Getting booed at United Center was better than getting booed at the HSBC Arena in Rio de Janeiro.
At least it was for Nene. Last October, when the Washington Wizards played the Chicago Bulls in Rio in one of the NBA’s preseason global games – and the first staged in South America – the Wizards big man took loud and cutting heat from the sellout crowd. No matter that he was the first player from Brazil to participate in the NBA – people were unhappy that Nene had played only twice for the country’s national team since he was drafted in 2002.
It mattered little to them that the 6-foot-9, 260-pound fellow – listed on the official roster in last Saturday’s game vs. the United States by his full name, Maybyner Rodney Hilario – had aggravated a foot injury in the 2012 Olympics that lingered into the regular season. Nene also reportedly had been at odds with the program over insurance policies and other decisions.
So the fans in Rio booed him pretty much from start to finish. Legendary Brazilian player and Hall of Famer Oscar Schmidt criticized him, and Nene bristled back – and clearly was rattled – on that awkward night in October.
What he heard Saturday then, by comparison, was a breeze. Nene was booed during the introductions for Brazil’s game against Team USA, the first tuneup for both squads for the 2014 FIBA World Cup tournament that begins Aug. 30 in Spain. And that reaction was driven by respect from Bulls fans who recalled his work (17.8 ppg, 54.8 percent shooting, a one-game suspension for headbutting Jimmy Butler) in the teams’ first-round series last spring, won by the Wizards in five games.
But that was it. The rest of the evening was straight basketball, with Nene scoring eight of his 11 points in the first half, to go with five rebounds, three steals and one block in 19 minutes. Even after Brazil lost 95-78, the big man was effusive as he came off the court.
“It doesn’t matter if they have big men or not, they still sharp outside,” he said of his fellow NBA players on Team USA. “They’re so athletic. So talented. But it was a good game to have an idea.”
What, Nene was asked, did he think of Anthony Davis, the young New Orleans center who dominated (20 points, eight boards five rebounds) at both ends?
“He looked like Dhalsim,” Nene said.
It was a disappointing night for Brazil, which lost the street fight. It wasn’t able to flex what some figured to be an advantage up front, with Nene lined up in various combinations with Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao, two more proven NBA bigs. Davis went MMA underneath and Kenneth Faried, who backfilled in Denver after the Nuggets traded Nene to Washington, added 11 points and nine rebounds.
Team USA had superior wings and guards, but the onus will still be on Brazil’s front line when, after playing France in its World Cup opener Aug. 30, it faces Spain – and the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc – two days later.
Having Nene – who will turn 32 on Sept. 13 and has two years and $26 million left on his Wizards contract – clearly is better for Brazil than not having him. His NBA buddies made that clear when talking to the Wizards’ Monumental Network during their squad’s stay in Chicago.
“Nene’s a guy who’s very talented, very strong, who knows how to play the game,” said Splitter, San Antonio’s second big next to Tim Duncan. “Every day you get better playing with him and of course he’s learning our system too. That’s important for him.”
Varejao told the network: “Nene’s been great. He had a great playoffs this last season. He’s a big piece of the Brazil national team. He’s a guy who can defend, who can score, who can be a leader on the court too. When you have a guy like Nene on the court, the other team has to always worry about him, what they’re going to do to try to stop him.”
This much is clear: Not having a guy like Nene on Brazil’s roster is worse. Then he’s the one worrying about how he’s perceived, and how he’ll be be received, back home. In the U.S., players such as Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and other stars opting out of the competition have wiggle room because of the depth of talent. For Nene, opting out in the past meant squirming, not wiggling.