The Nene Effect: A Mytho-Historic Spiritual Perspective
Why hast Thou Forsaken Me?
“But the mountain falls and crumbles away,
and other rock is removed from its place;
the waters wear away the stones;
the torrents wash away the soil of the earth;
so you destroy the hope of man.
You prevail forever against him, and he passes;
you change his countenance, and send him away.
His sons come to honor, and he does not know it;
they are brought low, and he perceives it not.
He feels only the pain of his own body,
and he mourns only for himself.”
—The Book of Job
1. exaggerate or feign illness in order to escape duty or work.
1. excessive or disabling fear of war or physical injury usually resulting from experiences in combat
—Sean Fagan (@McCarrick)
Nene Hilario, erstwhile center/power forward for the Wizards, is a God fearing man. As such, the Book of Job may have special resonance with him as it tells the story of a man who God allows Satan to torture in order to prove his faith in God. Job has everything stripped of him, his wealth, his family and his health and is repeatedly asked by those he encounters to curse God for the plagues visited upon him. Job refuses to give up his faith an instead curses the day of his birth and in gratitude God gives Job twice as much wealth, a better looking family and a longevity and spryness that would make Methuselah jealous.
Lesson learned: If you don’t turn your back on God, then he is going to reward you with some pretty cool stuff and a much hotter wife.
For Nene, the slow creep of “malingerer” into any conversation that concerns him must feel like the trials born by Job. Reporters flit about him like flies asking about his health status, question his injury history and ponder why the big Brazilian can’t string together more than 20 games without the tires falling off on the highway. With the notable exception of his bout with cancer (which he conquered) Nene’s career has been a series of dings and dents and hordes of locusts. A sampling of the full list looks something like this (and this is just from Nene’s time with the Wizards, via Pro Sports Transactions):
- strained left abductor muscle
- strained neck
- strained left groin
- strained left hamstring
- bruised right hip
- strained left heel
- strained right heel
- plantar fasciitis
Then there are the undisclosed “something hurts,” which forces the dreaded day-to-day tag that drives fans, reporters and coaching staffs crazy with anxiety. “If I feel something sharp, I need to stop” as Nene reported to TAI’s Kyle Weidie.
Nene arrived in the District with the “injury prone” tag (often broadcasted by Denver Post headlines) on his forehead like a discounted used car. Following Nene’s reign in Denver, those against the retention argued on the grounds of the fact that Nene couldn’t stay healthy and underachieved if he felt his body was perform to its fullest.
Did Denver unload Nene due to a case of buyer’s remorse? Was Nene as hurt as he said? When things felt a bit “off” and the team for which he was contracted to play was not performing well, did Nene prefer to wear a suit than get whacked in the post?
Unfair apprehension? Yes, of course, who are we to question the health of a man who knows his own body best. Nene said as much in a Q&A with Grantland’s Zach Lowe, but also made sure to mention how much abuse he takes in his field of profession and that a certain amount of recuperation would be needed each season:
Zach Lowe: Andrew Bogut is another guy who has been hurt a lot, and he gets angry when people call him injury-prone. Does that label make you angry?
Nene: No, the good thing is, all my injuries, I’ve learned something. I saw something about myself. And life is not in my control. It’s in God’s control. It is all for a reason.
But despite being “all for a reason,” Nene makes sure to point out this his job is really tough:
Nene to Zach Lowe: It’s just a lot of minutes, and a lot of physicality for me, you know? I get a lot of pounding on my body. But it’s a good thing. Now I can take care of it a little bit … the position I play—the intensity they play on me is different.
And then came further talk about retirement, which Nene had mentioned previously to the shock of Wizards writers:
Nene to Zach Lowe: Well, the Man makes the plan. The answer—yes or no—comes from God. I hope I can finish well, that’s all I can say. I mean, at that time, there was a lot of frustration, a lot of anger. My plantar fasciitis was just killing me. And when you’re not able to perform the way you want, when your body won’t allow you to perform, you start to think about retirement.
This is where the comparison between Job and Nene breaks down. Job never calls attention to himself when miseries are foisted upon him, instead people are so shocked by his circumstances that they seek him out to ask him to curse God. Nene takes the opposite approach, doing everything except waving a flag to signal how hurt he is at any given time. He sits in his ice buckets and launches into his “pain status” without prompting, and gestures to his stricken condition as if the mere presence of ice packs, buckets of cold water and several thousand yards of bandages were not enough to indicate his suffering.
Compare this to the injury status of a Kobe Bryant or Steve Nash and you have none of the same drama. We know they are doing the most to return from crippling injuries but they are doing so without the banners and streamers and cryptic proclamations about pain and accumulated damage. Nene is like Paul Pierce in a wheelchair, one is never sure whether it’s all an elaborate con for the benefit of the media or whether the man can’t help but make sure that everyone takes notice of his plight. He even goes as far as to float “retirement” if people do not pay attention to the damage that has been wrought to his body.
Nene has since returned to the court and the status of his health and various ligaments will obviously chew up a majority of the Wizards related pixels. Perhaps Nene will reward Wizards fans as God rewarded Job with their own better future by moving the team into the second round of the playoffs. Or we might be destined for another few of hearing about how “plagued” the Brazilian has been throughout his career. All we can do for now is #PRAY4NENE.
In Defense of Nene.
Since joining the Wizards via trade on March 15, 2012, Nene has appeared on the floor for 38 percent all available minutes (an average of about 18.5 minutes per game, had Nene appeared in every single game during his tenure with the team). Washington has given up significantly fewer points per 100 possessions in the minutes Nene has played as opposed to the minutes he hasn’t. The difference by season:
2013-14 — 6.1 fewer points given up per 100 possessions
2012-13 — 3.9 fewer points given up
2011-12 — 5.2 fewer points given up
[stats via NBA.com/stats]
—Conor Dirks (@ConorDDirks)
Where does the time go? As the world turns, Nene again knocks on the door. If the Wizards were the Oklahoma City Thunder, countless talking heads would open at the mouth-part and emit analog soundstreams regarding whether the Wizards were “better without Nene,” after the “emergence of Drew Gooden.” Fortunately, because of Washington’s relatively low profile, we’re spared the The Monkey’s Paw treatment from the national media. As compelling as it is to wonder (ponder, even), what exactly Nene will bring back from his journey to the underworld, to think that the Wizards have survived without Nene because they are an equally good team in his absence is fallacious. Over the last quarter of Washington’s schedule, only the Knicks have had an easier schedule.
Nene showed as much in Washington’s game against the Orlando Magic, when he scored 17 points and, once, jumped high enough to dunk a ball, although it did scrape the rim, a bit like a piece of automobile undercarriage sparking the pavement.
Vintage Nene: often in the right place, but not quite at peace. His free throw shooting is clouded by the white noise of the basketball arena, the advice of the angels on his shoulders and, more likely, the compounded frustration of fearing he will struggle, and then struggling. According to Nene, hitting free throws is predicated somewhat on securing that elusive inner peace. May he find it. Somewhere out there, and sometime soon.
Despite the easy schedule, winning without Nene should not be so easily dismissed. Many wondered what rough Wizards beast would slouch towards the playoffs, or how things would fall apart. In truth, the center held for the most part; there are marks of erosion, loose bits of games in which Nene may have succeeded where Trevor Booker or Drew Gooden failed. Expectations dirty the pixel-lens for the viewer, and 14 points (Nene averages 14.2 points) by Drew Gooden or Trevor Booker, being unexpected (especially in Gooden’s case, but also especially in Booker’s case, considering his periodic disuse in the last few seasons), affords the consumer a broader joy than merely witnessing an expectation met.
Consider postseason Nene. In the 2009 playoffs, the Denver Nuggets (Nene’s former team, and current host to the basketball cadaver of Javale McGee and the basketball angel-wolf Jan Vesely) reached the Western Conference finals. That season, Nene averaged 14.6 points on 60.4 percent shooting and collected 7.8 rebounds per game. During Denver’s trip to the Western Conference Finals, Nene averaged a respectable 11.5 points on 54.8 percent shooting.
In 16 games in that season’s playoffs, Nene posted a negative plus/minus differential just five times. Four of those games were Nuggets losses. The Nuggets only lost six games in three rounds of postseason play. Nene’s conference semifinals performance against the Dallas Mavericks was a gem: point totals of 24 points and 25 points put the Mavericks on their heels in the first two games, and in the close-out game 5, Nene scored 17 points on 80 percent shooting to go along with seven rebounds and two steals.
Against teams like Toronto or Chicago, Nene will be essential. Essential, and not hyperbolically so. Without Nene, the Wizards have little chance of matching Toronto’s ball movement with an actual offense of their own. Chicago’s frontcourt of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, and Taj Gibson is the heart of the team, and Nene’s size alone will be a deterrent to the proud swelling of that heart. Trevor Booker, as froggy as he’s been, has never played an NBA playoff game, nor tasted the tangy metallic blood in his mouth after being punched in the face by playoff defenses. No amount of Booker jab steps and Gooden midrange makes can make up for Nene’s combination of size, maneuverability, and vision. When the walls close in, the Wizards will need Nene to find what little space is left, and hold the door open as many of his teammates take in the playoff view for the first time.