RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Speaking to a sellout crowd in a Rio de Janeiro arena, Cleveland Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao said it loud and clear that it was a special day for Brazilian basketball.
With the microphone still in his hand, just moments before the tip-off in the high-profile preseason game between the Cavs and the Miami Heat in Brazil, Varejao went on to talk about his lifelong dream of playing with the NBA in his home country.
There was no doubt it was a dream come true for Varejao. And there was no doubt it was a huge opportunity for local basketball.
The Brazilians are hoping the NBA’s presence in the country with such an anticipated game will help boost a sport that has been struggling locally.
There was even a thrilling finish at HSBC Arena, with Varejao’s team leaving with a 122-119 victory on Saturday. The game in Rio attracted much of the attention of the basketball world because it was LeBron James’ first game since returning to Cleveland after helping the Heat win two NBA titles.
“It’s the most anticipated game of the preseason, and it’s in Brazil, that is huge for the sport here,” Varejao said. “After everything that happened with LeBron, with him going from Cleveland to Miami and now back to Cleveland, a lot of people are paying attention to this game.”
The game got people talking about basketball in Brazil, where the sport has been losing ground to volleyball as the country’s most popular sport behind soccer.
“When I left 10 years ago, it was hard to believe that one day I’d be back in Brazil to play with Cleveland,” Varejao said. “I’m happy that this is happening and that I’m being able to help Brazilian basketball with something like this. This is extra motivation to young players. This game in Rio means more than just a game. It gives more motivation to the kids who like the sport here. That’s huge.”
It was the second year in a row that the NBA brought a preseason game to Brazil. The Chicago Bulls beat the Washington Wizards 83-81 last year in the first-ever NBA game in the country.
Brazilians have followed the NBA for a long time, to the point that it’s common for local tourism agencies to offer travel packages that include tickets for NBA games, especially to Orlando, Miami and New York.
The level of Brazilian basketball talent has increased recently, with more players making it to the NBA. There were five Brazilians in the league last year, and it looks as if there could be six this season — Varejao, Leandro Barbosa, Tiago Splitter, Nene, Vitor Faverani and Lucas Nogueira.
Splitter last year became the first Brazilian to win an NBA title, with the San Antonio Spurs. Varejao was the first to make it to a final, in 2007.
The biggest disappointments have come with the national team, which missed three straight Olympic Games from 2000-2008 before finishing fifth in London. Its previous appearance at the games was in 1996 in Atlanta, when former great Oscar Schmidt was still in action.
Most of the time, the failure for the national team could be linked to the absence of the NBA players, with many opting to go on vacation or declining to play due to commitments to their teams. Nene was loudly booed during last year’s NBA game in Rio because of his decision not to play with the national team.
There was extra hype this year because most Brazilians in the NBA decided to join the squad for the world championships in Spain. The team made headlines across Brazil after it beat Argentina for the first time in 12 years to reach the tournament quarterfinals. But more disappointment followed when it lost to Serbia, a team it had easily beaten in the first round.
“We did well, but unfortunately we had a bad game,” Varejao said. “But I think everyone in Brazil saw that we fought hard and that our team had chances to go very far. It showed that our basketball is getting better, there is no doubt.”
Fans hope that in a couple of years, at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the results will show.
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