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Raise your hand if, when you first watched Anderson Varejao as a Cavalier, you thought he’d one day one of the cornerstone big men in the history of the franchise.
Obviously, the first thing fans noticed when Varejao took the floor as a rookie was the crazy hair. There was that awkward-looking jumper with the right elbow at a 45-degree angle and odd backspin – which is still his shooting form. And there’s the image of him spending as much time upright as he did skidding across the hardwood in pursuit of a loose ball or as a result of a taken charge – which is still how he plays the game.
But there’s something else that’s been pretty consistent from his first time on the floor as a rookie in 2004-05. In Varejao’s first appearance as a Cavalier – a 92-86 loss to the Heat – he was 3-of-5 from the floor for seven points, plus four boards and an assist in just 10 minutes of action.
Not long after that, The Wild Thing was born.
It’s almost a decade later and not that much has changed about Andy.
Yes, he’s the team’s most tenured member and resident jokester. And he’s now a married man. But Varejao still brings the same energy, effort and overall tenacity to the gym all night every night – and that consistency has him climbing through the Cavaliers record books, challenging some of the organization’s high-water marks in several categories.
The 22-year-old Brazilian who was publicly seen as a mere throw-in to the Drew Gooden-for-Tony Battie trade with Orlando is now in the Cavaliers’ all-time Top 10 in offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total boards, steals, blocks and games played. And now that he’s back to full-health, he’s continuing his ascent.
“I remember my first week, I wasn’t playing, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay here,” recalled Varejao. “I love the game so much and I was making good money (overseas), too. All I wanted was to play. But, you know, talking to Z, he helped me a lot. So it’s a surprise for me that I’m still here, part of the history of this organization.”
Andy has a long way to go to catch his close friend, Big Z – still the Wine and Gold’s all-time games-played leader at 771. Ilguaskas is also the franchise’s all-time top rebounder, having snagged 5,904 boards over a brilliant and often-times challenging 12-year career with Cleveland.
But Anderson is making gains on another former Cavalier big man who’s still an integral part of the organization – radio analyst Jim Chones.
Chones played five rock-solid seasons with the Cavaliers. He never averaged less than 12.9 points or 8.4 boards per season and didn’t miss a single game over his last four. Chones was the traded to the Tinseltown in 1979 and won an NBA Championship with the Lakers in 1980. He retired from basketball in 1982 with combined ABA/NBA totals of 9,821 points and 6,427 rebounds.
Like Varejao, he was the 31st overall player selected and, like Varejao, he was not considered an elite athlete when he arrived in the league.
“(Varejao and I) were both were undersized for our position,” says Chones. “And so to compensate and to maintain our competitive edge we had to be in better shape and we had to be fearless. That’s one of the things that people used to say about me and I hang my hat on. I played rough and hard and physical. And I wasn’t a physical player, but I could take it and I could give it.
“And I think that’s the edge that Andy has – his activity, his mobility and his mind. He won’t give in. He won’t take a break. He’s going compete with you every time down the floor.”
In the scope of the Cavaliers franchise, Chones is 5th in total rebounds (3,790), defensive rebounds (2,750) and blocked shots (450). He’s 8th on the all-time offensive rebounding list (1,040).
In terms of total rebounds, Varejao is one spot behind the man who, along with play-by-play man John Michael, calls his games every night.
“I don’t know how Andy came up, but I do know this: he’s a tough guy. And he’s not afraid of anybody.”
Varejao’s fearless style has made him who is today, but it also might have cost him a few spots in the all-time games-played category. Over the past three years, Andy’s missed 81 contests due to injury.
Back healthy this season, the Wild Thing has resumed his run at the record books. He currently ranks 6th all-time in total boards (3,604), 4th in offensive rebounding (1,236), 7th in defensive rebounding (2,368), 9th in steals (444), 9th in blocked shots (344) and 10th in games played (478).
[The all-time leaders in those six categories, respectively, are Ilgauskas (5,904), Ilgauskas (2,336), Brad Daugherty (4,020), LeBron James (955), Ilguaskas (1,269) and, again, Ilgauskas (771).]
“People are going to always talk – good or bad – they’re always going to have something to say,” opined Andy. “But as long as you know how to deal with all that, you’ll be fine. Like in my situation, they use to call me ‘flopper’ and this and that. But I don’t care. It doesn’t bother me. I’m just going to keep doing what I do.”
Jim Chones dismisses the criticism of Varejao. He understands the mentality of an insatiable rebounder.
“You don’t give in, you can’t give in, and you can’t compromise. Everything is about one thing: Get the ball.,” says Chones. “That’s the nature of Andy’s game. He’s what (Cleveland State Coach) Gary Waters would call a ‘possession guy.’ You can’t win championships without a possession guy. And we have two of them. We have Tristan – who’s learned from Andy – and Andy. They get you the ball.”
Andy’s all-out assault on the game – not to mention his easy-going nature and active sense of humor – is also what’s made him a fan, teammate and staff favorite from the minute he checked in to that Miami game back in 2004.
“(The fans) are a big part of everything since I got here,” says the Santa Teresa native. “I spoke almost no English. I didn’t know what to expect or how things were going to be, but they were great to me since my first game. I got a couple rebounds. I took a charge here, one there. And so the next game was a lot different. They were kind of like, ‘Whoa, who is this guy?!’ And they were rooting for me, helping me every time I would walk on the court, they were screaming. That was a lot of help back then.”
As the club continues working through the early days of Anderson’s 10th season with the Wine and Gold, his numbers continue to climb. Working his way back to the postseason is priority No. 1 for the Wild Thing, but it still feels good to be part of the only organization he’s ever known.
“It’s great to be part of the history of the Cavaliers organization, but stats were never something that I really cared about,” smiles the humble veteran. “It feels good. It feels good to know that one day I can show my kids that I’m part of the history of the Cleveland Cavaliers.”