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As Cavs re-shape their future, Varejao remains team's center

With LeBron or without him, Brazilian big man has been a constant

POSTED: Nov 19, 2014 10:44 AM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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Anderson Varejao and LeBron James with the Cavaliers in 2009.

Anderson Varejao moved from one teammate to another. He was new among them, new to the country, new to the NBA. "Hi,'' he said, right hand extended. "Anderson."

That was just about all he was capable of saying. The year was 2004. He was a 22-year-old rookie from Brazil with long willows of brown hair. He approached each of his new Cleveland Cavaliers teammates with an apologetic nod of the head, as if to say this was the best he could do for now.

As he worked his way around the practice court he found himself in front of 19-year-old LeBron James.

"Hi. Anderson.''

They smiled.

Now, as he looks back at the beginning, Varejao, in his 11th season in Cleveland, can see that he had no idea what he was getting into. That one handshake was to define the journey of the next decade, for him and for his team.

The new kid in town

"I was seven years older than him,'' says Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the All-Star center whose number has been retired by the Cavaliers. "So maybe you would play a back-to-back, wake up in the morning, your whole body is sore, and you would come to practice just hoping it will be a short practice so you can come home and rest because you are so tired. And then here he comes. We were always on opposing teams in practice. I don't know how many days I had to reach within, deep inside myself, to compete with him and also to not throw a punch at him.''

Varejao was a 6-foot-10 bouncy backup at center and power forward who played with the energy of a ball-hawking, full-court-pressing guard. For Ilgauskas, it was like coming home fatigued at the end of a long day to be greeted by an enormous dog jumping all over him.

"It was nonstop,'' says Ilgauskas, now 39. "I know some guys say you shouldn't take charges in practice because somebody can get hurt. But that's the way he was playing. When you're playing 40 minutes or 35 minutes in the games, the last thing you want is somebody climbing up to get rebounds and pushing you hard in practice. I always used to say that whoever I was playing against -- unless it was Shaq -- it was a lot easier for me in the game than it was in practice.''

He would go 120 percent, and sometimes not everyone is ready to go 120 percent at practice. So he would frustrate guys for sure, and he's still doing it.

– LeBron James, on Anderson Varejao

Varejao laughs. He is 32 now, which makes him older than Ilgauskas was a decade ago. "I remember them telling me slow down, but what can I do?'' he says. "I knew what I had to do for that team was a lot different from what Z had to do or LeBron had to do. I was a guy that would bring energy to the team. Just play hard and go fight for every rebound, set good screens. I have a lot more experience now, and I can pace myself. Back then I couldn't.''

Back then Varejao was always in a hurry. He was frustrated that then-coach Paul Silas was forcing him to earn his minutes. "In the beginning of the season, he spent games in street clothes, like he wasn't on the roster,'' says Ilgauskas. "He was frustrated. We talked about it. He'd say, 'If I had known that I wasn't going to play, I would have stayed in Europe.' I told him to be patient: 'You're not from here. You're a little bit of an unknown. Keep doing what you're doing.' ''

Then practice would come and he would regret his own good advice. As Varejao earned his place in the rotation, Ilgauskas would commiserate with the big men of the opposing teams. "The other players would come up to me and say, 'God, I'm tired of him, I cannot believe that guy,' and they'd be bitching and complaining about him,'' Ilgauskas says. "I always said: 'You won't see him again for two months. You're done, but I've got to see him every day. You see him four times a year; I see him four times a week.' ''

"Yeah, we had some good times in practice,'' says Varejao obliviously. "We were doing three against two or something like that, it was like a warm-up, and then I remember I dunked on him. Everybody was going slow, and then I had a reverse dunk on Z -- and then I chest him. Just as a joke,'' Varejao says, his face lighting up. "Yeah, he was chasing me on the court.''

Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas
Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas

Varejao had played the same way for more than two years at Barcelona, one of the biggest clubs in Europe, where as a young player he was so aggravating that his more famous teammates would ask him in the locker room before practice: "Who are you going to fight with today?'' He was resolute. He would dive, challenge, box out hard, draw charges in a tumbling pinwheel of spinning arms and legs. Anyone who approached the basket, foe or friend, 10-day contract or A-list celebrity, was subjected to the ruthless havoc of Varejao.

"He might not look like the strongest guy in the world, but he's really, really strong,'' says Ilgauskas. "He has that big base, big hips, he's not easy to move around, he's not afraid of contact, and back when he was young he could really move his feet laterally. LeBron is a student of the game with a high basketball IQ, and he knows you need guys to win by playing that way. I don't think LeBron appreciated all of the charges that Andy would take on him in practice, though.''

James shakes his head. "He was ready to work right from the beginning,'' he says, "and whatever it took for us to win, he would do it. He would fly around, he would jump for loose balls. I grew up being a Bulls fan, and he reminded me of Dennis Rodman, a guy who people didn't understand, but he just went out and did his work. And I respected that.''

LeBron grins at the memories of practicing with Varejao when he and his young Cavaliers were finding their way. In those days they were the underdogs. Each step deeper into the playoffs was a surprise.

"He would go 120 percent, and sometimes not everyone is ready to go 120 percent at practice,'' James says. "So he would frustrate guys for sure, and he's still doing it.''

But no, James insists. He was and still is immune to Varejao's ways. "No,'' he protests, laughing, "he can't frustrate me.''

Varejao is proud to be the final authority on the question. "I believe LeBron got mad at me a couple of times,'' he says.

Staying humble

"We are all the same,'' Varejao says. "Basketball is my job; and OK, I'm doing pretty well. But nobody is better than nobody. At the end of the day we all going to go to the same place.''

The NBA is obsessed with hierarchy. Varejao appears to view himself from another perspective entirely. His goal is to be sincere and true. This should have been evident to everyone in the NBA from the beginning.

He arrived in America as a skinny giant who drew attention without seeking attention. His long curls were formed back away from his face aerodynamically, like a floppy bicycle helmet. His head of hair and his style of play were expressions of his outgoing personality. He never appeared to worry about what might be whispered about him. He cared much more about what he thought of himself.

"I believe my family is a big part of that,'' he says of his humility. "My parents and brothers and sisters, cousins, and my friends too: The way they always talk to me and the way we are, if I ever tried to be better than anybody, they're going to let me know. 'What's going on? Are you okay? Because that wasn't nice.' They will put me back to my spot. So it is good.''

When James was young, he was set forth as the heir to Michael Jordan. Varejao had no such destiny. "Nobody wanted to play basketball in Brazil,'' says Varejao, who moved away from his love of soccer -- which he played barefoot -- as he got taller. He did not take himself seriously, and yet he could not have been more serious about the game.

"On the court I'm always a very emotional player,'' Varejao says. "I complain a lot when I think I'm right. I'll fight for my rights on the court. It doesn't always work out the way I want it to. I am like that as a person too, I would say, because when I see something I think is right, I will fight for that. I will try to prove that I'm right.''

In the summer after his third NBA season in Cleveland, in the months after the Cavaliers' unexpected appearance in the NBA Finals, there was a contract dispute with the Cavaliers. "I was mad because the offer that I had was very disrespectful and they wouldn't change,'' Varejao says. "So it got to the point that I don't feel like playing for Cleveland. But in the end, when everything worked out, it was like one of those arguments that you have with your wife, or your family.''

The two sides made up.

"Everything worked out perfectly,'' he says.

Saying so long to LeBron

Varejao faced another fight in 2010, when James announced that he was leaving Cleveland during an ill-conceived television show and Cleveland turned on him for his decision.

"I knew LeBron. So I know how he's a good person, and he cares about the people that he loves, he cares about his family, he cares about the others,'' says Varejao in English, his third language. "But when he left, the way he did it, it was wrong. He had the rights to go anywhere he wants to go. But the way he did it -- I'm not here to second-guess him or what he did -- but to me, in my opinion, it wasn't the right way to do it. And I believe he said that later on. But I knew it was tough for him. Because even before he told everybody the way he did it was wrong, I could tell he went through some tough times, when everybody was talking bad about him. You can ignore a lot of outside noises, but because of who he is, I guarantee you it got to him. I believe it was tough for him.''

His first year away with Miami was barely a month old when James returned to Cleveland. He responded to the jeering and the hatred by playing his best game of that demanding season: 38 points, eight assists, zero turnovers. As the Cavaliers fell further back in the game, Varejao found himself making a stand on behalf of the team that James had left behind. In the run of play he pulled off James' headband and tossed it aside, as if he no longer recognized the authority of the King's crown.

"I was just trying to get him off his rhythm,'' Varejao says. "I knew that he would not like that. Because he wears headband for a long time, and people were saying he was losing his hair and stuff, and I thought that it could get him off his game a little bit.''

Varejao glances away as he recalls his act of loyalty on behalf of Cleveland and its forsaken team. He looks up with a big, shrugging grin.

"But it didn't work,'' he says, breaking into laughter.

Life without The King

"I didn't know what pulmonary embolism was,'' he says. "I went to the CAT scan, and they were taking forever to show us. I'm like, 'Can I go have lunch and come back? ...No, wait, they will be here soon.' We went to the next room. They start talking to me, and they said, 'You have a little piece of clot in your lung, what we call a pulmonary embolism.' Right away my wife starts crying. And I'm like, would you please stop? Because it was my third year in a row getting hurt and now you're going to be crying.''

He had no idea.

Everything we had when LeBron was there when we were winning, we had for the last four years ... I'm here to tell you nothing changed. They keep giving us the best, and the chance to get better, but it didn't happen. It was hard.

– Anderson Varejao

"She's like, 'No, you don't understand!' And I said relax,'' Varejao goes on. "And then one of the doctors was from Brazil, and he was explaining every detail plus more about pulmonary embolism. And that's when I realized, I almost died. They said it was a small clot that went to my lung. They say that the lung has veins inside and if it was big enough to block one of those, I could die. And after that, I heard so many stories of people who died like that, it was crazy. It kills a lot of people, even athletes -- a lot of athletes die by pulmonary embolism. I was on blood thinners because mine was small enough, and then you have a special diet. And then after three months, you do another test, and then I was fine. It was a scary time.''

The four years without LeBron were hard on Varejao in all kinds of ways. The Cavaliers were horrible. They had won 272 games and eight playoff series with James; they would lose 215 games without him.

"I can talk about that better than nobody, the freak injuries I had and the rebuilding process,'' says Varejao, who would miss 202 games over those four years. "The rebuilding process is never fun. Because the city of Cleveland, they support us, and the owner stood by us. Everything we had when LeBron was there when we were winning, we had for the last four years. We had a chef, we had a great facility, we had everything. I'm here to tell you nothing changed. They keep giving us the best, and the chance to get better, but it didn't happen. It was hard.''

His approach to the game, his career and his values were being tested.

But when he left, the way he did it, it was wrong. He had the rights to go anywhere he wants to go. But the way he did it -- I'm not here to second-guess him or what he did -- but to me, in my opinion, it wasn't the right way to do it. And I believe he said that later on.

– Anderson Varejao, on "The Decision"

"I remember when we got to The Finals in San Antonio, the whole basketball court was full of media,'' Varejao says. "I never saw anything like that in my life. And when the game starts it feels like the fans are louder, everything means a lot more. With the team that we had, I thought we were going to be in the Finals every year. But it's not like that. It is not like that. It takes a lot of work, takes a lot of commitment, it takes a little bit of luck too.''

In a way that he never could have realized, the departure of James defined Varejao. His influence, despite the losing, was appreciated. The Cavaliers explored trades for him but refused to see them through. They could not let go of the last player from that promising time. It became more obvious with each lost season that Varejao had been their spine. The more losses they suffered, the more they recognized the integrity of his point of view.

Did they hold onto him in hope that his presence would lure James back to Cleveland?

"I'm not sure,'' Varejao says. "It could be. It could be, especially after what LeBron said when he announced that he was coming back and he was happy to play with me again. That was very nice of him. I knew we had something good going on when we played together, but I didn't expect that from him.

"So, maybe. I'm just glad I stayed in Cleveland.''

A warm welcome home

"I actually saw him the day after he announced it,'' Varejao says. "He went down to Brazil to watch the [FIBA] World Cup. I met him at the hotel and then we went to a Brazilian steakhouse. I offered him some chicken hearts; he didn't want to try. I'm telling you, I was as excited as one of those kids when they see LeBron. Because I knew with LeBron coming back, things were going to change in Cleveland, we were going to be a better team and everything.''

When James saw Varejao's reaction as they reunited as teammates in Brazil, he could see that he was going to have a second chance. That everything was going to be all right.

"I guarantee you that he could,'' says Varejao. "I gave him a big hug. I said, 'I still can't believe that you're coming back, and I'm so happy, I'm so excited. It's good to have you back.' We had a good conversation in the van going to the restaurant about everything, about how good it could be now, having him back now, and can you imagine if we could win the championship now? How crazy it is going to be now. Cleveland is really waiting for the championship for a long time, and we want to do it for us, of course, for our families, for the city of Cleveland, for the organization. And the fans were great to us in those last four years, they support us. So we just spoke a little bit about everything.

Only seven active NBA players have spent more years with one team than Varejao. They are Kobe Bryant (L.A. Lakers), Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs), Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks), Tony Parker (Spurs), Manu Ginobili (Spurs), Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem (Miami Heat). What separates Varejao from them is that they have all won championships.

"That's a big part of the reason why I came back: It was because he was still here,'' James says. "A lot of people told him he should talk about getting traded or force his way out of here, and he just stuck around, man. And I'm happy that he's still here. He's a big cornerstone of this franchise being here for over 10 years, and it wouldn't be the same without him.''

Each time they play together again, in this third act of each of their NBA careers, it's as if their rapport was strengthened by their time apart. Coach David Blatt and many of the Cavaliers players are new to one another, but when Varejao spins into space out of the pick and roll with James, or when LeBron's lobbing passes seek him out in reward for his tireless sprinting in transition, or when one of them rotates to cover for the other defensively, it's as if they are digging a foundation of teamwork from which they can build a new team worthy of the championship.

All of the other important relationships in Cleveland are new and will need time to bond and grow. It is this one, between the game's greatest star and his selfless teammate, that is real.

"I always had dreams, but I never had, like, a huge dream,'' Varejao says. "I had step-by-step dreams. I want to become a basketball player, and I was scared that I wouldn't make it, if I would have to go back home ... then I didn't want to be just a basketball player. I wanted to be more than that. I want to be one of the guys that my coach will count on ... I started to think about what if I have a chance to play for the national team ... I went to Europe, and I came to Cleveland. It was unbelievable fast. I think about it and it happened so fast.''

Last October, back home in Brazil with his team from Cleveland for a preseason NBA exhibition, he heard the fans of his country chanting his name. They were singing to him as they sing to their footballers. "I had to hold back to not cry,'' he says. "I'm just sitting on the bench and the whole arena start screaming my name. It was unbelievable. I went on goosebumps. They got me.''

At long last he was being forced to see himself as others saw him.

The next step is to win the championship. It is within his reach. This makes it a small step, because of everything that has happened to lead him here. It is just beyond his front door when he heads off to work each day, no better than his neighbors or the people he has never met who wave to him as if they've known him forever. Cleveland is his home, the Cavaliers are his company, and the world's greatest player is his friend.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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