Portugal is known primarily as a footballing nation, producing star players such as Cristiano Ronaldo.
The small Iberian country of 11 million people is now turning out athletes making an impact in other sports, such as basketball.
Ricardo Neves is one of them.
He finished his first season with the Nipissing Lakers after having played professionally in Portugal for Benfica for one season, then Porto for the next three.
Professionals are usually required to sit out for a year before being eligible to play in USPORTS.
However, Neves was allowed to play in the second half of the 2021-2022 season after Lakers head coach Thomas Cory appealed the league’s initial decision that deemed him ineligible.
The appeal was accepted since Neves was not able to play elsewhere during the previous season due to COVID-19.
On arrival in North Bay from his hometown of Lisbon, the swing man experienced two challenges that made adjusting to basketball overseas more difficult.
“It’s overwhelming sometimes to be the only one (from Portugal),” said Neves, on an internet interview last month. “English is not my main language and it’s hard for me to communicate on the court because we have different terms for everything.
“It’s a learning process, but I’ll get there for sure.”
The other difficulty he noticed was how the playing style clashed with what he was used to.
“For 18 years, I was used to tactical basketball with traditional set plays and playing a thinking game,” he said. “Here there is more transition offence. At first it seemed like ‘play one-on-one and see where it goes’.”
Neves began to feel comfortable with his role on the team as more offensive sets were introduced.
“We were still playing one-on-one mid-season, but we added a bunch of set plays,” Neves said. “I think that we were able to get as far as we got this year because we were playing different than universities, and I like to think that I had a little bit of an input in that.”
The Lakers secured the final OUA divisional playoff spot after winning their last two games.
They lost in the first round of the playoffs 69-59 to the Queen’s Golden Gaels, who were eventual division championship finalists. Neves led his team in shooting percentage in the game, scoring three-of-seven three-point attempts.
He will be representing his home country at the FISU World University Games this summer in Chengdu, China.
Coach Cory spoke highly of Neves’s development over the course of the year.
“It was an adjustment since he hadn’t played for a while,” he said. “His first weekend here he hit a game winning buzzer-beater for us against Toronto.
“He does a lot of good things like shooting, handling and makes great decisions, so he’ll be a major part of our program for the next few years.”
Neves now has someone to look up to in the NBA, thanks to the drafting of a former teammate.
Neemias Queta became the first ever Portuguese-born player chosen by the NBA. (Sacramento), in June, 2021, going 39th overall to the Sacramento Kings.
“We always knew that that was his dream. That was what he was working for, and we all believed in him,” Neves said. “We also know there was a big gap between dreaming about it and making it happen, but once he did, it was a phenomenal feeling. I was so happy for him.”
Neves knew that this moment was about more than just being excited for Queta’s success, it was history 75 years in the making.
“It was such a good feeling to finally see a Portuguese person in the biggest league in the world, the NBA,” he said. “We are small, but Portugal is everywhere.”