Embracing Wild Thing

How Anderson Varejao went from bushy-haired Brazilian to Cleveland's second-favorite son.

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Just one drink, the pretty woman pleads. She is working hopelessly to persuade Anderson Varejao to have a cocktail with her and her friends.

It's a cool Saturday night, a few minutes after a Cavaliers win over the Orlando Magic. Brasa Grill, the warm and sleek Brazilian steakhouse on West Ninth Street, is still crowded at 11 o'clock. His injured ankle in a hard plastic boot, Varejao hobbles to the woman's table. He says hello with a nervous smile, but quickly heads back to the dining room. He is meeting friends, he tells her. He wants to start his night.

But when he gets near his table, the camera phones are already out, as are the pens and the scrap paper. Before he knows it, Varejao is leaning down, posing while a woman tries to frame his bushy hair with her Nokia. It's a full 10 minutes before he sits, at which point every waiter in the restaurant comes by to say hello.

This would have been much easier in September. Since arriving in Cleveland, Varejao has gone from a crazy-haired bench-rider to the city's favorite foreign-exchange student, and a significant factor in the Cavs' slog toward the grounds of the Eastern Conference elite. It's the way he flings his body around the court like a hacky-sack, disregarding everything but the ball and occasionally the basket. And of course, it's that hair -- an unruly bush atop his 6-foot-10 frame that, along with his penchant for running into things, landed him his nickname: Wild Thing.

"He goes 100 miles per hour all the time," says teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas. "He has a great time, he has a great personality. He has a great smile."

Varejao was born in Santa Teresa, Brazil, a village guarded from the Atlantic Ocean by thick trees and steep cliffs. He is the son of an agriculture professor, the brother of four giant siblings -- all of them basketball players, in a land where soccer is king. One brother, Sandro, played for West Virginia University. Anderson's idolization of his big brother -- along with his height -- led him to first play organized hoops at age 11.

At 19, he signed with a professional team in Barcelona, where he became an instant star despite averaging just seven points per game. That hair, that hustle, that forever smile -- he could have never scored a basket. "He was very popular with the ladies," says Oriol Bonsoms, who works in the front office for F.C. Barcelona, Varejao's former team.

Drafted early in the second round by the Orlando Magic last summer, Varejao was quickly shipped to the Cavaliers. It was the trade that brought starting forward Drew Gooden to Cleveland in exchange for journeyman Tony Battie and a pair of second-round picks. To most, Varejao looked like a throw-in, a shirt you buy at Goodwill without trying on. If it fits, fine. If not, oh well.

But not to Cavs General Manager Jim Paxson, who had scouted Varejao in Europe. "Until they saw Anderson," Paxson says of his coaches, "they weren't really going to know what they were going to get. Once they had him, they were going to like him."

Even the Magic seemed to have seller's remorse. After the trade, GM John Weisbrod called losing Varejao the "one sore spot" of the deal.

Like most rookies not named LeBron, Varejao struggled for playing time early, logging only about 10 minutes per game through December. But as he started to understand the offense, the confidence came, and so did the rebounds. He grabbed 10 or more boards in four games in early January. In one game, Varejao grabbed a steal, went the length of the floor, dribbled behind his back, and slammed the ball home.

A New York beat writer noted that Varejao "threw his weight around as if he had no respect for the Knicks." And with scenes like that unfolding in arenas nationwide, people across the country started trying to pronounce Varejao's name. "Get ready to see Drew Gooden's minutes start to drop," wrote ESPN.com columnist Bill Simmons, who dubbed Varejao the league's most valuable bench player.

By January 24 -- the day teammate Lucious Harris fell on Varejao's ankle, shelving him until next month with a sprain -- he ranked second in the league in offensive rebounds per 48 minutes played and first in steals per turnover. Since his injury, almost no press conference has passed without Paul Silas mentioning Varejao's absence. The Cavs coach has called Varejao his hardest working player.

"I have confidence in my game," says Varejao, who is 22. He speaks in heavily accented but passable English, especially when he's talking basketball or Brazil. For interviews, the Cavs like to have a team trainer around to translate the Spanish he learned in Barcelona.

Varejao sounds strangely put off by questions about home. He is in America now, and he wants to talk basketball. He doesn't miss Brazil much anyway, he says. "I spent three years in Barcelona, you know." Plus, he's made a city full of friends. He enters the game to ovations second only to LeBron's. He receives loads of fan mail. Before the injury, Varejao-inspired wigs were appearing on game nights. The team apparel shop recently started carrying his number 17 jersey and quickly sold out.

Count 15-year-old Melissa Thorne of Mentor among his biggest fans. As she stood in the stands before a recent game, she learned that Varejao has a girlfriend back in Spain. "Oh, that sucks," she says. "That ruined my whole day."

In the land of the King, Varejao is clearly a prince.

"The people like me," he says. "The people talk to me all the time. I go out for dinner, for everything. Everyone talks to me. 'I like you. I like your game. I like your hustle.' This is very important for me, for my adaptation."

But adapting can't be easy. Though he lived alone in Barcelona, friends of friends always found a home at Varejao's, says Bonsoms. "His house was always filled with Brazilians."

Varejao became accustomed to Barcelona's pace, its variety, its hours of operation. In Barcelona, he points out, a night out doesn't wind down until nearly 5 a.m. And of course, there's the climate. "It's too cold in Cleveland."

Varejao lives alone in an apartment at Reserve Square, the downtown complex that calls itself the "Big Gorilla." His pre-furnished apartment reminds him of a hotel. He talks to his family almost every day, and he chats often, online and on the phone, with his many friends in Spain -- including that 27-year-old girlfriend, who also visits him in Cleveland.

And then there's Brasa Grill. Varejao ducks into the restaurant as many as three times a week -- enough that when team officials needed to find him recently, they called the restaurant.

Sometimes he brings teammates, who call him Andy. "We love to be around him," says forward Scott Williams, who is 15 years older than Varejao. Williams and others have dusted off their Spanish and picked up a bit of Portuguese, to make sure Varejao feels included.

But Varejao often shows up at the restaurant alone. Sometimes he comes after closing time, and they feed him anyway. He likes Table 19. It's an unlikely choice for a celebrity -- right out in the open. The line for the salad bar runs directly past it.

But it sits next to the kitchen, where most of the restaurant's Brazilian staff work. The meat-cutters huddle around the table. They want to know how he's doing, when he'll be back on the court. The Portuguese flies.

"In his mind," says Brasa manager Jesus Demanuel, "he's in Brazil."

And he always goes home smiling.

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