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Nene: ‘I’m the last Mohican’

The Rockets’ backup center has outlasted the entire 2002 draft class

Yao Ming, the No. 1 pick in the 2002 NBA draft, is already in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Jay Williams, the No. 2 pick that year, is now a college basketball analyst for ESPN. Tayshaun Prince, the 23rd pick, was recently named the Memphis Grizzlies’ vice president of basketball affairs.

Every pick from the 2002 draft is no longer playing in the NBA, except one:

Nene, the Houston Rockets’ 36-year-old backup center.

“I’m the last Mohican. The last soldier. I’m a guy who has been through a lot of things,” Nene told The Undefeated. “But I’m still going, with God’s mercy. Age is just a number. The NBA average for players is three years.

“To maintain yourself in this league, you got to work really hard. And not just work really hard, you have to show people that you deserve to be there and provide consistency.”

Nene was the seventh overall pick by the New York Knicks (who traded him to the Denver Nuggets) in 2002 and has averaged 11.3 points and 6 rebounds per game during his 17-year career. The 6-foot-11 big man has a career shooting percentage of 54.8%, ranking 21st all-time. This season, Nene averaged 3.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 42 regular-season games for the Rockets.

Chris Paul, a nine-time All-Star in his 14th season, says Nene is a player he’s learned from during their time together in Houston.

“It says a lot about Nene that he has played this long,” Paul, 33, told The Undefeated. “And I have had the opportunity to play with a lot of great vets. I played with Paul Pierce in his last year in the NBA. I played with Grant Hill his last year in the NBA. I also had an opportunity to play with ‘Chaunce’ [Chauncey Billups].

“Some things go unsaid at times. But as a teammate, you pay attention. You see it with your eyes. So, with ‘Ne,’ it’s his work [ethic]. He didn’t play in our first two playoff games, but he was in the gym, in the weight room and taking care of his body. As a young player, you may not take notice or pay attention to it. But for someone like me who wants that longevity and wants to continue to play, I have the utmost respect for him.”

Houston Rockets backup center Nene (center) dunks the ball against the Phoenix Suns on April 7 at the Toyota Center in Houston.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Nene was born in Sao Carlos, Brazil. As he was the youngest in his family and among his friends growing up, his name means “baby” in Portuguese. Nene began playing basketball during his youth at a school called Escola de Basquete Meneghelli, which was run by Nibaldo Meneghelli.

“My first coach to teach me basketball, who still lives in Sao Carlos,” Nene said of Meneghelli. “I consider him like a father. Every time I go there I go to see him. He gave me my first pair of Jordans; I used them to go to church and go to school. They were a nice pair. I always took care of them.”

Nene dreamed of playing like former NBA star Shawn Kemp after being given Kemp’s basketball card in his youth. Nene would go on to play professionally for Vasco da Gama in Brazil from 1999 to 2002 and also played on the Brazilian national team. In 2002, he became the first Brazilian to be drafted into the NBA.

Fittingly, Nene would later become the first Latin American NBA player to land a Jordan Brand endorsement.

“When I signed with Jordan, I gave [Meneghelli] two nice pair of shoes because I knew he loved shoes,” Nene said. “It is so nice when you came from nothing and now have so many shoes that you can donate the shoes. I don’t give people the shoes to sell them. I give them to people who will feel the same way I felt when I first got them.”

Nene is now 35 regular-season games away from playing in 1,000 NBA contests. He currently ranks sixth among active NBA players in career games played. The Rockets’ Game 3 matchup against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night will be his 88th career postseason game.

What has been Nene’s secret for playing in the NBA so long?

“You can’t just say, ‘I want to be a player,’ ” Nene said. “No, it doesn’t happen like that. You have to play, have a strong mind and be strong in your faith. My rock is Jesus Christ, and with him I can do anything. You’re going to have a lot of adversity, and you have to pass through it. You have to have a lot of positive people next to you. And you got to know what you want to do. …

“I take care of myself. Not too crazy. I eat healthy. I don’t just go with chicken and vegetables. You got to live life. I’m a professional athlete. Sometimes you have to ask for a professional in to help you in your area. But you know what you have to do and you have to keep on doing it.”

Nene played in just one game in the Rockets’ first-round series against the Utah Jazz. Against the Warriors in Game 1 on April 28, he scored 8 points, grabbed 2 rebounds and had 3 steals in 14 minutes. But his solid appearance was marred when Stephen Curry hit the game-winning 3-pointer over him.

Nene played in four scoreless minutes in Game 2 and received a technical foul that was later rescinded by the NBA.

“I’m mad. I’m a prideful guy. I’m competitive,” Nene said after Game 2. “You get mad when you lose, and that is how I feel right now. …

“They did their job. Now we have to go home and do our job.”

Nene’s career has earned him roughly $130 million, and he is slated to make $3.4 million in the final year of his three-year pact with the Rockets next season. But the last remaining player from the 2002 draft class said he has not decided whether he will return next season.

“We will see,” Nene said with a laugh. “We will see. We will see.”

When Nene does finally retire, could he see himself making the Hall of Fame as an international committee selection like Yao, fellow Brazilian Oscar Schmidt or, more recently, Vlade Divac?

“I don’t worry about that,” Nene said. “I worry about the jersey that I put on. I have to give my best. If one day things happen, things happen.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.