The date was July 8, 2004. It was a Thursday night, and the Cleveland Cavaliers were reeling. It seemed impossible, yet the outcome was simultaneously probable. Some would argue even likely. The Cavaliers took a major risk, and they were burned in a big way.
It was that Thursday night when restricted free agent Carlos Boozer informed the Cavaliers that despite their wink-wink arrangement, he had verbally agreed to an offer sheet with the Utah Jazz. To this day there remains plenty of blame to go around to everyone involved, but the simple fact is that Cavaliers GM Jim Paxson didn’t have to let it come to this.
It was a move that GMs around the league shook their heads at, one of the dumbest gambles you could ever make. Paxson put his job on the line to vouch that Carlos Boozer was an honorable man of his word. Unfortunately for the GM, Boozer wasn’t and the rest is history.
The moment Jim Paxson let Carlos Boozer out of his contract, a chain of events had been set in motion that would lead to the Cavaliers acquiring one of the most beloved players in franchise history. Once Boozer left, the Cavaliers were desperate for a quality power forward. Remember, this was the first offseason after the LeBron James draft. Despite LeBron and Boozer’s promising play in 2003-04, the Cavaliers were a mess of a team and the Cavs knew the clock was running. They had to turn the team around quickly to subdue the pressure of LeBron’s advertising partners who would have preferred LeBron as a New York Knick.
Those turn around plans would be tricky with the issues Paxson had created. He had traded a 2007 first round draft pick for Sasha Pavlovic, Jason Kapono was lost to the Bobcats in the expansion draft, and Luke Jackson was selected with the 10th overall pick. Those were the offseason moves that pre-dated Boozer’s betrayal. Paxson knew the team needed to try to replace as much of Boozer’s production as they could, so on July 23, they sent Tony Battie and two future second-round draft picks to the Orlando Magic. In return, they acquired Drew Gooden and Steven Hunter. And oh yeah, they also secured the rights to Anderson Varejao, an unknown 22-year-old prospect from Brazil who was taken in the second round by the Magic in that year’s draft.
It’s hard to remember much of Anderson Varejao’s first season in Cleveland. His first game as a Cavalier came in the team’s second game of the 2004-05 season. With 11 minutes left in the second quarter, he subbed into the game for Zydrunas Ilgauskas. He played 10 minutes that night and scored seven points while pulling down for rebounds. At that point, nobody knew what kind of player the Cavaliers had.
His first season he would play just 16 minutes per game, averaging 4.9 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. To look at those numbers, you’d think he had no impact on the team. But something kept happening every time the Cavs went to the bench and had the floppy haired Brazilian guy step on the court. Varejao played with a reckless abandon. He was pure energy, a guy disrupting opponents on offense with a penchant for drawing offensive fouls on opponents.
If you looked a little deeper than just the box score stats, you would see that already Varejao was putting a stamp on the team and making the team better whenever he was on the floor. His 101 Defensive Rating was the best on the team. Despite his limited minutes, he was still fifth on the team in Defensive Win Shares. He was second only to LeBron James that year in Win Shares per 48 minutes. The Cavaliers were a net +4.7 in points per 100 possessions with Varejao on the court, and -0.4 with him on the bench. Again, his net +5.1 was second on the team, again only to James.
At that point, Varejao was a mere curiosity. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly it started happening, but Cavs fans quickly began to take to Varejao. Andy brought the energy on the floor, but there was a tangible energy among fans when Varejao was in the game as well. Cleveland fans often identify themselves as a blue collar fanbase, one that puts an emphasis on cheering for players who do the dirty work. Brazil had to seem like a world away to Varejao in his first season in the NBA, but to Cavs fans, he was already one of us.
Anderson Varejao shares a distinction with LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Those three players were the only men to play for the Cavs in all five playoff appearances in that era. When the idea of #CavsRank was proposed, the criteria in how to vote was left to each individual voter—there were no ground rules other than to consider the time each player spent in a Cavs uniform.
Sure, there were Cavs who filled up box scores a lot more than Andy did. Especially in those playoff years. But Andy was always a player who was about something more than just what you saw in the scoring and rebounding columns. His value to this franchise to this day continues to exist in a fluid orb, unquantifiable by most known metrics. But to watch Anderson Varejao play basketball is about something pure, almost spiritual in nature.
That’s not to say it’s pretty. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, that tangled mess of hair and limbs, flailing about the court. Cavs fans had the pleasure of watching LeBron James play for seven seasons. So we know a thing or two about beauty. That’s not Andy. But there’s a primal energy to Andy’s game that gave Cavs fans something else unique to watch. There’s really never been another player, certainly not in a Cavs uniform anyway, quite like Varejao.
It’s easy to see why Varejao earned the nickname “The Wild Thing”. I’m not sure when, exactly, he was ordained with the sacred Cleveland nickname, but in a Cleveland Scene profile dating February 16, 2005, the nickname was already in place. You see, in Cleveland, the nickname Wild Thing runs deeper than just a reference to his style of play on the court. The nickname is a throwback to Ricky Vaughn, the fictional hero who led the fictional version of the Cleveland Indians to a fictional pennant in 1989’s “Major League”. Ricky Vaughn was a Cleveland kind of guy. Fictional or not, Cleveland fans have always had a soft spot for his rough edges and gritty play. It’s why the nickname was always perfect for a player like Anderson Varejao.
There’s another reason why Anderson Varejao will always hold a special place in many Cavs fans’ hearts: In 2009, Varejao was an unrestricted free agent. This was during a strange, uneasy time in Cavs history. LeBron’s impending free agency was rapidly approaching. The Cavaliers were furiously trying to bring players to Cleveland, but there was a general hesitation on the players’ part. Many of them wanted assurances from LeBron that he was going to stay in Cleveland before they would consider signing.
Players like Trevor Ariza and Metta World Peace (or Ron Artest, as he was named at the time), contemplated joining the Cavaliers, but ultimately decided to sign elsewhere. LeBron’s unwillingness to commit to Cleveland was a big part of that. When it came to Anderson Varejao, though, he didn’t hesitate to sign a 6 year contract, signing on with Cleveland for the future. With or without LeBron.
The cynic in all of us will point to that six-year deal as reason enough for Andy to sign. Six years is a lot of security, especially for a role player as Andy was at that time. But it’s important to remember that no matter how we view it in hindsight, in that moment, LeBron’s future was a big deal in the free agent market. LeBron’s half hearted recruiting of players and his unwillingness to commit to Cleveland was scaring players away. Anderson Varejao stayed, though. Cleveland is a city that has seen plenty of its heroes sign elsewhere. Anderson Varejao could have gone anywhere, could have tried to spare himself the years of losing Cleveland was facing if LeBron left. But he stayed, and in Cleveland, that’s meaningful.
As important as Andy was to those LeBron-era Cavs teams, it wasn’t until LeBron left that Andy really elevated his game to the next level. The Cavaliers needed someone to step up. Nobody could fill the void, but in an era of a lot of really unwatchable basketball, Andy’s ever-improving game was always a source of pride and hope. Andy never averaged double digit points or rebounds from 2004 to 2010. But in 2011-12, he put up 10.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per night. Last season he was putting up incredible numbers, averaging 14.1 points and 14.4 rebounds per game before injuries ended his season.
There’s an unfortunate irony in the fact that as Andy’s game began to improve by huge margins the last few years, injuries began to catch up to him. It would be easy to just say all those years of playing so hard and giving up every part of his body night in and night out to the Cavs were starting to catch up to him. Maybe there’s some truth there. But the reality is that Andy’s injuries have been a string of unfortunate fluke injuries, each one unconnected to the next. This wasn’t a recurring knee or something like that. It was a lot of bad luck.
But even still, here we sit once again, Anderson Varejao is currently unable to play, sidelined with an injury. It’s really a shame that it’s become such a big part of his story, but it’s reality. Trade rumors have followed Andy everywhere the last 3 seasons as well as the Cavaliers endured a rebuilding phase.
But through it all, Varejao has never complained. He’s never demanded a trade (that we know of, at least), he’s never sulked, he’s never been willing to give less than 100%. He has simply shown up, put his head down, and gone to work whenever his body would allow it. Ten years after the Cavaliers secured Varejao’s services as a throw-in to the Drew Gooden trade, Andy is still here, winning Cavs fans over every single time he steps on the court and makes his presence felt. He was the heart and soul of the Cavs during the contending seasons, and now he’s the heart and soul of a Cavs team that continues to search for a new identity.
Andy’s contract is only partially guaranteed next season. He could be traded in the offseason. The Cavs could just cut him and eat the $4 million guaranteed portion of his contract. But if he’s back, Varejao will have an excellent chance to pass LeBron James and Brad Daugherty to move into seventh in team history in games played. He’s already third all-time in Offensive Rebounds and fourth in Total Rebounds. He’s eighth in Steals, eighth in Blocks, fifth in Offensive Rating, seventh in Total Win Shares, and sixth in Win Shares per 48 Minutes.
He doesn’t have the All Star appearances, the MVP awards, the top-five spot in scoring that some other players on #CavsRank have. He may not have his jersey retired someday (although, if it were up to this writer and fan, he would). But it’s never been about accolades with The Wild Thing. It’s always been about the intangibles. So it’s fitting that there’s something intangible about figuring out where he belongs on a list of the greatest Cavaliers of all time.
The best we can do is to look beyond the numbers and instead focus on his relationship with the Cavaliers. I don’t just mean the team. It extends further than just the franchise itself. It’s about a relationship with the fans, with the community. Anderson Varejao has meant something profound to so many Cavs fans. There’s a genuine love between the two sides and a certain purity in all of it. Whatever the future holds for Andy, his time as a Cavalier will never, ever be forgotten. And for as long as it continues, it will be cherished by all of us to whom Anderson Varejao has meant something special.