Mike Varallo is always ready to clock in for a tough shift.
Whether it’s leading his high school basketball team onto the floor at String Theory Charter School, or serving customers at the family business during its busiest time of year, Varallo is always energetic and up for the challenge.
The senior point guard works at Varallo Brothers Bakery at 10th and Morris streets, making sure everyone receives their holiday baked goods in a timely fashion — even if he has a game that day.
“I worked today (Dec. 23) from 7-1,” Varallo said with a laugh. “I came to the basketball court at 1:30. Christmas is the busiest time of the year, so I work today, I’ll work tomorrow. Just keeping busy this time of the year.”
Much like on the basketball court, Varallo takes charge and is a total team player, helping things run smoothly at one of South Philly’s best destinations for cannoli and cheesecake.
“They’ve been calling me the maintenance man this year,” Varallo said. “My dad is in the back with the cakes. My mom is in the store up front. Cash register, cakes, I do everything to try to take the weight off of everyone else’s shoulders. I’m the youngest one there. Instead of my dad carrying the cakes, I’ll carry them, or if a customer needs to be helped, I’ll help them just to keep things flowing.”
That work ethic is on shining display at the Guerin Recreation Center at 16th and Jackson streets, where String Theory plays its home games and has won three of its first four contests to open the season.
Varallo is a lightning-fast point guard who can score or dish off to his opponents. He’s also a voice that other players follow to success.
“It’s great because I have a secondary coach on the court,” said String Theory coach Eric Funaro. “Seeing him grow up in that role makes me feel comfortable having him start things up and lead the way. I’ve known him since grade school. It’s great to see him grow up the way he has.”
Varallo played for Funaro at St. Monica during grade school and middle school. It made a lot of sense to reunite at the high school level.
“Coach Funaro and I had a great relationship,” Varallo said. “I played for St. Monica’s Catholic School in middle school and he and his father were the coaches over there. We built a great relationship, and I wanted to play for him for the next four years.”
But the focus hasn’t always been on basketball, at least in the hoops offseason. Varallo has a 3.8 grade point average and is a three-time All-Philadelphia Public League soccer player, going 3-for-3 in that achievement, as his junior soccer season was canceled by COVID-19. String Theory managed a 4-4 record on the soccer pitch despite having just 12 players on the team, and Varallo finished second in league MVP voting.
“We only had 12 guys and we finished second in the division,” Varallo said. “It was hard to not be fatigued, but it really helped going into basketball season because I was in even better shape.”
Varallo considers basketball his primary sport but is open to playing soccer at the next level, or maybe even both sports if it works out.
“It’s always been basketball first for me because I have more knowledge about the game,” he said. “It was my first love. But my height has been my downfall. I’m only about 5-foot-6 so people always talk about that.”
He prefers to talk about his future. Varallo has been accepted to more than 20 colleges already and plans to study either sports management or athletic training.
“I just love sports,” he said. “I want to stay involved in it somehow.”
Varallo’s younger brother Luca is a freshman and also plays both soccer and basketball. They get a touch of their athleticism from their mother, Karen, who was involved with ballet. In fact, Mike also took up ballet in his younger years until sophomore year, before time constraints made it difficult to also partake in sports. He credits ballet for many of his unique skills, which translated to soccer and basketball.
“People say that’s why I’m so flexible and quick because I had a really tough ballet teacher who helped me get to where I am today,” Varallo said. “I started in third grade but in eighth and ninth, it got a little too serious instead of something for fun. They told us we would be there on weekends, and I felt like I would be bringing the ballet group down if I wasn’t there because I was dedicating myself to sports. I was the only male in the group from seventh grade until freshman year. I did it because I enjoyed it. I didn’t do it because anyone else wanted me to do it.”
It’s been a common theme within his upbringing. His father, Bernie, wanted Mike to understand the family business but not necessarily pursue it as his future.
“I want him to know the business and know what I’ve been doing since I was 12 years old,” Bernie said from behind the counter at Varallo Brothers Bakery. “But I also want him to go to school and get an education. It’s good to know where you came from but I want him to go further.”
Mike plans on doing exactly that.
“My mom went to college and graduated,” Mike said. “My dad didn’t. He was big on the family business. He was a big worker as a kid. My dad doesn’t want me to be involved at the bakery. He says it’s back-breaking work. He wants me to stay in school and do what I do now. When the holidays get busy, I know what to do.”
And that means showing the same hustle in the store that has made him a captain on the court and a prominent piece of String Theory’s team.
“Even if he didn’t get any rest or if he’s not in the mood, he won’t say ‘no’ to his grandmother,” dad said with a laugh. “He’ll be here. He’ll go to work.”