by Dave Zirin / @EdgeofSports
There is hope in the world of Washington, DC, basketball for the first time since Gilbert Arenas was dropping 60 on the Lakers with “phenomenal swag” and turning his back before those game-winning shots ripped through the nets. Yet as Red reminded us in The Shawshank Redemption, “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” What could drive us insane in the land of Wizards is that our hope does not depend on the blazing speed of John Wall or the sweet shooting of Bradley Beal. It falls on the impossibly broad shoulders of a 6-11 giant who in 11 years has played one complete season and never averaged even 8 boards a game: That would be the man born Maybyner Rodney Hilario, otherwise known as Nene.
When Nene takes the court, the Wizards have a focal point, an anchor, someone to play through and around. In person, the effect of Nene’s charisma is dramatic. The team’s body language, sense of communication and flow all operate on a different plane when his immovable presence takes residence in the paint. His importance trounces statistical measure.
The way in which Nene’s presence cannot be quantified was something I felt firsthand when I was in Brazil last year. I was there to research a book about the stresses of hosting the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics on this emerging economic super power. A major concern is that the weight of these events will fall on the backs on Brazil’s poor. Amongst many in Brazil’s most impoverished communities, they claim Nene as their own, and for good reason.
Nene hails from Sao Carlos, a hardscrabble city roughly 150 miles from São Paulo, and his status, in a country where soccer, volleyball and even jiu-jitsu are held in higher esteem than hoops, is iconic. Nene would never be considered the greatest Brazilian to ever play the game. That was and always will be the legendary Oscar Schmidt. He is, however, the first Brazilian to be drafted in the first round. He is also someone who had his name changed to just Nene, which ties him to the tradition and history of great Brazilian soccer players from Pele and Garrincha to Ronaldo and Bebeto who used one affectionate nickname to bring themselves down from the pedestals of stardom and cement their connections with their people.
This connection was felt last October when Nene held a basketball clinic in the Alemao favela complex in Rio de Janeiro. As Michael Lee of the Washington Post described, “Nene refused to deny any of [the favelados] a brief encounter, even if it meant he would shake every hand, sign every autograph and pose for every picture.”
The favelas, often precarious communities of the poor, house over one fifth of Rio’s residents. They are often victimized by forced evictions, police brutality and gang violence, all of which has intensified in the leadup to the World Cup and the Olympics. To have someone like Nene travel into the favelas and just be with the children is more than just another episode of NBA Cares—the community service wing of the NBA that staged the event. It is a political act, which makes those in the favela visible to the broader nation and the world. By making them visible, Nene, consciously or not, is making them that much more difficult to be dislodged and treated like they are disposable.
“It’s amazing,” Nene reflected. “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.”
He is right. But this particular impact might be felt in ways far beyond either the Brazilian icon or the NBA could possibly comprehend. Now that he has inspired the favelas in their fight for social justice and dignity, we just need him to stay reasonably healthy and on the court here in DC.