Don't Call It a Comeback

October 2, 2013
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Anderson Varejao
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images

Nobody knew what to make of the Brazilian kid with crazy hair that came with Drew Gooden in a summer trade with the Magic back in 2004. But all it took was one dive after a loose ball, one taken charge with the locks flying in all directions for Andy to establish himself as the People’s Champ.

By the time Varejao made his first appearance at Gund Arena, Coach Paul Silas knew all about what the crowd would see. The Cavaliers held Training Camp at Capitol University in Columbus that summer, and Varejao’s relentless style of play had already gotten under the skin of veteran bigs like Scott Williams and Robert Traylor.

When his frenetic play began annoying actual opponents and helping Cleveland pile up wins, the love affair had begun.

The gym is called Quicken Loans Arena these days. Andy still has the Association’s craziest bouffant and his Cavaliers are once again an ascending young team. The only difference is, at just 31, Varejao is now the squad’s senior citizen.

“I don’t feel like that!” laughed the nine-year vet. “I know that I’m the oldest on the team and I have to be a leader. It kind of reminds me when I first got to Cleveland and Z (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) was already here. The way he took care of me. Having Z as a mentor helped me a lot. Now I know how to be with the young guys and everything.”

Nine years ago, odds are you wouldn’t have read that quote on Cavs.com, either. In his early days in Cleveland, Varejao saved most of his energy for the hardwood. (Where he burns up a lot of it.) Getting the Santa Teresa native to talk to the media was usually met with Andy’s trademark smile and a pass.

Big Z brought Andy along in those early days – with everything from helping him order at restaurants to learning new coach Mike Brown’s defensive terminology. Varejao has since passed the torch. Now he’s the guy explaining X’s and O’s to the young pups.

“I try to calm them down,” explained Varejao. “Like, whenever I feel like when I need to say something, I’ll say something. There’s a lot of new stuff for everybody; it’s gonna be kinda hard.

“I remember when Mike came to Cleveland, my first couple years were just a learning process. The language and everything. It’s not easy. It gets easier, because Mike’s gonna talk about it every day. At first it’s going to be: ‘Oh my God! It’s a lotta stuff! That’s when I’m going to try to jump in and to help the guys that really don’t know his system yet.”

When Andy first took the floor to the Troggs’ classic, “Wild Thing,” his assignment seemed to be “Go nuts and grab rebounds.” He was accused of flopping. He aggravated opponents. But while the rest of the league griped, the Cavaliers watched one of the league’s better young bigs develop before their eyes.

Anderson’s numbers accelerated every year he’s worn the Wine and Gold. And over his last four years, they’ve jumped exponentially. His scoring average went from 8.6 ppg to 9.1 to 10.8 to 14.1. His rebounding numbers have gone from 7.6 rpg in 2009-10 to 9.7 to 11.5 to 14.4 boards per contest.

That last number – 14.4 – made him the top rebounder in the NBA when his season was once again abbreviated by injury.

Andy suffered a small split in his right quadriceps muscle on Dec. 17 against Toronto and the injury was supposed to sideline him six to eight weeks, but after the surgery, a CT scan revealed a blood clot in his left lung, sending him back to the operating room and ending the most successful season of his nine-year career.

Varejao was having an All-Star caliber season before his last setback. He had an opener for the ages, notching nine points, nine assists and 23 rebounds in a win over Washington. He dropped 35 points in the Cavs first-ever appearance in Brooklyn, doing so on the final night of a six-game road trip. During a 10-game stretch, Varejao scored at least 10 points and grabbed 15 boards, putting him alongside names like Moses Malone in the record books.

It was the third straight season that Varejao’s season had been cut short by injury – limiting him to 81 games over the past three campaigns. Before that, he’d never played less than 48, and appeared in 81 contests twice.

It’s fair to say – the Wild Thing is chomping at the proverbial bit to get back on the floor.

“The last three years were very tough on me,” said Varejao. “It was sometimes that I asked myself, ‘Why me?’ But looking back – this is my tenth season – and I’ve had six healthy seasons. Playing in Europe, I never had injury problems. Played in Brazil, I never had a crazy injury or anything. If you look back, it’s like 12 healthy seasons and just three unhealthy seasons. But I know we focus on the seasons that I wasn’t healthy because those were back-to-back-to-back.”

It’s been a tough road back from each of the past three truncated seasons. But this time, the 31-year-old had a lot more help.

“They were freak injuries, but it still wasn’t easy,” he explained. “But having my wife now and my family, they helped me a lot. She was healing me, she really helped me. She took care of me – mentally, telling me to stay positive. My family was the same way. Even the coaching staff that we had last year, they were great to me. Chris Grant. The organization, the fans. Everybody. They supported me.”

Yes, Varejao – always female fan favorite – was taken off the market this past autumn when he married his long-time girlfriend, Marcelle Silva, on September 7 in Rio de Janeiro. A pair of former Cavalier teammates, Anthony Parker and Big Z (who described the wedding as “crazy”) were there for Andy’s big day. But they made up a small percentage of the revelers.

“It was HUGE,” smiled the newlywed. “We got married in Rio, because she’s from Rio. My family is huge. And her friends and family are all from Rio, so everybody went to the wedding. Probably 99 percent of the people we invited from Rio went to the wedding. And then our friends from all over the world that I invited all came. So it was around a thousand people. It was crazy.”

A thousand people?!

“Yeah, a lot of people told me it was like an event,” continued the Wild Thing, flashing the big grin. “We had two bands playing, a DJ playing. The ceremony at the church started at 7:30 and the party ended at 7:00 in the morning. So it was, uh, yeah …”

Varejao talks about a new sense of responsibility and security now as a new husband. And with his life and his health in order, he’s prepared for the upcoming season. He’ll go into it with a coach who developed him from a raw rebounder into an All-Defensive second teamer in 2009-10.

Anderson is the lone remaining Cavalier from Mike Brown’s first tenure in Cleveland. Varejao feels that Brown is more “confident” and “serious” these days. But after one day of practice, Andy began seeing the guy he’s given many a man-hug over the years.

Today in practice, I could tell he didn’t change,” laughed Varejao. “Defense, Defense, Defense. He jokes around when he has to. But he didn’t change. I thought he changed, but he didn’t.”

Varejao admits that the team is really beginning to add some talent to the roster – and he’s geared up to play alongside a re-tooled frontline – with the additions of Earl Clark, Anthony Bennett and Andrew Bynum, along with the improvement of youngsters Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller.

“It’s like we have a little bit of everything now, with the bigs,” said Varejao. “Guys that can shoot from the outside, guys that can guard from the outside and the inside, post-up guys, energy guys. We have a little bit of everything. Now it’s just a matter of playing together and taking advantage of that.”

Healthy, happily married and playing the game he loves in front of the fans that love him back. Life is good for the old Wild Thing. Now, all that’s left is to lace ‘em up and rumble.

“We could be something really special this year,” concluded Varejao. “We have a lot of talent. We have a lot of young guys with talent. Our goal always has to be the Championship. We have to believe, give everything that we have, every game, every practice. We have to be realistic that that’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of understanding, trust, communication, effort from everybody for us to get there. But we have to believe. And when we believe, we can do something special.”