by Lang Whitaker

The good news is today we finish with SLAM 116 and get it out to the printer, so I’ll have more time to focus on The Links. The bad news is that we’re not done just yet, so I don’t have time to focus on writing something today.

Still, wanted to say something briefly. I watched the Hawks/Nuggets game last night on League Pass, and we got the Denver broadcast, which meant there was a good deal of talk about Nenê, who missed last night’s game after having a testicular tumor removed. Even though I’ve never actually spoken to Nenê, one of the favorite stories of my SLAM career was the story I wrote on Nenê back in 2003, after his rookie season.

He was still largely unknown at the time, and he didn’t speak much English at all, so I did the entire interview with him over the phone, through a translator. Then, when it came time to do the photo shoot with Nenê, he was back in Brazil. But ace SLAM photographer Atiba Jefferson just happened to be on vacation in Brazil, so we got Atiba and Nenê hooked up and the two of them spent a day in Nenê’s hometown. Atiba came back with some truly stunning pictures, and I used those photos and a couple more interviews with Nenê (via translator) to piece his story together. And I think it turned out really well.

So, as we all say a quick prayer today for Nenê, here’s a little something to give you some insight into where Nenê comes from…

BABY BOY
by Lang Whitaker

Baby Boy stood on the pitch and held the ball in his dirty hands. It was not the kind of that ball he’d grown up with. This ball was orange and pebbled, a little bit flat and worn down soft. He was used to the paneled ball, with big black and white octagons, smooth all the way around with slight indentions on each seam. And that ball, the futbol, he was never allowed to touch. Now this orange one, he wasn’t allowed to kick? What the hell was this?

A car horn honked, not a strong HONK! like a locomotive but a weak bleep, like a goose being strangled. The kids surrounding Baby Boy on the soccer field giggled and pointed as Nivaldo Meneghelli drove up in his jeep. Meneghelli ran some federation or something, Baby Boy knew, but he did not know exactly what it was. Bass ball, or maybe Back is ball, something like that. What he did know is that Meneghelli would show up from time to time with his jeep, then stick a long pole onto the trailer hitch. The pole had a wooden board and a metal ring stuck on the top, and when Meneghelli set the whole contraption up, it looked like some sort of tremendous bird, hovering high above them all.

The boy did not know that Meneghelli was a basketball missionary. The government of this city they lived in, Sao Carlos, in the Sao Paolo state of Brazil, slipped Meneghelli a little bit of money from time to time — because in Brazil, money is almost never openly given but nearly always slipped under one table or another — and told him to go and proselytize the children, to teach them to play basketball, to keep them busy and out of trouble. Meneghelli had a tattered court at his school, where they would sometimes play, but he usually had to go find the kids. Since there were few basketball courts, and the only vast stretches of land were dedicated to soccer, Meneghelli would have to drive up and across the touchlines and put it in park right there on the withered grass. If heaven is a playground, then this was a parallel universe, some bizarro, displaced heaven.

After dark, Baby Boy would go to his cinder block house. When it rained, he would lay in bed and listen to the drop rat-a-tat off the tin roof. Although his name was Maybyner, everyone called him Nenê (pronounced “nuh-NAY“), which means Baby, since he was the youngest of the three Hilario children. Nenê shared a room with his older brother, Maykon. Their only sister, Mayaramy, one year older than Nenê, also lived there, as did their parents and their grandmother. They all shared two bedrooms, until a few years passed and they saved enough to add a third bedroom.

They were not rich, but they got by, pitching in and helping out. Nenê’s dad, Jose Paulo, worked as a radio technician. His Mom, Carmen, was a nurse. Life in Brazil revolved around family and love and samba and, always, soccer. Nenê’s favorite team was “always Sao Paolo. I’m a Sao Paolistano.” The boy’s hero was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, another kid that grew up in a small Brazilian town, turned pro early, and became known everywhere by just one name: Pele.

One of the biggest problems the Hilarios faced was the big problem: Nenê. He may have been the youngest, but he was huge, easily the tallest kid in his class. His feet dangled off the end of his bed at home and his clothes struggled to keep up with his body. The name Nenê quickly became a joke.

As Nenê was such an enormous kid, and since he was a great natural athlete, when he was 12 years old, one of his teachers sent him to Meneghelli, who enrolled Nenê in his basketball school. When Nenê’s parents couldn’t afford to send him any longer, Meneghelli allowed him to continue his lessons for free.

Nenê got his first dunk at 13, and soccer became an afterthought. Though Nenê’s favorite soccer players were other one-named Brazilians — “the great ones like Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Romario, Bebeto, Cafu” — if Nenê wanted to be known by just this one name, it would be through basketball.

Seeing that Nenê was getting the hang of basketball, Meneghelli began having him play on the jeep-goal while he was driving. “He would park and then drive,” Nenê recalls, “and then I’d have to get the rebounds.” This made Nenê probably the only player in the history of the NBA that learned to rebound on a basket that could be measured not only in feet but in miles per hour.

The NBA was not on regular TV in Brazil, and since the Hilarios did not have cable, Nenê had to go to the homes of friends who had “better conditions” than his own to catch NBA action. He did not get many games or many players, so when his friends would ask him if he knew about this player or that player, or if he had seen this move or that move, he would say “Yeah, yeah, he’s great,” or, “I love that move,” and pretend that he knew what they were talking about, just so he could fit in.

Soon after turning 17, Baby Boy began his journey, leaving Sao Carlos and moving to the soul of the country, Rio De Janeiro, to play for the Vasco de Gama basketball club. He had been playing basketball for only five years. Standing nearly 6-9, at a solid 230 pounds, with a 7-5 wingspan and a bodyfat ratio just under 7 percent, Baby boy was now a man, with arms as broad and wide as the enormous Jesus statue that stands watch over Rio, arms stretched to the heavens.

Nenê finished his rookie year averaging only 7.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, though Vasco won the Brazilian championship. Nenê earned a spot with the Brazilian National Team, and the 18-year-old played with Brazil in the South American championships and made the All-Star team. When the 2001 Goodwill Games game around, he earned a trip to Australia. Even better, he got to wear his lucky number 13 (he was born on September 13).

The team to beat in Australia was from the big bad United States, starring names he sort knew, like Jermaine O’Neal, Kenyon Martin and Baron Davis. Nenê picked the right time to shine. With America’s hoops heads watching Brazil play the U.S.A., Nenê blocked O’Neal three straight times on one play, and he also swatted shots from Miller and Wally Szczerbiak. O’Neal would later say that Nenê looked like he was “on a trampoline.”

Although the U.S. ended up winning in overtime, Nenê scored eight points and snagged seven boards to go with his five blocks, even though he played just 18 minutes due to foul trouble.

Back in Brazil, his salary of just over $1,000 a month was not ridiculously low. The problem was that Vasco de Gama, like many businesses in Brazil’s constantly struggling economy, was having trouble writing checks on time. Nenê had been in touch with a talent scout named Joe Santos, who lived in Brazil. Santos had been talking to an agent in Cleveland named Michael Coyne, who came down and watched the big kid play. They saw what the world would soon see.

By early 2002, Nenê was running out of options. He had not been paid in a few weeks, and his parents were both out of work. And so on March 25, Nenê got on a plane with Santos and Coyne and came to America.

They landed in Cleveland, where Nenê saw snow for the first time. As confusing as that snow was, his life was even more of a question mark. NBA teams knew he was built like a more-muscular Kevin Garnett, but his fundamentals were a disaster. Scouts said that Nenê had “unlimited potential,” which is deceiving in that while it implies that he could get better, what it doesn’t say is that he wasn’t very good at the time.

When he got to Cleveland, he began working out vigorously, on the court and in the weight room. He’d grown an inch to 6-10, and his lifting sessions bulked him to 260. Coyne, Santos and Nenê hoped Baby Boy might be good enough to make the NBA. If he wasn’t they hoped he could go to Europe and play. If worst came to worst, he was still under contract to Vasco de Gama.

NBA teams came to Cleveland to see this whispered-about phenom. Then Nenê hit the road, working out everywhere from Golden State to New York. When he got to the NBA pre-Draft camp in Chicago, the Baby Boy who grew up with nothing destroyed every proven commodity on the physical tests, finishing second overall to J.R. Bremer, but well ahead of Jay Williams (who was seventh) and Amare Stoudemire (twelth).

Life bent one like Roberto Carlos on Draft night, hours after Ronaldo led Brazil to a World Cup championship, when Nenê was drafted seventh by the Knicks. Fans chanted “Fire Layden” and booed Nenê mercilessly, simply because his name meant nothing to them. Three minutes later, he was traded to the Nuggets. “To be honest, I didn’t really know what was going on,” Nenê recalls. “I just wanted to be chosen, and the longer I waited, the sweatier my hands got.”

Nenê liked Denver, which was oddly like Sao Carlos. Both cities are quiet, in the interiors of their states and generally calm. (Though Nenê adds: “Brazil is Brazil. The men are different, the women are different.”)

Nenê used part of his rookie contract to buy out his Vasco de Gama deal, then purchased his parents a huge house in Sao Carlos. For himself, he bought an Escalade. In Denver, Nenê lives with Santos, who serves as his translator. Nenê spends a lot of time surfing the internet, answering email from his website (Nene31.com), watching BET or playing Xbox games. He likes watching the NFL because of “the way they always look like they’re beating each other up.” His CD changer is stocked with R&B and samba.

His inability to speak English kept him from communicating much with his teammates, though everyone quickly learned that some things are universal. During a game early in the season, Denver coach Jeff Bzdelik stood and called out a play. “Run five-up! Run five-up!”

Realizing Nenê was on the court, Bzdelik spun around to the bench. “Joe, Joe,” he screamed to Santos, “tell Nenê to run five-up!”

Santos stood and yelled, “Nenê! Run five-up!”

“X’s and O’s and lines on the chalkboard, I can’t really translate,” Santos explained later.

On the court, communication was all pointing or making eye contact. It worked well enough that Nenê posted double figures in either points or rebounds in every game but one in March. He played 80 games, plus the rookie/sophomore game on All-Star weekend, and made the All-Rookie first team, finishing the year averaging 10.5 ppg and 6.1 rpg.

“The speed on the court was the biggest surprise for me,” Nenê says. “Everyone is so fast, and they’re the best in the world. You finish one game, and the next night, everyone is just as good. Also, everyone can dunk on your head.”

To get better, Nenê needs fundamentals, namely a consistent jumper anywhere outside the lane. Dunking on everyone is impressive, but it cannot last. Nenê understands this, but as the first Brazilian player to really make it in the NBA, he still feels as though he has accomplished something.

“To reach the NBA for me was a success, as far as my first level of success. I want a lot more in the League. I want to become a recognized player and I hope to be more succesful.”

Once his rookie season ended, Nenê went back to Sao Carlos, where he saw the same friends he used to watch NBA games on cable with. “They were so happy to have seen me play,” Nenê says, although there were just three Nuggets games on TV in Brazil this season. When they asked him who his best friend on the team was, he told them Juwan Howard.

One day while he was back home, soaking up the Brazil that he loves so much, Baby Boy went back to Meneghelli’s basketball school, where he saw the basketball court he’d learned on, kicked the tires of that jeep he’d chased around, visited Meneghelli’s latest group of kids. The kids did not get to see much of Baby Boy on television this season, but the League has said it plans to show more Nuggets games in Brazil in the years to come.

But by seeing Nenê in person, seeing another of those one-named superstars, the words painted across one of Meneghelli’s walls probably made a lot more sense: “Nenê + Denver = NBA. Tudo comecou aqui.”

“Nenê plus Denver equals NBA. It all started here.”