to explore the surrounding squalor. “It’s a good lesson for them because they are really blessed in America, and when they come here, they see all those peoples, they don’t have that much, but they are very happy. When you think you right there,” Nene said, holding his hand above his head, “you always have to look at these people, and the secret to this life is to be humble. It’s the way they live right here.
“It’s not about reconnecting because I never left,” Nene said when asked about the importance of this week. “I’m so happy to be in my country, my motherland, and to have my people around is special and real because I grew up here, all my basketball life. To feel the feeling of the fans, all the memories that come to my mind, it’s great and fantastic.”