For Cavs and Country

September 27, 2012
Omri Casspi

In just over a month, they’ll represent the Cavaliers. Over this past summer, they represented their country.

A pair of the Wine and Gold’s international stars, Anderson Varejao and Omri Casspi, spent the offseason suiting up for their homeland – Varejao for his Brazilian team in the 2012 Summer Olympics and Casspi for the Israeli squad in the EuroBasket Championship qualifiers.

Varejao and Casspi are two of five Cavaliers born outside the country (along with Tristan Thompson [Canada], Samardo Samuels [Jamaica] and Kelenna Azubuike [England]).

Though he’s played in several international tournaments – winning the 2009 FIBA Americas Championship, Brazil’s fourth – this summer marked Varejao’s first Olympic exposure.

“London was great – a great experience,” said Varejao. “It was different than any other international competition that I’ve been a part of. The city is great – just the Olympic Village, seeing all the other athletes. It was amazing.”

Varejao and the other athletes inhabited the Olympic Village about ten minutes outside for almost three weeks, including a few days before the opening ceremonies. During that time, Andy took in the sights and sounds of England before tipping off the tourney.

“You always know somebody from other countries – you walk around, you take pictures,” recalled the Wild Thing.

“We got there a little bit before,” Andy continued. “My first three to four days was kinda like: it’s going to be hard to focus on playing because there are so many things going on. It’s a lot of people and you want to see everything. So it was hard for me the first couple days.

“But after you start the games and everything, you forget about all the stuff that’s going on around the Village and you just focus on the games and who you have to play against and what you have to do.”

Andy’s Brazilian squad finished 4-1 in the preliminary round, with Varejao either leading or tied for the lead in rebounds in four of those games – including a 13-rebound performance in Brazil’s 98-59 drubbing of China.

Anderson VarejaoBrazil’s single defeat in the opening round came in a heartbreaking 75-74 last-second loss to Russia – an instant classic that saw Russian guard Vitaliy Fridzon hit a jaw-dropping three-pointer from the corner over Leandro Barbosa at the buzzer.

Omri Casspi’s Israeli national team didn’t qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games, but they did play well enough in the qualifying tournament later this summer to be one of 24 countries to vie for the 2013 EuroBasket Championship.

The EuroBasket qualifiers breaks participating nations in groups of six that play a total of ten games – both home and away. The sextet along with Israel was Serbia, Montenegro, Slovakia, Iceland and Estonia, with the first three teams qualifying for the Championship.

Montenegro finished first, followed by Israel and Serbia.

“It was good; we played as one unit – that’s the most important thing with the national team,” said Casspi, who was back home from late July (after working out with the Cavaliers in Vegas Summer League) until late September. “We played hard every night and I’m happy that we qualified.”

Casspi’s been playing with international powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv since joining their youth team at age 13. In this summer’s tournament, he led Israel in scoring in seven of their 10 qualifying contests. Casspi topped the 20-point plateau four times – including a 26-point performance and a pair of 23-point games.

(In the same bracket of six was Milan Macvan – the 6-9, 265-pound power forward the Cavaliers tabbed with the 54th pick in the 2011 Draft. He led his Serbian team in rebounding in four of their qualifying contests.)

“I felt good, I felt comfortable,” remarked Casspi, who’s entering his second year with Cleveland. “I had time to bring everything I learned here from Coach Scott and our coaching staff to the national team, and I felt pretty comfortable.”

Both international players will be toiling through their head coach’s gauntlet – colloquially entitled “Camp Scott” – as Training Camp tips off. Over the summer, they answered to a different drill instructor, but the message was similar to Scott’s.

Omri CasspiIsrael’s coach, Arik Shivek, has been the squad’s coach for the past three years. According to Casspi, “He did a phenomenal job with us, getting us together. It’s hard to get 12 different players from different teams and put it into a team in less than two weeks.”

Shivek’s message to his team was one that Casspi says is at the heart of the national squad’s philosophy.

“I think there’s something really unique about the Israeli national team,” reflected Casspi, the club’s youngest player. “Growing up, we learned that other national teams might have taller guys than us, but nobody will play harder than us. And we play hard, really, every night.

“We win games through defense. That’s what we try to do.”

Brazil’s coach, Ruben Magnano, had a similar philosophy in the Olympics. And it led to the Brazilian squad boasting the best defense in the Games – holding opponents to just 69.8 ppg.

“We knew to have a chance to do well in the Olympics, we had to play defense,” said Varejao. “Our coach, he’s crazy about defense. And that’s why we did well – we play good defense.”

As good as Brazil was as a team – boasting four NBA players (including Andy, Leandro Barbosa, Nene and Tiago Splitter) – they couldn’t keep up with Argentina in the knockout round, dropping an 82-77 decision. Argentina, which eventually fell to Team USA, featured two of the Games’ top five scorers – Luis Scola and Manu Ginobili.

Statistically, Andy finished the tournament 10th in rebounding at 7.0 per game

When it was all said and done in London, Varejao’s squad had finished fourth at the XXX Olympiad. Brazil hasn’t medaled since winning the Bronze in 1964. Israeli basketball has never medaled at the Olympics.

When the Summer Olympics roll around in 2016, the Wild Thing won’t have far to travel with his teammates. The XXXI Olympiad will be held in Rio de Janeiro.

“It’s going to be great,” beamed Varejao. “It’s going to be my second Olympic games and it’s going to make history, I believe. We’re probably going to be better by then. We won’t be as young, but we’ll be more experienced basketball players.”

Varejao and Casspi could have taken the summer off, but patriotism takes over when it comes to competition.

Anderson Varejao“First, when you wear your nation’s colors on your chest, it means a lot,” opined Casspi. “It’s just a great feeling, going back after you’ve been in the States for eight or nine months, you get to play for the national team in your own homeland in front of your friends. You get tickets for your mom and dad and family and everybody’s there. It’s a great feeling.”

And Casspi contends that competing internationally in the offseason has sharpened his game headed into the 2012-13 campaign.

“It puts you, mentally, on the right page,” said the 6-9 forward. “You play and you’ve been through 10 or 15 games in a month-and-a-half and it gets you into a good rhythm. And practice is always good.”

Varejao, who missed the Cavaliers’ final 41 games with a broken right wrist, returned from his offseason experience feeling healthy ready to roll. And this year, the seasoned Olympian comes to Camp as the Kid Cavaliers oldest player at the ripe old age of 30.

“I never thought I was going to be here as the oldest guy on the team,” laughed the eight-year veteran. “But I’m ready for it. I’m ready to help the young guys – just like I had Z and I had A.P. I think I can really help. It’s not hard. It’s nothing special that I have to tell them. Just work hard, listen to the coaches and respect your talent. Respect who you are.”

Both Varejao and Casspi have fought for country this summer. Beginning again this fall, they’ll be fighting for the Cavaliers.