Eduardo Najera is the Nets’ forgotten man.
After missing two-thirds of the season to various injuries, the last a sports hernia that required season-ending surgery, Najera is on the comeback trail. A lot of people have something riding on his success: the Nets, Team Mexico and of course, Najera himself.
The trail will be, to continue the cliché, long and winding. After spending most of the summer rehabbing and giving anti-drug and anti-violence toned basketball clinics throughout Mexico, he’ll be back on the court soon. Not in New Jersey, but in Puerto Rico. The 33-year-old power forward will be playing for Team Mexico for the first time in six years, starting with the FIBA Americas Championship in San Juan August 26 – September 3. Mexico would have liked him to play in the FIBA Central American championships earlier in the month but officials are now saying Puerto Rico is a better bet.
It will be his first chance at redemption. He hasn’t played for Mexico’s national team in six years. He’s already succeeded at one level. His return helped convince Earl Watson, soon a Pacer, to join the team. (Watson’s mother is Mexican).
His goal with Team Mexico is simple: if the team can make the Final Four at the Americas Cup, it will automatically qualify for the FIBA World Cup in Turkey next summer and give it at shot at qualifying for the London Olympics in 2012. With Team USA already qualified for the World Cup because of it Olympic win, it won’t be in San Juan. So the competition will be South American powerhouses Argentina and Brazil as well as Puerto Rico, Canada and Venezuela.
News of Najera’s return has been an emotional lift for Team Mexico—although he won’t be added to the team officially til he gets his surgeon’s permission and Mexico agrees to pay $12,000 in insurance premiums against injury.
Najera’s redemption with the Nets will take longer. While playing for Team Mexico will help, both with his mental and physical rehabs, it will take some time to get back in the NBA groove. The Nets added seven other players a year ago, in trades, the draft and free agent signings. All of them rank higher than Najera in terms of success. He contributed so little that fans rarely bring him up in discussing the team’s front court prospects for next season. It’s as if he isn’t in the picture, sort of semi-retired.
Najera himself admits it wasn’t his best season. As Dave D’Alessandro wrote a few weeks before his hernia surgery:
Eddie Najera is about drive his head into a cement wall, even if such an act would injure the one remaining part of his anatomy that hasn't been bruised yet, and you feel for the guy.
Ask him how he's feeling, and this is the first thing out of his mouth: "I never stole money in my career," he says with a weary smile. "I guess there's a first time for everything."
Before the hernia, there were problems with his wrist, his back, his neck…often described as "lingering". After contributing to the Nuggets, particularly on defense, in 2007-08, the Nets thought they were getting a solid back up at both forward positions, a guy who can defend like hell and knock down the occasional three. He had promised leadership as well as production.
"I provide that for this team," he said after being signed a year ago when the team's historical lack of toughness arose. "I'm going to be as physical as I can, and I'm going to push the rookies around. That's what I'm here for, and I'm sure they'll probably hate me during training camp, but that's the preparation you need for the season."
Indeed, he did lecture Brook Lopez on his need for toughness, but leavened it with praise. Problem is he didn't do it on court. He spent most of training camp cheering.
For Nets fans, the big issue was money. Why did the Nets give Najera a four-year $12 million deal when there was limited interest around the league? Why didn’t they use that money on Nenad Krstic or Boki Nachbar who went to Russia not long after Najera signed.
John Hollinger of ESPN called it one of the worst signings of the off-season, citing a "mountain of data" that big guys over the age of 32 suffer nagging, or as they say lingering injuries. Hollinger was proven right.
Worse, it was the first time in his collegiate or professional career that his team didn’t make the post-season, a rare and possibly unique record among current NBA players with ten years in the league.
Still, Najera’s personal history would have you believe that he isn’t going down without a fight. Even if the Nets sign someone like Glen "Big Baby" Davis or Hakim Warrick, or guarantee his fellow FIBA star, Yi Jianlian, a starting role at power forward, Najera can be expected to put up a fight…as long as there aren’t other injuries.
Najera was born in the Mexican town of Meoqui in Chihuahua state, south of Texas.
"Things don't come easy", Najera told a writer for Latino Leaders in 2002. "I didn't come from a rich background. We had what we needed. We didn't have luxuries, but at the same time they gave us what we wanted. For example, if I wanted a pair of sneakers, I had to work for my father to earn the money to buy them."
Unlike other states in Mexico, Chihuahua was a basketball hotbed. Teams from Chihuahua are the best in the country and Najera is the best player ever produced by the state and the country, to this day. He started playing against his brothers—he has five of them and a sister, all older—in a school yard across the street from his modest home.
"I grew about five or six inches in one summer and started playing basketball. I fell in love with the game and haven’t stopped ever since."
As he told the Latin Leaders writer, "I was just another basketball player who was tall and talented. I had no way of knowing that I would get this far, because I started from the bottom--on the bench". In fact, he started as a water boy on a local team at age 15 and didn’t play at all.
Two years later, things started to pay off. He had attracted the attention of the first NBA player from Mexico, Horacio Llamas. He played a little while for a professional team then came home and finished school. Through Llamas, he was able to get a scholarship to a private high school in San Antonio, the Cornerstone Christian Academy. It wasn’t that he needed a finishing school for his basketball skills. He needed a school so he could qualify for admission to the universities already interested in him. He barely spoke English.
In that one year, he established himself as a top collegiate prospect, averaging 27 points and getting offers from Indiana, UCLA and Duke, among others. He chose Oklahoma because they showed the most interest and was on that road that led back through Texas and Chihuahua to Meoqui.
Year by year, his numbers improved, til finally in his senior year, he made third team All-American by averaging 18 and 9 and by showing just how tough he was. Fans remember one instance of that toughness, in his junior year, above all others.
As recounted in Latino Leaders:
It happened in March 1999. It was the NCAA basketball tournament, college basketball's annual gala that dominates the nation's sporting scene for three adventurous weeks. March madness they call it. And on national television, in the sort of high-stakes game between the University of Oklahoma and Michigan State University that lucky fans will brag about having attended for years to come, Eduardo Najera lay prone on the wooden court, knocked out cold.
Doctors and trainers hovered over Oklahoma's 6-foot-8 star power forward. The hit Najera took while setting a pick on Michigan State guard Mateen Cleaves was brutal. In newspaper reports following the game, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called it the hardest hit he had ever seen on a basketball court. Cleaves, whose elbow caught Najera's chin when the two collided, said tie felt like he had run into a brick wall. Play ceased for eight minutes before Najera got to his feet and wobbled to the bench. It took six stitches to close a gash in Najera's lip, and he also suffered a concussion and a bruised sternum. But five minutes of game time elapsed and then Najera re-entered the game. Want to know what was the first thing he did upon returning? He set another pick.
By June 2000, he had a degree in sociology and the Chip Hilton Award, presented by the NCAA to "Division I men’s basketball player who demonstrates outstanding character, leadership, integrity, humility, sportsmanship and talent."
He was quietly but effectively destroying Mexican stereotypes one by one and on Draft Night, he did in another one, getting drafted by the Rockets at #38 and then quickly being traded to the Mavericks, where he first ran into Kiki Vandeweghe, then Dallas’ director of player personnel. Like he did at Oklahoma, he improved each year, never reaching the star level, but again helping his team make the playoffs every year.
"Many people are seeing that you do not have to be the most talented player to play in the NBA--anyone can do it, if and when he has a passion for the sport, and that's what I want to show Mexicans," Najera said. "Work, discipline, and effort. And that goes for any aspect of life."
He became a Mexican hero. Major American and Mexican companies wanted him as their spokesman, their endorser. His pictured adorned a Mexico City skyscraper. He showed up in commercials pushing cell phones, credit cards, food products. He made more money endorsing than playing, becoming the tenth most marketable player in the NBA. It wasn’t just his NBA exploits that endeared him to Mexicans. He had helped Mexico get to the Final Four of the Americas Cup in 1999, then come close in 2003, losing by two to Argentina with Najera pushing, pushing, pushing. The league began promoting his Mexican heritage to a larger audience. He played at the first-ever Basketball Without Borders Americas tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the 2004 NBA Summer of Goodwill, then two years later, his Nuggets and the Warriors battled in the first NBA game played in Mexico. Since then, Mexico's youth basketball league has been named for him and he has set up a foundation to help Mexican and Mexican-American kids.
After his last two years in Dallas were beset by knee injuries, he was sent to Golden State, then on to Denver on February 5, 2005. It was one of Vandeweghe’s smarter deals. He traded forwards Rodney White and Nikoloz Tskitishvili to the Golden State Warriors for Najera, guard Luis Flores, and a 2007 first-round pick. It was a classic potential for production deal and the Nuggets won it.
Najera thrived in Denver. No one said much about it, but his arrival seemed to be, as one reporter, a Mexican-American wrote: the "ultimate apology" for former coach Dan Issel’s expletive-laden blast at a Mexican-American fan four years earlier.
He became the ultimate team player, unselfish, tough on defense..and in his last year, even added a new offensive weapon. He was one of Denver’s best pick-and-roll defenders, still fighting through screens.
On offense, he ran the court as well as any big man on the roster—and that included Kenyon Martin.
George Karl said he would love to have three Najeras on his bench. And when Karl benched and suspended Kmart for conduct unbecoming the team in 2006, he chose Najera to replace him. One example of his hard work: in his last year in Denver, Najera surprised everyone and became a solid three-point shooter, going 53-of-147 (36.1 percent).
After he signed with the Nets, Aaron Lopez of the Rocky Mountain News wrote in his blog:
As both a Mexican-American and an NBA beat writer, I'm disappointed to see Eduardo Najera fly east to New Jersey as a free agent.
Not only was he was one of the most accomodating players in the Nuggets locker room, but he embraced his status as the only Mexican-born player currently in the NBA. I know the Nuggets are over the luxury tax, but they could have justified retaining Najera by considering it a continued investment in public relations with the Hispanic community.
Lopez wasn’t alone. Allen Iverson said Najera is "somebody who is fun to play with" because "Eddie doesn't have a selfish bone in his body -- all he thinks about is 'team.'" Karl called him "one of those no-maintenance guys, who plays for one purpose, and that's winning."
On arrival in New Jersey, thanks to Vandeweghe again, he embraced leadership and the Nets’ decision to make character count.
"Since I came here, the first thing they told me, and I was glad to hear, is that the team is based on character," he told beat writers. "They're building a team based on character, and that's really how you avoid having bad attitudes and all that. Again, it comes from the leaders. It comes from your coach, it comes from the veterans, and they're excited to work every day no matter what happens - a tough loss, whatever - you're willing to come back the next day and try to get better. I think everyone will follow."
Injuries robbed him of a lot of that leadership potential. He did help with Brook Lopez’s development and he also had a short spurt where he showed that he could still play defense, which became contagious and for a few games, it helped.
Vince Carter described his defense this way: "He's just aggravating. You turn around after a made basket and you try to throw the ball in, and he's in the way. Maybe he's not doing much, but doing something -- just being in the way, it aggravates you. Applying pressure, sprinting up the court, taking seconds off the shot clock. You have more of an appreciation for him when he's on your team. And then there are the deflections and the charges."
Carter like Najera turns 33 this year. Now he’s gone and the team is a little more mature, a little older. Will Najera be as needed…will he be as able? We’ll start to see next month when Najera is supposed to step on the floor in San Juan, beginning an odd route back to relevance: from a sunny resort in the Caribbean summer to a swamp in the New Jersey winter.
You can’t help but root for him because as he himself will tell you, character counts.
As Lawrence Frank said when the Nets signed him, ""What is talent? Is talent jumping? Is talent making shots or playing defense? Yeah, all that is talent. But if you don't have a work ethic every day, if you're not passionate about what you do, if you're not reliable, if you're not a person of character, that talent is wasted".