Nene betrayed by his greatest gift

Sometimes a case study like Nene comes along and you realize how flimsy NBA careers -- or perhaps the league itself -- can be because they're based on a flawed premise: the human body.

In the grand scheme of things, our bodies are still in the beta test mode. The original design may not have called for us to walk upright on two legs, let alone jump repeatedly at 10-foot baskets.

Humans are like an incredible feat of engineering, the most advanced computers placed in the most versatile vehicles. But they're still so prone to breakdowns. It feels even more disturbing when our best models don't work right.

Nene's career has indeed been defined by his body. It enticed the Nuggets to grab him on draft day in 2002 (the Knicks drafted him with the No. 7 pick, then dealt him to Denver). It's the reason they signed him to a $60 million contract.

Unfortunately, his body has been noteworthy for repeated malfunctions. Injuries have limited him to appearances in only 289 of the Denver Nuggets' 437 games since they traded for him before his rookie season. One season consisted of just three minutes, the time it took him to blow out his knee on opening night.

Now it's even worse. He had surgery to remove a testicular tumor (about the worst pairing of words a man can hear) and now, hopefully it will only be a matter of a few more missed games.

It's a matter of waiting for biopsy results to see if the tumor was cancerous. That would be the ultimate betrayal: His body's own cells turned against him.

Wasn't his body supposed to be the last thing we worried about? There were plenty of questions, of course, but none had to do with anything physical. How would he adjust to NBA basketball? How would the native of Brazil adapt to living in the United States?

These were the things we wondered about. Not his body, no sir. That was the reason we talked about him in the first place.

Back then, he was known as Maybyner (Nene) Hilario, and back then his body made him the most intriguing prospect in the 2002 draft.

He had an almost unfair combination of physical gifts. He stands 6-foot-9 with a wingspan of 7 feet, 5 inches. Great leaping ability. Plus quickness, a lightness on his feet accentuated by the many hours he spent playing soccer in Brazil.

The physique and style drew comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon and Shawn Kemp.

"It's very flattering and it's a lot of responsibility to be compared to them," he said in an interview after a predraft workout for the Phoenix Suns. "But I really want to be known as Nene, which is a mix of all those."

He literally did want to just be known as Nene. He soon shed the first and last names legally to be known by a single moniker, just like the Brazilian World Cup soccer stars.

His NBA career kept getting reduced as well. It seems we only got to see glimpses of him, teasing flashes of his talent, between injuries.

There's a certain scorn sports fans have for athletes who miss games for injury and infirmity. It's as if fans hold players responsible for every accident or every design deficiency. Or they're angry about that unfulfilled promise, about athletic gifts gone to waste.

Sometimes it seems as if the greatest talent comes in the most fragile packages. Even Nene's most talented classmate from the 2002 draft, Amare Stoudemire, lost a season of his career because of microfracture surgery on his knee.

It gets back to the other side of our fascination with sports. You wish you could do the things they do. But do you really wish you could have them undone so easily?

J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.