Nenê no longer plays basketball for the Denver Nuggets, but he still calls the Mile High City his home.
That's a big reason why the 6-foot-11-inch power forward who now plays for the Washington Wizards was casually chatting with teachers and students in a classroom at Eastridge Elementary School in Aurora on Aug. 20. Along with his wife, Lauren Prothe, Nenê was at the school to meet the hundreds of students he'd helped feed through the nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack.
Nenê and Lauren sponsored about 200 Eastridge students through the charity, provides elementary schoolchildren who are on the federal Free and Reduced Price Meal Program with a backpack of food to take home for 38 weekends during the school year. The couple also sponsors students at two schools in Washington D.C.
Still, the students at Eastridge and their other sponsored school in the Denver metro area represent a special kind of community connection for the couple who still consider Colorado home. Nenê spent his first years in the NBA in the city, and it's a place that's proved formative for the native of Brazil.
"Colorado is our main home. When I came here, I was a boy, and now I'm a man," Nenê said. "I have family and friends, and I built up my career here. I have my wife, this beautiful lady next to me here. Yes, Denver is our home."
The couple showed plenty of enthusiasm as they welcomed Eastridge students into a classroom that held a wide array of important nutritional staples. Students paused on their route to pick up food items to formally greet the towering power forward. Some offered huge smiles and testimonials about the games they'd seen him play on television. Others were more bashful, barely pronouncing their names and looking away as they first approached.
Nenê had an approach for the shy and bold students alike, introducing himself simply and admitting to his own reservations.
"My name is Nenê and I'm a basketball player," he informed one particularly silent first-grader. "Are you shy? That's OK, I'm shy too."
Lauren Prothe was just as engaged as her husband, interacting with students and teachers alike. A graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, she has her own strong ties to the local community, as well as a powerful interest in the mission behind the Blessings in a Backpack charity.
"I told Nenê how important it is that children have food in the schools," she said, referring to their initial search for worthwhile charities to support for the year. "Him being from Brazil, he doesn't know the poverty level in the U.S."
Such sponsorship and support makes all the difference for the nonprofit, according to Denver Blessings in a Backpack Coordinator Cheryl Northern. Nenê and Lauren's visit was an important and exciting boost for students, volunteers and teachers alike.
"I sometimes wonder where they think the food is coming from. It's nice to make a connection with a person who is sponsoring the program," Northern said. "The kids have always been very thankful. They thank me, but it's nice to have an opportunity for them to thank a specific sponsor."
Nenê seemed to revel in that gratitude. He took time with every child who walked in the classroom, asking their names and offering high-fives and hugs without reservation. Before he headed to the playground to practice some basketball and soccer with the students, he explained exactly why the visit held such personal rewards.
"Just spending time with them and seeing their faces is huge," Nenê said. "I think simple things have a huge impact, and I thank God for this opportunity."