Izabel Varejão’s twisting path to Ann Arbor

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 - 9:27am

Izabel Varejão left her home of Vitoria at age 14 to pursue basketball

Izabel Varejão left her home of Vitoria at age 14 to pursue basketball Buy this photo
Emma Mati/Daily

Six-foot-four and cramped in the seat of an airliner, Izabel Varejão kept thinking, What am I doing, what am I doing, what am I doing? Mom?

Suddenly, in that steel cylinder, the reality came crashing down on her. There would be no cousins in Cary, N.C. for her to lean on, and her mom was a 17-hour flight away. She was landing in a completely foreign culture, and the winters would actually be cold.

Her brother was six. She was 16. And now they were 5,000 miles apart.

It wasn’t the first time she’d left her home and her family for basketball. In October of 2013, at 14 years old, Varejão had to choose between two paths: basketball or modeling. 

Days of coming home, tears in her eyes, to her mother’s queries and torturous periods of self-reflection haunted the 14-year old as she stared down her first major fork in the road.

One path would take her toward a modeling career. 

After a months-long process, she had been accepted into a trial phase in São Paulo to undergo a boot camp for aspiring models.

Two grueling weeks later, she received offers from three modeling agencies, and they all told her the same thing: We would love to have you, but you would need to lose 15 to 20 pounds.

The other path was basketball.

As a young child, Varejão wasn’t keen on basketball — she didn’t like to be touched. Instead, she danced, taking ballet and jazz dance lessons. But the allure of sport, and a bad case of scoliosis, forced her into swimming. 

“My parents,” Varejão recalls. “Since I was little, they were like, ‘No matter what you do, if you want to just go straight to school, don’t care about sports. No matter what you do, you gotta do something outside of (school).’ You gotta do something like exercise, something like that.”

Her cousins played basketball, her mom played basketball and her uncle, Anderson Varejão, was a world away in Cleveland, playing in the NBA. The sport was omnipresent, and as the swimming helped her back, she slowly grew into basketball. Until another health issue appeared.

When she stood, the world spun and darkness clouded her vision. The faintness overwhelmed her and any sport became nearly impossible to play. Varejão had anemia.

“I could barely stand up, I would almost pass out,” Varejão said. “I stopped basketball, I stopped everything for almost two years.”

As she recovered, she tried a couple other sports before returning to basketball. Varejão was good, and tall, and with time she became more and more focused on basketball. It became her passion, her work.

And then, two weeks after being given an offer to become a model, a scout for a club called Bradesco, headquartered in São Paulo, watched her play and saw something in her. Her talent was clear, her vision superb, but she looked a little rough around the edges. Still, the scout offered her a spot in Bradesco’s academy. The offer was extended in late October, 2013, the same month as the modeling spot.

Of course, there was a third option. She could stay home.

Her family lived in Vitoria. Her grandparents, uncles and cousins all resided there, a key part to her life. For Varejão, family is everything, and it had just gotten a new addition.

For the first 10 years of Varejão’s life, her parents tried to have a second child. After two miscarriages, they managed to have a son. She had a brother. When she was confronted with the choice of what to do with her future, he was four. He was just becoming his own person, with his own personality.

And now, she had to decide whether or not to leave him.

Her father, though, offered her a piece of advice that would stay with her for life, “Sometimes, the carriage just passes by your door once.” 

***

Two weeks into living in São Paulo, the homesickness set in. The store that sold candy down the street became less and less appealing as she yearned more and more for the beach that was omnipresent in her childhood. For the friends she’d left behind. For her family.

For her brother.

Now, she lived in a house with other girls her age, all of whom missed their own families.

“It was hard in the beginning, and people thought I was going to give up,” Varejão recalled. “My best friend (Daniella’s) mom, was like ‘Can you do it, you know how you are, you’re very close to your family.’”

At first, she only practiced three times a week instead of the usual five; she needed time to adjust to the rigorous practice schedule. The club was built around sport, and while Varejão had grown up around it, the intensity at Bradesco was something new.

She needed to adjust to the distance, too, and for that, she turned toward her family.

“I had a cousin that lived in São Paulo,” Varejão said. “So sometimes on the weekends, I’d go to his house and stay with a familiar face.”

Her parents were only four hours away by airplane, and Varejão, with her friendly personality, quickly created her own family in São Paulo with the other girls at the club.

She caught up to the practice schedule, too, and quickly grew as a player. The next year, at 15, she tried out for the Brazilian under-16 national team. They cut her. 

The next year, after trying out again, Varejão waited to hear her name called, to join the team and go to Mexico for the Americas Cup, representing her country and competing at the highest level. She never heard her name. She was cut, a second year in a row. A second time, she returned to her club, dejected.

The dejection wouldn’t last. After an injury to one of the players above her on the roster, they called her, and she immediately pounced on the opportunity to go to Puebla, Mexico.

First, though, she had to practice and join a team that was already midway through its preparation. Varejão, who started playing competitive basketball much later than most of the girls on the team, is a quick learner, and the transition into the team was quick.

Her talent caught the eye of an American AAU coach, who ran a team in Raleigh, N.C. Three of her teammates on that national team had already played for him for six months, and he had a good relationship with the national team’s coach.

After one of the practices, he approached Varejão and asked about her dream to come to America. A quick conversation later, he vowed to talk to her more about it, but first, there was a tournament to play.

The Brazilians made a deep run, even bouncing out the Americans in the semifinal, setting up a finals meeting against Canada. The Canadians and Hailey Brown — one of Varejão’s future teammates at Michigan — won by one point in overtime.

From there, the AAU coach ramped up his communication with Varejão and her uncle Anderson, who spoke better English than her parents.

This time, when faced with a big decision, she knew what she wanted from the get-go. Since she was a child and begged her father to buy her a foldable anatomy book, she knew she’d wanted to be a doctor. Growing up, her uncle and his life in the United State had appealed to her. This was the place she wanted to be, and when the carriage plopped itself outside her door, she didn’t hesitate to get in.

Her life, her family and everything in São Paulo that she’d spent two years building up was left in the rearview mirror.

***

It was snowing when she landed in Cary during January of 2016.

She was first set up with a young couple, friends of her AAU coach, Eric Hemming. They weren’t prepared to handle a 16-year old Brazilian, despite their best efforts. Awkward months went by as both parties navigated this new world of theirs, but when things started settling down, they left.

They moved, 40 minutes away from Varejão’s friends, school and basketball team. Just after getting settled in, she had to look for another host family.

“We found another family that could do it that were friends with my coach and they were a very big family, four kids, one had just graduated high school and another three were still in school,” Varejão recalled. “So they were not driving yet, the logistics were really hard because they had to take care of those three and then me. So that was really hard and I had to change again.”

In the midst of this turmoil, she also switched schools. After starting out with her friends Babalou and Geassy at Friendship Christian, she was uprooted again — this time, just down the street to Neuse Christian.

Yet despite the chaos surrounding her life, when the turmoil hit its hardest, Varejão opened up, instead of closing herself off.

“If I struggle, I will find friends, or I will look a lot for help,” Varejão said. “And also I am very, very, very social. I make friends super easily. I feel like that helped me a lot. Also having other Brazilians there helped me a lot, too.

“I make friends very easily, I talk to people a lot. I talk to everybody. Literally if I’m on the street and I’m bored, I’m going to start talking with someone and become best friends with them, just like my dad.”

On her third host family and second school, Varejão was finally in a permanent spot in America.

She grew, on and off the basketball court. The bond between her and her new host family tightened, her English improved, her passion for biology blossomed and in her three years of high school basketball in America, Neuse Christian made the state finals every year behind a troop of talented Brazilians.

Varejão’s sophomore season, Maria Albiero — a guard from Londrina, Brazil —  drew attention from collegiate scouts, eventually accepting a spot on BYU. Her junior year, the two Iz’s — Izabela and Izabel — drew crowds to the small Christian school in Cary.

At the beginning, only local schools recruited her — Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State — but as more and more schools from around the country came to visit her and Izabela, the offers grew and the world of recruiting surrounded her.

In that first round of recruiting, Varejão spent little time thinking about playing at Michigan. Born and raised in the warm climate of Brazil, the fear of a harsh winter scared her off from committing to any colleges that far North.

Yet as the months passed by, when Varejão needed to make a decision, she was stumped. There were no campuses calling her name, no schools that felt right. Her AAU coach, in the summer before her senior year of high school, asked her where she wanted to go.

“Coach, I don’t know,” she told him. “Like honestly don’t know how to decide, when to decide and where to decide.”

He made a call to Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico.

“They called and just said ‘Izabel is open and going through the process again,’” Barnes Arico recalls. “I said, ‘Well okay, we’ll be down tomorrow, how can we get down there as soon as we can.’ And coach (Melanie Moore) and I got on a plane immediately and went down and had a home visit with her and her family.”

Their sales pitch appealed to Varejão, enough to set up an official visit. Varejão called her mother, telling her about the new school and convincing her to make the trek up to America to see the northern school.

“It was important to her mom where her baby was going to wind up next,” Barnes Arico said, “because her being so far away from home, she wanted her to be in a place where people could take care of her.”

At the end of a recruiting Saturday in October, Varejão and her family were sitting with Barnes Arico at a dinner table. She’d spent most of that weekend soaking in the campus, confused by a football game and bonding with one of Barnes Arico’s daughters, who’s about the same age as her younger brother.

Varejão started gesturing to her family that came on the visit with her, to no avail. It was time to make her decision, and she wanted her family to be prepared. Soshe said a few words of Portuguese and had a quick side conversation with Stacy about the commitment. Again, she didn’t hesitate to get into the carriage.

When told, Varejão swears, Barnes Arico jumped two feet in the air.

Varejão’s host family came up from North Carolina to watch her play against Rutgers this year. They sent her a Christmas gift in December, and she talks with them regularly. When she visits her academy in São Paulo, it’s all smiles and memories.

Every summer she’s been in America, Varejão has gone home to see her younger brother and to be with her family.

From the first day, when her teammates and coaches moved her into the dorm, to giving another of Barnes Arico’s daughters the duty of taking care of her plants while she’s in Vitoria for the summer, it’s not a surprise she’s found another family in Ann Arbor, too.