RIO DE JANEIRO — Jazz point guard Raul Neto loved his Olympic experience, even if it forced him to do something he'd never done before — cheer for Argentina.
“No, never,” the 24-year-old said when asked if he’d ever cheered the country that is Brazil’s rival on any and every stage. “Not even in basketball, not soccer. … It’s a weird situation. But that’s the way we gotta cheer for Argentina … then we’re going to do it.”
Brazil defeated Nigeria Monday afternoon 86-69, but that was only part of what needed to happen for the host country to be able to advance into the elimination round. Brazil also needed Argentina to win its game against Spain.
Unfortunately, Neto's first experience cheering for his rivals ended in disappoitnment as Spain defeated Argentina 92-73, which eliminates Brazil from the tournament.
Nene Hilario led Brazil in the victory over Nigeria, a team that has become a fan-favorite because of its underdog status. Hilario finished with 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Vitor Benite added 15 points, while Rafael Hettsheimeir finished with 12 points.
Nigeria was led by Ben Uzoh, who scored 15 points, Josh Akognon, who finished with 16 points, and Al-Farouq Aminu, who added 10 points.
Neto, who scored four points and dished out five assists in 14 minutes, said he’s loved playing in the Olympic Games in his home country.
“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “I never played in any tournaments … in my home country before. It was an amazing atmosphere, crazy for me; of course we wanted to have better games, but we lost a lot of games at home.”
He said playing with the Brazilian national team is a way for him to repay a debt and show his affection for his country.
“It’s about (pride),” he said. “I got a lot of things from our national team. They opened a lot of doors for me. I went to Spain because I played for the national team, a lot of people saw me with Brazil’s national team. They gave me a lot of things, and now that I’m in the NBA, I’m a better player, and I want to give back everything they gave to me.”
Neto said he believes the Olympic Games have helped basketball in his soccer-crazed country, as well as the country as a whole.
“It’s a beautiful sport,” he said. “I think not a lot of people knew about basketball before we had the Olympics here. We see a lot of fans here, a lot of fans supporting us. … Even when we are losing, they are always with us; it’s great for basketball; great for Brazil, and I think we got everything to improve and get better in basketball.”
At least one of his teammates disagreed.
"No, I don't think so," said forward Guilherme Giovannoni when asked if Brazil benefited from hosting the Games. "Unfortunately not. We hope, like a few years ago, that it could happen. But I don't see it happening now."
Neto said he wasn’t hurt by media reports that warned athletes and fans to stay away from the 2016 Games, but he is grateful thousands of fans and more than 10,500 athletes have been able to experience Brazil through the Olympics.
“That’s what the media was saying about Brazil, outside our country,” he said. “Everybody who came for the Olympics, they’re happy with everything.”
Neto’s also proud of the job Brazil has done, from the venues to housing to the Opening Ceremonies that he had to watch on television.
“It was better than I thought it would be,” he said. “I’m from Brazil, so it’s hard for me to say something bad about it.” He acknowledges that there are serious political issues in his country, but he said the Olympics didn’t make those problems worse. Instead they gave people some joy.
“I think if you see the people watching our game, we can tell that our country …(people are) happy, enjoying the Olympics,” Neto said. “Of course we still have other problems with politics. Something we can forget about all those problems, just enjoy sport, enjoy basketball, enjoy soccer, enjoy the Olympics, and I think that’s what people from Brazil are doing.”
He said the Games have also given him a chance to meet the newest member of the Jazz — Boris Diaw, the former Spurs veteran who plays for France.
“I’ve talked to Boris in the (athlete’s) village,” he said. “He’s a really nice guy. (Leandro) Barbosa played with him in Phoenix, and he say only good things about him. I think we have a great team, some nice guys joined our team, and we expect (to) do better (this) season.”