As NBA games go, Monday’s Cavs-Kings matchup was shaping up to be a real stinker. Both teams had played and lost the night before in other cities, the Sacramento arena appeared to have somewhere between 22 and 50 people in it, and the Kings’ annual post-holiday process of coming to terms with another flatulent lost season was well underway. Everything about the game practically pleaded with potential viewers to do something, anything else; even if you really wanted to watch basketball, the two starting lineups seemed to ask, why not just watch Kyrie Irving’s second game of the season?
Thousands of Portuguese basketball heads had a great counter-argument: Injuries across Sacramento’s frontline meant that Utah State second-rounder and first-ever Portuguese NBA player Neemias Queta was set to earn the first non-garbage time minutes of his young career. Queta rewarded his countrymen with a strong showing in what wound up a one-point Sacramento loss, notching 11 points, five rebounds, and a steal, seizing his opportunity for a real role with the team and inspiring bushels of memes.
It’s the memes that piqued my attention. That game started at 3 a.m. Lisbon time, as all Kings home games do, yet the replies to every Kings tweet mentioning Queta (as well as many others) are stuffed with Portuguese fans toasting him, demanding more playing time, or simply spamming the Portuguese flag. That rapturous attention to and affection for Queta stands out amid what has otherwise been a typically joyless Kings season, especially given that the object of all this late-night affection is a second-rounder on a two-way deal who has mostly not been able to wrest even a few minutes from Tristan Thompson. Even by Kings standards, this year’s model has spent the season in a liminal twilight space in which they exist mostly to balance out the league’s schedule. By any standard, Queta has mostly been an invisible part of that shadowbound mediocrity.
But people love him, and have paid close attention even though he’s received precious little playing time. I noticed this fervor the night the Kings selected Queta with the 39th overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and it only intensified as Queta started ticking off various milestones. “We thought there would never be a Portuguese player in the NBA, never,” Portuguese NBA broadcaster and Portuguese Basketball Federation press officer Ricardo Brito Reis told me. “When Neemy got into the NBA, everybody’s talking more basketball, more NBA.”
Portugal is, I think obviously, first and foremost a soccer country. One of the most famous people in the world is a Portuguese soccer player, after all. While Portuguese basketball has enjoyed some isolated moments of success, it has never been a major basketball country. Queta’s solid outing against the Cavs wasn’t even minor news in the American enthusiast press, though it made waves in Portugal. “He was making the cover of newspapers,” Brito Reis said. “It was completely insane.” Queta enthusiasm is growing despite significant temporal hurdles, as Kings home games start at the worst possible time to watch sports, something that the meme scene has metabolized in stride. Brito Reis said he worked a Kings-Lakers triple-overtime barnburner this past November that didn’t end until 6:30 a.m. local time. “When I went back home, I got stuck in traffic from people going to work in the morning,” he said. “Everybody is making an effort to stay up,” he said. “The government could accuse Neemy of being responsible for productivity in Portugal going down.”
“I have some friends who never really cared, and now they watch the games with me,” said Portuguese basketball fan Sérgio Calado, who got into hoops after playing NBA Live 2003 with his cousin as a kid. “It’s really funny when I see people in the States like, ‘Oh my god this game starts at 10:30, it’s so late! Oh it’s past midnight!’ We have to wait until 3:30 for the game to start.” Calado is part of the corps of Quetaposters, staying up late to watch games and keep tabs on Kings reporters for news on whether Queta will see the court. In the 10 games he’s been on the active roster, he’s had five DNP-CDs, four short garbage time spurts, and only one real run, yet fans appear to be staying up for the chance to see something special happen for one of the soggiest teams in the NBA.
“Before Neemias’s debut, the only game I have ever watched that started at 3:30 was Kobe’s last game. That’s how important [the debut] was,” he said. Henrique Moura, another Quetaposter, also got into basketball through video games (in his case, 2K) as well as the incredibly dramatic 2019 Finals, though he says he didn’t stay up late much until Queta started playing. “The chance to see the first Portuguese ever to play in the NBA is something I’ve been dreaming since I started watching the NBA,” he said. “We, as a country, are really proud of him.”
Queta was introduced to basketball on accident. His sister played basketball, and one day when he tagged along to one of her practices, coaches from Portuguese club Barreirense noticed him and invited him to join their practices. “He couldn’t run, he wasn’t very coordinated. Everyone was making fun of him. But he was the tallest guy in the gym so he stayed and he liked it,” Brito Reis said. “He lived in Barreiro in a difficult neighborhood. It was hard for him, he had to walk to the gym to practice and it was a long walk.” Queta played for Barreirense youth teams until he turned 18, when he caught the attention of a coach for Benfica. Moving on to a bigger club allowed him to develop his skills (“He was always in the lab,” Brito Reis said) and get a serious tooth problem taken care of. He soon attracted the attention of both the national program and American colleges, and after playing for Portugal in the 2018 U-20 European Championships, he schlepped off for Logan, Utah to join Utah State.
“He had other offers from bigger schools,” Brito Reis said, but he chose the Aggies (over, Queta says, Creighton and Texas Tech) because Diogo Brito, who is now on Portugal’s national team, was already playing for the Mountain West school. Queta was good immediately, making the all-conference team and winning MWC defensive player of the year in his freshman season. He declared for the 2019 draft, which is when Calado and presumably many other Portuguese fans first heard of him. “I remember thinking, maybe that’s our opportunity,” he said. But scouts and teams told Queta he wasn’t quite ready, so he went back to school, and after an injury-marred sophomore season and a standout junior season, he hired an agent and spent the pre-draft process working out for teams in the late-first and early-second parts of the draft.
Queta landing in Sacramento as the first Portuguese NBA player aligns pleasantly with one of the best eras in Sacramento basketball history. Ticha Penicheiro, one of the swaggiest passers you’ll ever see, played 11 seasons and won one WNBA title with the Sacramento Monarchs in the early 2000s. “Sacramento was already special for Portuguese basketball because of Ticha,” Brito Reis said. “Ticha is the best, she called Neemy, she was really excited, she said, ‘If you need anything, I can help you.'” Tyrese Haliburton, who spoke glowingly of Queta after his big game against Cleveland, has also helped Queta settle in to life in Sacramento and the NBA.
The greatest Portuguese men’s player of all time is Carlos Lisboa, a Penicheiro-esque point guard who won 14 Portuguese league titles with Benfica. He came close to the NBA, too, when the league was considering expansion into Canada a decade before they wound up pulling the trigger. But Lisboa’s opportunity never materialized after that plan was scrapped, and he never played outside of Portugal. A handful of other Portuguese players have played for American colleges, though nobody besides Lisboa ever got close before Queta.
And while Queta has only played 34 minutes, he’s not just a history-making player here for a cup of coffee, but a legitimately exciting prospect. He’s stood out in his G-League minutes, and has only ever anchored good defenses from the heart of the paint; Queta-centric iterations have had the Summer League’s best and the G-League’s third-best defenses. He’s a skilled passer for such an imposing seven-footer, which Brito Reis attributes to Queta having the offense flow through him at Utah State. “Neemy doesn’t idolize anyone,” Brito Reis said, though he does look towards Bam Adebayo specifically as a big man who became a plus-passer by getting good at making a specific few passes from a specific few positions.
The odds are always against any given second-rounder sticking in the league, but Queta has earned his opportunity on a Kings roster overflowing with centers. Everyone I talked to was beyond excited about Queta getting to go up against LeBron James and the Lakers in his second meaningful game. The Lakers unfortunately played a teeny-tiny lineup, and Queta only got onto the floor for 48 whole seconds. I was disappointed, though both Calado and Brito Reis took it in stride. Queta will probably head back to the G-League on a more regular basis, though such is the life of a rookie.
Queta’s career is just getting started, but doesn’t have to do anything more to earn the love of Portuguese basketball fans. “He’s a legend already,” Calado said, rueing that the Quetaposting squad didn’t get a real opportunity to mount a Quixotic all-star campaign for him. “I don’t think everyone is working in the morning, it’s tough,” Brito Reis said. But for Portugal’s most committed basketball weirdos, it’s all worth it. For Queta’s late-night volunteers, sacrificing a few hours of sleep is a small price to pay to get to see a Portuguese player push into new territory.