Nenê: Coming to America

Nuggets forward continues to adjust to American lifestyle

Imagine yourself moving to a foreign place that has little to nothing in common with the world you grew up in. Imagine yourself making this transition completely on your own, with no support group waiting for you when you arrive. Imagine doing all this at the ripe age of 19, which is exactly what Nenê did before his career even got started.

As a young 19-year-old basketball phenom living in Sao Carlos, Brazil, Nenê, who is now in his third year with the Nuggets, understood that he would have to make the move to America in order for him to fully advance his career.

“My goal was to play in the NBA ever since I began playing basketball,” says Nenê, who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson. “No one from Brasil had ever played regularly in the NBA, but that didn’t matter to me.”

In the summer of 2002, his dream became a reality. With the seventh overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, the New York Knicks selected Nenê. His first experience of American life would be in the most American of all cities, New York City…or would it.

Moments after hearing his name being called the first time, he heard it again. His draft rights were traded to the Denver Nuggets along with current teammate Marcus Camby in a draft-day trade that sent Antonio McDyess to the Knicks.

“I am very glad I ended up in Denver because it was probably the best city for me to transition into here in America,” explains Nenê. “The atmosphere and the people are great and it provides an excellent opportunity to enjoy God’s gifts to the world.”

His rookie season with the Nuggets was one filled with many challenges, both on and off the court. On the court, he was competing against some of the best athletes in the world night in and night out. Off the court, he was competing with himself to learn the unfamiliar language that everyone around him was speaking so fluidly.

“The language barrier between Portuguese [the native language of Brazil] and English definitely added to the difficulties of adjusting to America,” admits Nenê.

Despite his cultural differences off the court, Nenê proved that basketball is played the same all around the world with an impressive rookie campaign. Averaging 10.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, Nenê finished sixth in the voting for the NBA Rookie of the Year award. The future in America for the young Brazilian called Nenê, which is Portuguese for “Baby,” was beginning to take shape. The world was definitely taking notice.

Nenê has one year remaining on his current contract with the Nuggets.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images

During his second season with the Nuggets, 2003-04, Nenê continued to mature as both a player and a person. His season averages improved to 11.8 ppg and 6.5 rpg and he started all 77 games that he appeared in. A number of other NBA teams began showing interest in acquiring the 21-year-old, 6-11, 260 pound man-child because of his consistent flashes of what is undoubtedly to come. Away from basketball, Nenê was becoming more and more comfortable in the American way of life.

“My English has improved tremendously since my rookie year,” says Nenê with a thick Portuguese accent. “And I am becoming more used to the food and the people…but definitely not the cold weather.”

In just over two years here in America, Nenê has made incredible strides for himself and the game of basketball. He continues to prove that he is one of the bright young stars in the NBA and will play professionally in America for a very long time.

“I continually try to work on every facet of my game — rebounding, shooting, inside moves, defense,” he explains. “I watch a lot of tape on great players who played my position before me to learn from them, as well as learn the history of the game. You can pick up a lot from players like [Bill] Russell, [Bill] Walton, [Hakeem] Olajuwon, and [Karl] Malone.”

In addition to furthering his own game, Nenê has helped open the floodgates for South American players to come to the NBA, especially from his native country of Brazil. As a rookie, he was the only Brazilian born player in the league. Now, three years later, he is one of five Brazilians on an NBA roster.

The others include Rafael Araujo of the Toronto Raptors, Leandro Barbosa of the Phoenix Suns, Alex Garcia of the New Orleans Hornets and Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I take pride in knowing that I helped open the doors for other Brasilians to come into the league,” states Nenê. “But, now that they are here they will all create their own identities, not to mention strengthen our national team.”

As far as identities go, Nenê is well on his way to establishing one for himself here in America. He is becoming one of the most highly touted young post players in the NBA, with nowhere but up to go. Despite having a solid identity on the courts of America, Nenê promises that he will never lose the Brazilian identity that he so strongly cherishes.

“I enjoy America and all of its glories, but I will never let go of Brasil. The people, the air, the food, the music…it is who I am.”