Nene has battled injuries and cancer throughout his NBA career, but its… (/ )
The moment will never be forgotten, because it represented a possible detour — or end — to the life and career of a man who had already overcome such hardscrabble beginnings. But the dates, the feelings, the struggle had mostly been buried into the crevices of Nene’s memory, a chapter in his life that doesn’t require any special celebrations or recognition years later.
For Nene, surviving a diagnosis of testicular cancer at age 25 only serves as a reminder of how much the Washington Wizards forward has been blessed, and how he believes God chose him to handle yet another seemingly insurmountable obstacle to serve as an example for others.
Nene, 30, didn’t even realize that last month he had reached the fifth anniversary of his surgery to remove the tumor because he was more concerned about fighting through a stomach virus to help the Wizards defeat the Orlando Magic that evening. Still feeling the effects of his stomach ailment a day later, Nene simply reacted with a smile and surprise when told of the milestone as he munched on a grilled cheese sandwich and sipped soup in his hotel room.
“Wow. I don’t keep track,” he said. “I don’t keep track.”
But when the Wizards made a surprise visit to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis a few weeks later, Nene was forced to confront his toughest physical challenge as the players walked through the patient care center and medicine room, where children received cancer treatment. There, Nene was suddenly overwhelmed by the sensations of his own chemotherapy treatments — the burning in his limbs, the goose bumps, the taste on his tongue that he described as “salty and spicy,” and the fear that his organs would eventually shut down.
“It was like, amazing. A long time I don’t feel like that,” Nene said, before reflecting on that difficult period. “For four weeks, I was sick, I was weak. I could feel the liquid moving in the veins. I feel like a science fiction movie, where the liquid comes all over your body. It was like that.”
‘God is going to provide’
Nene credits his deep faith for helping him become the first player from Brazil to be drafted into the NBA and for giving him the strength to get through the many physical and emotional hurdles that have followed.
Before cancer, there was the torn anterior cruciate ligament, sprained medial collateral ligament and torn meniscus in his right knee suffered two minutes into the 2005-06 season. Before the knee injury, there was leaving tiny Sao Carlos as a teenager and adjusting to a different culture while speaking little English. And before moving away from all he knew and loved, Nene had to prove himself as a worthy basketball talent, playing in cheap shoes covered in duct tape after they had completely splintered and surviving on what little scraps his poor family could provide.
“I always remember what I’ve been through to be here,” said Nene, who was born Maybyner Rodney Hilario before having his name legally changed to the Portuguese word for “baby” in 2003. “I have no shoes, I have no clothes, but I was blessed. I remember my mom. She have money to buy the food or give to God like you’re supposed to, because we’re Christian. She give to God and say, ‘You know, we don’t have food today, but God is going to provide our future.’ ”
Nene’s future is set financially: He has earned more than $70 million in his first 10 seasons in the NBA and is in the second year of a five-year, $65 million contract. Those riches were a fantasy for Nene when he first began playing professional basketball at age 15. He was motivated by a trading card of former NBA great Shawn Kemp that was given to him by a friend, and by a former coach who told him that a man of his size would have a career as a nightclub bouncer or grocery store bagger if he didn’t stay committed to the game.
“I was like, I need to bust my butt,” Nene said.
Alex Santos, Nene’s business manager and a longtime friend, has known the 6-foot-11 forward since he was about 15 or 16 and remembers how many scoffed at Nene’s plans of playing in the NBA. When Nene left for Cleveland to prepare for the 2002 NBA draft, packing the Kemp card in his wallet for inspiration, Santos said he wasn’t greeted with overwhelming support.
“If he didn’t make it, everybody expect him to fail: ‘See, you shouldn’t have gone there,’ ” Santos said. “He came here and stayed. Nene is very determined, always been like this.”
The Denver Nuggets acquired Nene with the eighth overall pick that summer. Kiki Vandeweghe, Denver’s general manager at the time, starred in college at UCLA, where the words of John Wooden are gospel, and Nene was a physical specimen with good hands and feet and moved in line with Wooden’s principle of being quick but not in a hurry. Nene was stubborn but patient, and always seeking to improve.