Nuggets’ Nenê Is a Child Of Nature, And a Defender of It

By Liz Robbins,
Updated: March 27, 2005

DENVVER, COLO.—Nenê, the 6-foot-11, 260-pound forward for the Denver Nuggets, is talking about butterflies.

Some endangered butterflies, he said, are captured by children in his native Brazil, who are themselves exploited to sustain an illegal trade. And then there are the parrots, the leopards and the snakes endangered by animal traffickers, according to Renctas, a national network to protect wild animals in Brazil.

Nenê became involved in Renctas’s causes two years ago and is a financial supporter.

“There are so many types of species, and if they are continued to be used as pets, that will affect other species,” he said during the All-Star Game break in Denver last month. “It’s just a natural thing to me. I love animals. They are part of my life.”

In Denver, he has a 3-year-old black Labrador named Nina, a faithful companion even when Nenê has seemed an endangered species on the court this season.

Since coming to the Nuggets in the 2002 draft-night trade with the Knicks, Nenê, now 22, has shown signs of promise, but he has never quite attained his potential. Playing behind the Nuggets’ Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby, Nenê has been frustrated by a series of injuries this season.

He just returned last week from missing 13 games because of a sprained left knee. He injured his shoulder earlier in the season, then was suspended for four games for fighting with Minnesota’s Michael Olowokandi.

Obviously, Nenê hides his sensitive side on the court.

As a child growing up with one brother and one sister in São Carlos, Brazil, Nenê was always involved in sports. He was a competitive swimmer, the backstroke being his specialty; today he has a wingspan measured at 7 feet 4¾ inches.

He also practiced judo and could have played soccer with a professional team. A coach directed him toward handball because of the power and size of his hands. When Nenê was 14, coaches steered him to basketball, not a particularly popular sport in his homeland.

But basketball eventually discovered him, so much so that in 2003 he decided to follow the Brazilian tradition of one-name stars and legally changed his name from Maybyner Rodney Hilário to Nenê. In Portuguese, Nenê means baby.

Nenê will become a restricted free agent this summer. He has established a foundation in his name and is building a community center in São Carlos with a soccer field, basketball courts and dormitories.

After his wedding this summer, Nenê will concentrate on developing a youth basketball league in São Carlos.

“You have to protect what is precious to your country and to yourself,” he said. “A child is the future. A child should be intelligent, be educated, instead of being a slave. Animals are something that bring spirit and joy. You lose those two things and you have no future and no happiness.”