RIO DE JANEIRO — With friends, family members, wives and significant others joining them, Washington Wizards players, coaches and front office staffers gathered at Porcao, a popular steakhouse near Ipanema beach, for a massive team dinner last week. The finest cuts of beef weren’t all that they shared on a night when rookie Otto Porter Jr. was forced to sing “Happy Birthday” to Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld’s wife, Nancy, and forward Trevor Ariza elicited laughs with a practical joke on Coach Randy Wittman.
Ariza, according to witnesses, lifted a glass of wine above Wittman’s head and acted as if he was going to pour it on him. Wittman’s reaction was on par with watching one of his players blow a defensive assignment — until he realized the glass had a lid on it.
“He laughed. He enjoyed it,” Ariza said of the joke. “We had a lot of fun. I think we needed that.”
The Wizards’ four-day trip to Brazil, which ended with Saturday’s 83-81 loss to the Chicago Bulls in the first NBA exhibition played in South America, was about fun and a game. And if they are fortunate enough to end a six-year postseason drought in April, they will look back on the laughter and time spent on their first road trip of the season as the team-building exercise that charted the course.
“This team, we’re pointing toward the playoffs. There is no reason, if we can stay healthy, that that should not be done,” Wittman said. “That being first, this was fabulous. These four days was the most spectacular four days I’ve had in a long time, and I’ve been all over the world. And the way the people treated us . . . is the best I’ve seen. And we had a ball. We were here to work, but we were able to go out and do a lot of things. We bonded as a team, and that’s not something we get to do very often.”
They practiced, enthusiastically rooted on Garrett Temple as he defeated Bulls guard Tony Snell during a three-point competition at an NBA fan appreciation event and often ate team meals together. But the Wizards also mixed in sightseeing on Friday afternoon, when a handful joined John Wall at an Adidas-sponsored event to visit the city’s famed Christ the Redeemer statue and several more attended an NBA charity function with native son Nene that included a basketball clinic and a tour of Favela Alemao, a slum on the north side of the city. Some also killed their limited spare time with trips to the beach.
“I’m pretty glad we’re doing that this year — getting everybody together, getting a feel, getting to know everybody better,” guard Bradley Beal said. “As a team, it brings us closer.”
Ariza, who assisted Nene at the clinic, was moved by his visit and came away with a greater appreciation for what matters to him. “It’s always a learning experience, and it helps me not take things for granted. Especially seeing the way a number of the Brazilian people live, it’s very humbling,” Ariza said. “I don’t see stuff that I’m used to. At all. I mean, we’re privileged. We have a lot to be thankful for because I don’t know if we could survive or live the way that people live here. It’s humbling. We’re grateful for what we’ve got. It’s a total different way of living.”
Wall made a few memories of his own during his visit to Corcovado mountain, where he stood at the feet of the 99-foot statue that overlooks this picturesque city and posed for several pictures. He also met Brazilian basketball legend Oscar Schmidt.
“I went to China [last summer for a shoe company promotional tour], and I didn’t have the chance to see the Great Wall of China, because we was so busy, so I’m happy we got the opportunity to break away and see something like that,” he said. “Whenever you get an opportunity to see a different culture, I think it’s a great experience. It’s just exciting, being one of the two NBA franchises that get an opportunity to play that first NBA game in Brazil, to have that opportunity when they have the Olympics coming here in 2016.”
The only major downside for the Wizards was that Nene received a lousy reception from fans at the game at HSBC Arena over his decision not to play more frequently for Brazil’s national team.
The reaction was in stark contrast to an overwhelming show of affection he received as he maneuvered throughout town. Nene hosted two basketball clinics (the other involved children with special needs). On Friday at the favela, Nene had an encounter with a child that ended with the boy weeping in Nene’s arms, refusing to let go.
“The children, they have to have an idol. They have to have a better future. People have to understand the sport is growing in Brazil,” Nene said. “We make history right now in Brazil and my family, the Washington Wizards, come here to my country and know a little bit of the culture. That’s important to me.”