A music-journalist friend recently recounted attending a Rick Ross-and-crew photoshoot in the heart of the Miami projects, noting that the obligatory “everybody point loaded guns at the camera” shot was followed by Ross referring to the photographer as “Rocket” for the rest of the day. When I expressed surprise that Ross referenced the protagonist of City of God, the fast-paced, ultraviolent 2002 Brazilian crime drama, my friend replied, “Dude, all rappers know that movie.” Impressed I shouldn’t have been. Not only is City of God the obvious distant indie-foreign cousin to Warriors, Scarface, and GoodFellas, movies that belong to the holy pantheon of rapper-hailed films, but also the critical acclaim City of God received in the U.S. apexed the most recent round of American fascination with/fetishization of Brazilian culture, a trend that no doubt has made an appearance in every decade since Bing Crosby and Bob Hope blazed a hilarious and breathtaking road to Rio.
So too has this Brazilian intrigue crept into the NBA. Alongside the influx of Puerto Ricans and Argentineans, a handful of key Brazilians have, in recent years, solidified their presence. The past 20 years have yielded an increase in African and Eastern European players in the NBA, yet the relatively new arrival of these Latin Americans has Commissioner Stern and fans alike all abuzz: “Our game is truly global now; olé!” Unlike the categorically stealth Puerto Ricans or the gritty Argentineans, however, the Brazilians are a far more diverse group of players. Rafael Araujo of the Toronto Raptors, for example, is a lumbering oaf, lost as a stray duckling on the court. Maybyner “Nene” Hilario of the Denver Nuggets is a musclebound enforcer, São Carlos’s own personal Alonzo Mourning. Leandro Barbosa of the Phoenix Suns is a lightning-quick guard with an abundance of athleticism that not even he himself yet knows how to harness.
And then there is my own personal nemesis, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Anderson Varejao. A rather mundane and inoffensive character, Varejao invokes my ire like one thousand Barry Bondses. Forget his oft-discussed swaying-palm-tree hairdo, or that his first name evokes the Scandinavian wasteland of my youth. My anger stems from the fact that Varejao serves the same purpose that Gary Trent served on the 2003 Timberwolves and that Tyrone Hill served on the 2001 76ers—key cogs in star-driven teams. Yet Varejao is both less effective as those guys and praised excessively for his contributions. (And at no time has the praise been doled out more than it has been during these current playoffs.) Furthermore, a lot of the gushing over Varejao seems not only due to his Brazilian heritage but also his appearance as a particularly “foreign” member of this obsessed-upon group.
Varejao is what hoops experts commonly refer to as an “energy guy,” a player whose job is to grab key offensive rebounds, track down loose balls, and take charges (often, in Varejao’s case, by “flopping”). Praising this style of play, whose inhibition so contrasts with the fluidity and improvisation of star players like Varejao’s teammate LeBron James, makes the Bill Walton do-gooders feel that they are teaching America’s youth a more ethically sensible version of how to play basketball. I say, Don’t limit their dreams!
In Game 2 of the Pistons-Cavaliers series, Varejao took an elbow to the nose, fell backwards onto the paint, and shook his right hand wildly in the air as he clutched his nose with his left, in pain on the ground. As the Pistons seized the ball and ran downcourt, the TNT analysts quickly remarked how admirable and tough-nosed Varejao was for enduring an elbow, then signaling that he didn’t want to be substituted for, despite writhing in pain. The announcers failed to notice, however, that Varejao’s gesture (a) allowed time for the Pistons to play 5-on-4 at the other end of the court, (b) was irrelevant, given that nobody on the Cavs would have been able to call for a timeout while the Pistons were on the break, and, as I saw it initially, © seemed actually to be a call for a substitution. (I do admit, however, to seeing the world through Varejao-despising lenses.)
Varejao’s Brazilian lineage appears to be one of the main reasons he receives such special treatment. Just as Brazil—as a monolith—has been fetishized by American consumers of culture for its unattainably exotic (e.g., “Portuguese, not Spanish”) and uncontrived (see, “primitive”) “cool,” Varejao, in the same manner, is fetishized for his exotic and uncontrived “uncool.” Varejao’s admirers, rather than noting any specific Brazilian aspect of his identity, see merely “Brazil,” which translates to him possessing a quality both alien and special: as if he were unlike anything we had seen before. This is not so different from Mark Madsen or Jeff Foster, who, having adopted the “energy guy” role rather than the prototypical (i.e., “skilled”) basketball-player role, and lacking the appearance of the prototypical baller, are disproportionately lauded for meager contributions. This type of distinctiveness, especially when it contradicts star power, is a Right Way sympathizer’s delight.
Varejao’s unignorable hairdo reinforces this tendency, serving as an indicator of what our lay sensibilities tell us is “tropical” and thus “foreign.” Varejao, in this manner, elicits some strange intuitive appeal. It is as though we should like this odd figure who performs every possible behavior we do not hope to see when deciding to purchase a ticket to an NBA game. And although, during playoff time, basketball’s talking heads and jabbering mouths constantly find new role-player darlings to laud for a key steal or rebound, the love affair with Varejao has persisted. This despite at least equally competent performances by pedestrians such as the Mavericks’ Erick Dampier, the Clippers’ Quinton Ross, and the Wizards’ Michael Ruffin, whose nitro compound of competitive spirit nearly willed Washington into the second round.
Perhaps most irksome is that, were the fetishizing of a Brazilian player to be performed in congruence with the obsession over Seu Jorge’s Bowie covers, Favela Funk (not really sure what that is), City of God, Snoop and Pharrell’s “Beautiful” video, and the explosion of blue-green-yellow flip-flops and T-shirts that emerged following Brazil’s 2002 World Cup victory, the logical candidate to become Brazil’s most beloved would be the Suns’ Leandro Barbosa. Would Rick Ross be so keen to observe that Anderson Varejao is merely the more commercially viable Sergio Mendes to Barbosa’s slicker Jorge Ben? There is no doubt of it.
Countryman to Varejao, Barbosa is also antithetical to him in every facet of play. Whereas Varejao is an undersized big man who clunks and hustles his way around the court, Barbosa is an oversized point guard, whose speed and legendary 7-foot wingspan allows him to zoom and dazzle from baseline to baseline. In this postseason, Barbosa has solidified his legend, shaking off last year’s playoff jitters, keying the Suns’ ability to maintain their breakneck pace of play, and at times even out-performing his first-string teammate, league MVP Steve Nash. It is Barbosa, not Varejao, whose shining face would grace the cover of the magazine were the NBA run by the tastemakers of today. Yet, because the Association at its highest posts is dictated still by those who cling to an older, chaster era, Anderson Varejao reigns as Brazil’s most admired. And for that, we all suffer.