Brazil hopes NBA will help boost local basketball
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Speaking to a sell-out 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 that NBA’s presence in the country with such a highly anticipated game will help boost a sport that has been struggling locally recently.
It only helped that it was a thrilling finish at the game in the HSBC Arena, one ultimately won 122-119 by Varejao’s team 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, more importantly, where the sport has been losing ground to volleyball as the country’s most popular sport behind football.
“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.
Brazilian media this week reported that the NBA is negotiating a financial partnership with a local Brazilian league, something that could give a huge boost to the sport, but so far the NBA is saying it can’t comment on anything related to the possibility.
Brazilians have enjoyed the NBA for a long time, to the point that it’s common for local tourism agencies to offer travel packages with tickets for NBA games included, especially to Orlando, Miami and New York.
The level of basketball talent has increased in Brazil recently, with more players making it to the NBA. There were five Brazilians in the league last year, and six this season — Varejao, Leandro Barbosa, Thiago Splitter, Nene Hilario, 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 come with the national team, which missed three straight Olympic Games from 2000-2008 before finishing fifth in London. Its last appearance at the games had happened in 1996 in Atlanta, when former great Oscar Schmidt was still in action.
Most of the time, the failures could be linked to the absence of the NBA players, many who opted to go on vacation or stay committed to their teams. Hilario was loudly booed by the local crowd in 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 in sports pages across Brazil after it beat Argentina for the first time in 12 years to reach the tournament’s 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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