by Howie Stalwick
Jeff Varem is a dedicated student, a fine basketball player and a sensational magician. After all, it's not easy making yourself disappear when you stand 6-foot-6, weigh 240 pounds and have an upper body that would leave Adonis quivering in the corner of the weight room.
Sheer talent has been in short supply on Washington State basketball teams in recent years, but Varem is a highlight film waiting to happen ... or a study in sleepwalking.
"When he puts his mind to doing something, watch out," Cougar guard Thomas Kelati says. "He's done it a couple times in practice, where he's gotten upset with himself or whoever, and I've seen him just jump over guys and dunk just ferociously.
"He can dominate. He can do that. He's won games single-handedly."
And yet... "Along with myself, sometimes he disappears," Kelati says. "He becomes invisible."
Varem's disappearing act has become far less frequent since conference play began. The former Nigerian national team player leads all Pacific-10 Conference players in league games with 62.2 percent shooting from the field, and he averages more than twice as many points (14.7) in conference games as he did in preconference play (7.1).
Interestingly, Varem insists that he's playing out of position as a hybrid forward-center on the undersized Cougars. Varem's outside shooting and ballhandling have rarely been impressive in his two years at WSU, and coach Dick Bennett has not so gently prodded Varem into playing inside full-time this season after giving him some time in the backcourt last season.
"I've proven I'm a guard," Varem says firmly. "Coach Bennett, if he thinks I'm a forward, that's his opinion. I know I'm a guard, but if it helps the team, I'm going to do that."
Varem, too quick and athletic for most inside players to handle, easily leads the Cougars -- one of the nation's worst offensive teams and best defensive teams -- with 53.8 percent shooting from the field in all games. That ranks sixth in the Pac-10, and Varem stands fourth in rebounds (8.0) and steals (1.7) per game and 20th in scoring (11.3).
Thanks largely to Varem's improvement, the long-suffering Cougars are 10-10 overall and 5-6 in league play heading into key road games with Oregon State (4-6, 12-9) on Thursday and Oregon (3-7, 11-8) on Saturday.
"He's really been the key to what's happened," Bennett says.
"I'm just trying to have fun," Varem says. "Sometimes you try to do so much, and that'll get you in trouble. I'm just having fun, having a clear mind and just playing the game."
That's all Varem ever wanted to do, but eligibility questions upon his arrival from Nigeria prevented him from playing high school basketball in New Jersey. He wound up moving to Buffalo, N.Y., but he never played high school basketball.
"I didn't want people to think I was just here for basketball," says Varem, an economics major and one of 10 children of a schoolteacher and pharmacist in Gboko (pronounced BO-ko), Nigeria.
Varem says it has been difficult to see his family only rarely since moving to the United States at age 15 to pursue his education, an NBA career and "to make my dad proud."
Varem says he originally planned to play for Vanderbilt or Wisconsin (where Bennett coached) after starring on a powerhouse AAU team, but he wound up at Indiana's Vincennes Junior College after coming up short on core science classes needed for Division I eligibility. Four years later, he's set to graduate in May.
When Bennett came out of retirement two years ago to coach WSU, he quickly put in a call for Varem. Playing guard and forward last season, Varem mixed flashes of brilliance with frustrating no-shows after the NCAA forced him to sit out the first eight games due to undisclosed improper benefits (an increasingly common problem with foreign athletes) received after he moved to the United States.
"He's one of the funniest and most polite people you'll ever meet," Kelati says. "He's also one of my best friends. He's very 'un-shy.' He's very confident, very funny. People love him. Everywhere we go, he knows everybody.
"He can put a smile on your face when you're down," Kelati continues. "I'll be mad, and he'll come up and say something to me, and as much as I try to fight it off, he puts a smile on my face."
Bennett knows the feeling. He just hopes Varem leaves him smiling after two games in Oregon this week.
Publication date: 2/10/05