Bruno Fernando making history as first Angolan to play in the NBA

Atlanta Hawks’ Bruno Fernando drives against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half of an exhibition basketball game, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. The Pelicans won 133-109. (Special/John Amis)

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

Atlanta Hawks’ Bruno Fernando drives against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half of an exhibition basketball game, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Atlanta. The Pelicans won 133-109. (Special/John Amis)

Growing up in Angola, Bruno Fernando knew from a young age he wanted to be a basketball player.

... But he’d be lying if he told you he expected all this.

“I dreamed of one day taking a picture in front of an NBA arena, not playing in one,” Fernando said.

Yet now, as a rookie with the Hawks, playing in an NBA arena several times a week has become his reality. He’s making history as the first Angolan to play in the NBA, and the significance of that isn’t lost on him.

“It’s just something that I embrace,” Fernando said. “Obviously, nobody’s ever been in this position. For me to be the first one to open the door for everybody else, to just keep dreaming keep thinking and knowing that it’s possible, it’s an honor for me to be in this position. And I’m representing the Atlanta Hawks, I’m representing my family, I’m representing Angola and everybody else.”

Fernando (6-foot-9, 240 pounds) moved to America toward the end of 2014, attending Montverde Academy then IMG Academy in Florida. It was a hard adjustment, going from being around his big family (Fernando has seven siblings) to feeling more isolated, but basketball made the transition easier and helped him learn English faster (his first language is Portuguese, so at first he struggled to understand conversations during timeouts).

He eventually earned a spot at Maryland.

His freshman season with the Terrapins, he averaged 10.3 points, 1.2 blocks and 6.5 rebounds per game, and he started to think the NBA might be attainable. It was his sophomore season, in which he averaged a double-double of 13.6 points and 10.6 rebounds (60.7 percent shooting, with 1.9 blocks per game), that removed any doubt.

“I think that was the moment where it clicked and I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this. I belong here,’” Fernando said.

Both his mom, Natalia David, and his dad, Bernardo Fernando, cried when Fernando was drafted at No. 34, he said (he was taken by the Sixers before the Hawks orchestrated a trade). He’s trying to figure out a time his parents can make the trip to America and watch him play.

“Everything that we thought of, it’s kind of coming to a reality right now,” Fernando said. “And we all worked toward that, it wasn’t just me by myself. It was my dad giving me rides to practice at 5 a.m. in the morning, it was my mom being there, making breakfast, lunch, for me and just giving me advice before I go to practice and stuff like that, my brothers and sisters, everybody worked toward that with me.”

With four turnovers, his preseason debut against the Pelicans wasn’t beautiful -- more than anything technical, Fernando simply looked nervous.

At one point in the game, coach Lloyd Pierce called Fernando over and told him to say “Hi.”

“And I said hi,” Fernando said. “And he said, ‘That’s the first word you’ve said during the game.’ I thought of it, and he was right. I was really so focused on trying to be locked in that I got away from myself.”

After the game, Pierce and Fernando laughed about it.

“We spoke to the whole team about it,” Pierce said. “He’s a rookie. He’s the first player to come out of Angola, the entire country, in an NBA game. I have no idea what kind of emotions he had going into the game, but I respect it. I respect the nervousness. It shows he’s human; it shows he cares.”

Before his first regular-season game in Detroit, Fernando checked his phone, scrolling and scrolling through the messages from friends and family reaching out in support.

Fernando still has some developing to do, but as the regular season progresses, he has settled in and looked more comfortable while backing up starting center Alex Len, averaging 6.3 points and 3.8 points through the Hawks’ first four games. On Oct. 28, he had a solid game against a big, physical Sixers team, often matching up with Joel Embiid.

“He was aggressive,” Pierce said. “He scored around the basket. He was trying to be physical with a guy that’s an elite center in our league. But he wasn’t afraid of moment. … But I thought he came out and gave us a great punch while he was out there.”

Even though he’s in a unique situation as the first Angolan to play in the NBA, Fernando doesn’t feel any pressure. Especially when he’s already come so far.

“The fact that I made it to this level, which no one has done it before, that’s already a big accomplishment,” Fernando said. “Obviously it’s a lot more things that I’m trying (to do), but just to take that step already and just keep working and building on that, it already means a lot to me and Angola as a whole. I never really put pressure on myself, I just try to go out there and play basketball, because at the end of the day that’s what I’m here for.”