From Brazil to Philadelphia, 76ers’ Raul Neto’s Passion for Basketball Over Soccer is Paying Off
LOS ANGELES -- Raul Neto is entering his fifth NBA season—and his first not with the Utah Jazz—but he’s been playing professional basketball for much longer than that. The 27-year-old started getting paid to compete when he was 15, signed his first major professional contract at 17 and left his native Brazil to further his hoops career in Spain when he was 19.
In a soccer-crazed country like Brazil, Raul found basketball thanks to his father, former Brazilian basketball player Raul Togni Filho. Through his seven years hooping through Brazil and Spain, the younger Raul developed the independence and skill that propelled him into the NBA as the No. 47 pick in 2013 of the Utah Jazz by way of the Atlanta Hawks.
Before settling in Philadelphia for his first season with the 76ers, CloseUp360 sat down with Raul after a busy day of workouts and physical therapy in Los Angeles. Over a lean breakfast of fruit and protein, he discussed everything from the hurdles of playing basketball in Brazil to his quest to become his country’s fourth-ever NBA champion with the Sixers.
(The interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Raul Neto spent his first four NBA seasons with the Utah Jazz. (David Chisholm)
CloseUp360: How did you get into basketball?
Raul Neto: My dad was a basketball player, so I've always been around it since I was three or four years old, going to his practices. My vacations were always on the basketball court with him. My dad played for [the] national team one year. He never played outside of Brazil. Back in the days, it was so hard to go play overseas. You had to be so good to do it. So he's always been in Brazil for basketball. I’ve always been moving around. I've never stayed in one city for more than like three years, ‘cause [my dad] was always moving around. So I was always with him. Me and my other two brothers, they were always doing the same thing, too.
Then I started competing when I was eight. I was playing basketball and soccer because soccer in Brazil is just the biggest sport. So I did that until I was 13 and then I stopped playing basketball to play soccer for like two months. There was a tournament in the city I was living in Brazil, Bauru. And then at 13 or 14 years old, I went back to basketball and then that was it.
CU360: How did it personally impact you to follow in the footsteps of your dad, a professional basketball player?
RN: A lot of people think I was just playing because of my dad. Every time I had an opportunity with the national team or with camps in the states, everybody thought it was because of my dad and not because of me. So it was a lot of pressure and a lot of haters. I would say a lot of people doubting you probably wants you to do bad, just to prove you wrong. So I think those things is just hard in Brazil. Like, there's not a lot of support from the media or from the people that follow basketball. I think, like everywhere, there's always haters. There's always people that doesn't support you. But, for me, it was good ‘cause I had the right people around me. I had good coaches, I had great parents, my brothers always been with me. So those were obstacles, but nothing that could make me stop.
CU360: When did you start to pursue basketball professionally?
RN: When I was 15 or 16, that's when I started like making money and getting paid playing for the club because in Brazil, we don't do college or high school. We do high school, but we don't play basketball for high school. We played separate with a club. I was 16 when high schools and colleges started sending me invitations and trying to get me to come to the states, or teams in Europe were talking to my parents and tried to get me out there. They had to pay me a little bit just to keep me there in Brazil.
When I was 17, I signed my first big contract in Brazil with Minas Tenis Clube. It wasn't a lot of money because I was still living with my parents, but it was just a help. That was a two-year contract. After those two years, I knew for myself that I was going to go overseas because I needed that—to grow as a player and as a person. So after those two years, I went to Spain to San Sebastian for three years with Gipuzkoa Basket and one year with UCAM Murcia.
CU360: With soccer as the dominant sport in Brazil, did people think it was strange for you to be playing basketball?
RN: All my friends in school was playing soccer and that's what got me into soccer also. But if you like basketball, you're really a fan of basketball in Brazil because it's so hard to get to watch basketball or to play basketball, ‘cause it’s not like they have a basketball court everywhere. So you have to really like it. So all my friends and all the people that played basketball with me, they still love basketball. It's kind of a passion. It's not something that you play for fun. I mean, you play for fun, but it's not something that you play everywhere, like in school or when you go to the street. It’s not like everybody's playing basketball.
CU360: What are some of the disadvantages of pursuing a career in basketball while growing up in Brazil, since the sport was so uncommon?
RN: It was just hard to find a place to play. We usually worked out for the whole year to play like three games or four games because there was no more teams around. We had to pay, my parents had to pay their own money for jerseys, or there was games that we had to have three or four parents with big cars taking us to games because we didn't have the money for a bus or for a minivan. So those things were kind of hard. But when you're a kid and you want to do something and you have parents that support you, that's not really an obstacle.
I was taking two buses to go to practice and taking an hour to go to practice. I was spending the whole day at the club that I was playing with my friends, just like playing pickups and just like playing all day. The culture is a little different than here. It's not as easy to play basketball, so I think it was something that kind of made me grow and made me really motivated, and ready to [reach] my goals and reach where I am right now. Probably one out of 300 kids in Brazil make a life of basketball.
CU360: What was it like transitioning to life in Spain?
RN: It was a change. I had my mom the first two months trying to help me with the house, and teaching me how to clean or how to cook. Then after that, she went back to Brazil. The good thing is that the language is pretty close [to Portuguese]. So from the beginning, I was able to pick it up, so it wasn't that hard communicating with people there. But then just the change of the culture and living by myself, going from living with my parents for like 18 years and going to live by myself, it was a struggle at the beginning. I thought it was going to be easier, but it wasn’t.
But Spanish people are pretty close to Brazilians. They're a little colder than Brazilians. Brazilians are just happy. They talk to everybody, they're easy-going and they make friends real quick. So that was the hardest part for me. I remember going out with my teammates [in Spain] and being in the same table with their friends, and not talking to them because I was just new. So those kinds of things was a little different. But overall, I had great teammates. I had great coaches, people that were around me, just helping me with everything. So it was a good experience.
CU360: How do you think playing in Spain changed your game?
RN: The people I was playing basketball with were way better than people in Brazil. So it was harder for me on the court. I thought I was going to just go out there and play 20, 30 minutes a game and score 20 points, just how I was doing in Brazil. But it wasn't the same. So with basketball and being by myself and not having my parents to support me and to be there for me, it was kind of hard at the beginning. But I think that's what made me grow as a player and as a man.
CU360: What was it like after getting drafted by the Utah Jazz in 2013, but then having to go back to play in Spain?
RN: I wanted to come as soon as possible, but they just said, "We like you, but you’re probably not going to play, so let's just keep you out there." So I went back to Spain for two years to get more minutes, get more experience and the [Jazz] just loved my game. So [when I was back in Spain], they were kind of helping me. I was in contact with a couple guys [from the Jazz], and I came to the states one summer and I stayed in Utah for a little bit, before I signed my contract. So it was good having them behind me, just helping me to grow and helping me with everything I needed—from vitamins to just support. When I was in Spain, they were always asking me if I needed proteins. They just wanted to support me.
CU360: What was the transition like from Spain to Utah?
RN: It was hard. I think the language was a little harder for me. I spoke English a little bit, but not that much. It was hard to talk to players on the court or they wouldn't understand me or I was going to call a play, but because of my accent, they were just looking at each other. With me as a point guard, I have to be able to communicate with everybody, so it was a little struggle at the beginning. But I've always been lucky with people around me, and like coaches understood my situation or the other players understood my situation and they really helped me with everything.
And it was better than I thought it was. My first season, I played 50-something games starting, and then at the end of the season, they got another point guard. So I went to the bench, but I was still playing. But everything else was great. When you play in the NBA, you have so many people try to help you and doing things for you. So I had people helping me with cars, with [my] house and with food, and like we had a chef. We had food for like breakfast and lunch, and I would just take some to go and just eat that for dinner. So that's how I was doing my first year. When you play in the NBA, you have a lot of help and resources. It was hard more for the English, but everything else was fine.
CU360: What are you looking forward to as you start a new season with the Philadelphia 76ers?
RN: Basketball-wise, just reaching our goals. I think we have a great team to fight for the championship. They've been close for the last two years, just missing some experience and some pieces. So hopefully we can get there. And then just the change of being [in] a bigger city and a bigger market in a bigger franchise, being more exposed and more on TV. I think it's going to be a new thing for me that I want to take advantage for it, and just experience that as a player and as a person.
I think the fans are a little different. They're more intense and they're more passionate about both sports there. I think everything is going to be new and I'm excited to experience all that. But people are kind of scaring me. They say [the weather] is a lot worse than Utah. It's a different cold because I think it's humid and you feel more than Utah. In Utah, at least you have the mountains and it's pretty, but if you go [to] like Philly and New York, that cold is not pretty at all. So I'm a little scared about it, but we'll see.
CU360: What is it like being an athlete from Brazil and representing your country in the U.S.?
RN: Just the pride of having so many people behind us, and so many people that support us that wants to be where we are and want to be basketball players. Just representing a big country, we have so many different cultures and so many like different people. It's something that when you're young, you don't really realize and you just want to be on a national team because those are the best players in the country. But when you start learning the history and like learning how many people are really supporting and cheering for you, that's the beauty about playing for your country. This year, unfortunately, I wasn't able to play in the FIBA World Championship, but I've been with the national team since I was 16, 17 years old. It's one of the best times playing basketball.
CU360: What do you like to do in your spare time?
RN: In the last two years, I got into meditation, so I like meditating a lot. During the season, we're always kind of tired. So I like a good TV show, a good movie. I play some video games like FIFA most of the time. I don't play like those shooting games. I don't play a lot, and I have teammates that play a lot of video games and they get way better than me, so I don't really like competing with them. So FIFA is something easy that I've been playing since I was six or seven years old. So it's easier for me.
CU360: Can you tell us about your partnership with Hoops Park in Brazil?
RN: So we are building a basketball court in Brazil with Hoops Park Indoor Basketball in Sao Paulo. It's going to be a pretty good court, probably like one of the best there because you're going to have privacy, you're going to have [a] wood floor, good rims. I think there's going to be one full basketball court and one three against three official-sized court. I know it's growing as an Olympic sport and they’re having more competitions. But the thing that I like the most is that Hoops Park has a partnership with the NBA school.
So the NBA is doing something in Brazil that they send coaches from the U.S. to teach coaches in Brazil to do a week or two weeks of training. Then those coaches go and apply that to their players, ages 12 to 18. These basketball courts are going to have coaches and going to hold camps and going to have opportunities for kids, which is what I liked the most about the project. It's not only having a basketball court for professionals because they're going to find basketball courts somewhere. But it's just working with the young athletes. I think that's what we need in Brazil and we need the right people working with kids. I'm very, very excited about partnering with them.
CU360: Off the court, what other business ventures are you involved with?
RN: So I'm invested in two startups. One, the name is Pablito. It's like Uber with minivans. So they have minivans that people that don't want to drive to work, and they can have these vans pick them up and drop them off close to their jobs. The vans have Wi-Fi and they're so comfortable. It's here in LA and in San Francisco, but we're trying to grow like more in the states and they're trying to create more routes. So it just started a month or two months ago. It's something that I'm really growing. You know, with the traffic, nobody wants to drive anymore in cities like LA.
The other one is going to be an investment platform for art called Artopolie. If people want to invest in the art, instead of buying the whole thing, which is like millions of dollars, they can buy just a piece of it. So they can say they have one percent of this art, two percent of this art, three percent of that art and then they get a replica of the art. It's kind of like for people that like art and they can't afford buying the whole thing, which could be millions of dollars. Instead, they can buy just a piece of it. So it's an app that you can just basically buy a percentage of arts. I think when you invest, you are giving [an] opportunity for people that are trying to reach their goals and trying to do something nice for them.
CU360: You’re obviously starting to think outside of basketball. What do you see yourself doing career-wise beyond playing?
RN: Basketball is, of course, my passion. So I want to play as long as my body lets me play on a high level. I want to play as long as I want. If it's 36, 37 years old, that will be it. If it's 40, I'll play until I'm 40. And then just growing my brand and growing my portfolio with investments and helping people. In the future, I want to have a foundation. I don't have solid ideas yet, but I want to do something in Brazil with favelas or kind of mixing sports with the school—something that is hard to have in Brazil. So I think those are some of my goals.