RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — They don’t get any bigger than LeBron James — except when you’re in Brazil, where the attention paid to Anderson Varejao shades his NBA superstar teammate.
As they practiced together for Cleveland on Thursday for an NBA preseason game in Rio de Janeiro against the Miami Heat, it was easy to believe the Cavaliers were Varejao’s team.
The hugely popular Varejao has returned to play NBA basketball in the homeland he left at 19.
The Brazilian has a boyish face, stands 2.11 meters (6-11) with a head of wild curly hair, and he nearly blushed when he was told several times he was more popular than King James.
“I don’t really think so,” Varejao said, swarmed over by at least 100 reporters — almost all Brazilians — and tailed after by young Brazilians invited to attend a clinic and watch practice.
“We are talking about LeBron James, one of the greatest,” Varejao countered.
Varejao wasn’t the reason James returned to Cleveland. But it was a bonus. And it didn’t hurt.
“He was a huge part of the success we had in my years before,” James said of Varejao. “I was happy when I made my decision that he was still part of the team.”
Varejao said he was with his parents in July when he heard James was going back to his hometown team.
“I was as happy as a little kid who was waiting for this gift for a long time,” he said. “I was just in shock, and happy.
“Now, when everybody goes to play against Cleveland, they’re going to talk about the Cleveland that has LeBron James. It’s a different animal, a different team when you have a guy like LeBron.”
Varejao’s presence, James’ return to Cleveland, and James’ former team the Heat — winners of two of the last three NBA titles — make for a marquee preseason game to showcase at the HSCB Arena in the Olympic Park.
James talked down the importance of Saturday’s game. So did his old Heat teammates, two-thirds of the former Big Three: Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
“I’m still cool with all those guys,” James said. “I’m not that far into it right now as far as the competitive nature goes. It’s too early. I don’t want to put all my mind into it right now, or I’ll be drained too fast. It’s really not a storyline. It’s what you guys make of it. I make a decision just like a lot of guys made decisions this summer.”
The Heat practiced first in the crackerbox black-and-red painted gym at the Flamengo Club, home of Brazil’s most popular soccer team. They were gone by the time Cleveland arrived.
Bosh said he’d been with James recently.
“We talk, but I want to get people to understand that I’m a competitor,” Bosh said. “He (James) is on another team. He’d understand that. I understand that. We’ll have plenty of time to talk in the summer, and that’s how it is now. I’ll see him on the court, and that will be plenty of time to catch up.”
There was some time for tourism, but not much.
Some of the Cavaliers made it to Sugarloaf Mountain on Wednesday — 400 meters (1,300 feet) up and overlooking Guanabara Bay and Copacabana beach. Early Thursday, the Cavs went vertical again for Christ the Redeemer, which has a view over Rio’s green mountains and endless sand.
Wade said he was staying put.
“I won’t get to experience it (Rio) that much,” he said. “It’s a work trip. I won’t be on the beach. I got a lot of beaches in Miami, and I don’t go to them much.”
He was also low-key about facing James.
“I’ve played against him more than I played with him,” Wade said. “I played against LeBron for seven years. I played with him for four. It’ll be fine. We’ll get back to it. It’ll be good to get this one out of the way.”
Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP
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