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(From February 19, 2016)
CLEVELAND — Anderson Varejao approached me two summers ago at a Cavaliers golf outing.
“Hey, Sam,” he said. “Can I get a picture?”
Imagine that. A professional athlete, asking a member of the media for a selfie.
This wasn’t because Varejao knows me all that well. It wasn’t because I’m some sort of celebrity (far from it), and it wasn’t because Varejao thought I’d only write nice things about him or say nice things on TV. And as far as I can tell, it wasn’t because he needed a ride home.
It was because that’s just Varejao.
He’s a kind man, a fun-loving man, a warm man, a man who everyone wants as a friend. Perhaps because it’s a role he so willingly plays. He wants to be your friend, too.
Interestingly, this persona was basically the opposite of Varejao during his 12 years on the court for the Cavs. Oh, he wasn’t a troublemaker. He was just so, well … IN YOUR FACE.
The guy has no “off” button. Coaches and teammates referred to him as The Energizer Bunny. Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving once went on and on about how Varejao “will run through a brick wall for you.”
To fans, he’s forever The Wild Thing — his long curly hair and endless effort making him look like the world’s largest dust storm.
Then suddenly, as we sometimes see in the business of basketball, Varejao was gone, shipped off to the Trail Blazers, just another piece in a three-team trade.
It felt heartless, cold, unfair. But that wasn’t the intent of Cavs general manager David Griffin, who made the deal. It was actually quite the opposite of Griffin’s intent.
Griffin didn’t set out to trade Varejao. The GM merely wanted to improve the team. That is the GM’s job. Unfortunately, Varejao was the last remaining chip Griffin had to deal.
It was a difficult phone call. In fact, Griffin will tell you that informing Varejao he’d been traded was the hardest basketball call Griffin ever had to make.
But in the end, the Cavs landed Channing Frye, a 6-foot-11 veteran from the Magic who can fill it up from the perimeter and space the floor. On paper, it was a good basketball decision. Frye looks to be a better fit.
That won’t make it hurt any less. Not at first, anyway.
The Cavs won Thursday, handling the Bulls in one of their best games of the season. But the locker room was far from joyous afterward. LeBron James, Tristan Thompson and the rest very clearly missed their friend.
One last shot
Varejao may have been the longest-tenured athlete in Cleveland sports before the trade. He’s certainly among the most appreciated, maybe loved more than any other.
Of course, the business side of this will continue for Varejao. The Blazers are expected to cut him before he plays a game. They just wanted his contract — then to quickly remove it from the books. For the second time in a day or two, Varejao will hear he’s not needed, that he’s just “an asset.”
Eventually, someone will pick him up. It will likely be another contender. Teams had been trying to pry him away from the Cavs for years.
And why not? Who wouldn’t want that hustle, that spirit — that constant irritation of opponents and uncanny ability to bring his own teammates together? Varejao can do both just by walking in the room.
Now, before you ask, NBA rules prohibit Varejao from returning to the Cavs, at least not for one year to the day he was traded. For those of you counting, that’s Feb. 18, 2017. It’s highly unlikely it happens, even then. Both parties have likely moved on. It’s not an emotional parting of ways. It’s just business. Good business, but sad business.
But we’ll see Varejao again. He’ll just be in another uniform. It may even be this season. Some of us may shed a tear. A lot of us will shed a lot, actually.
For now, though, Varejao is just gone. He won’t be coming back. And he is truly taking a piece of Cleveland’s heart with him.
That’s why we have to ask, before you go: Hey, Andy … can we get a picture?