Mario Hezonja: 'Partizan and Panathinaikos reached out to me, but it was too late'

Giorgos Kyriakidis
2022-09-04 10:14

Mario Hezonja, currently competing with Croatia in EuroBasket, talks to BasketNews about the changes in his national team, Giannis, Bojan Bogdanovic, and the two EuroLeague teams that tried to sign him during the summer.

Credit: FIBA

A few minutes after Croatia's game against Greece for EuroBasket Group C had finished last Friday afternoon, Mario Hezonja was nowhere to be found. The former NBA forward didn't even pass through the mixed zone.

"I didn't want to. I was mad. We lost. I didn't want to speak because I was very upset. I would tell you something very rude. So, it's better that I didn't speak," Hezonja explained when BasketNews spotted him in the mixed zone after Croatia had comfortably taken down Great Britain to make it 1-1 in their group in Milan's Forum.

Croatia scored 35 points in the third quarter, the most for them in a single period in a EuroBasket game. Mario Hezonja registered his first double-double in the tournament, going for 13 points and 10 rebounds. He has now grabbed at least eight rebounds in each of his last three games in the competition after averaging 3.4 in the five previous encounters. 

Player of the Game
Giannis  Antetokounmpo
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Points 27
Accuracy 9-24
Rebounds 11
Assists 6

As the new Real Madrid player admitted, it's always better for players to speak after a win. The 27-year-old forward, who recently slammed EuroBasket referees for the way they've been officiating games, is a man who pulls no punches - on and off the court.

Some would argue that he seeks attention; others might say he's just being honest. Whatever the case, it seems that Croatia's first win in EuroBasket 2022 and Hezonja's only second with his national team, made him feel a bit more comfortable.

Not only did he take the time to talk to the media in attendance for almost 20 minutes, but he was also in a good mood. What else can a journalist ask for? 

Credit FIBA

It was a pretty easy win for Croatia. Have you guys managed to regain some strength after the game against Greece?

There are no easy games in the EuroBasket. Everybody plays hard and good basketball. Against Greece, we suffered a tough loss. But we managed to overcome it because we have a lot of players. That's our main strength.

We said that we had to keep going and improving our chemistry. Against Greece in the first half, we were mixed up about what to do. It's hard, but we have to respond mentally. We had to step up defensively and stop Great Britain's offensive rebound. 

Which were your first thoughts after the game against Greece?

It was crazy. We had the victory in our hands. But then a couple of things happened. Giannis had a great two last possessions defensively and offensively.

I feel like I should have flopped when he pushed me in the back, but I'm not this kind of player. I'm not going to throw myself even if it's a foul.

It hurts when you have the chance to beat teams like Greece, and you lose in a closed game. It always sucks, but today we bounced back. 

You were in Turin in 2016 when Croatia beat Greece in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament semi-finals. Giannis Antetokounmpo had a bad game back then, scoring only 9 points on 3/14 from the field. What do you think has changed in him over those six years?

Yes, I remember. Thanasis (Antetokounmpo) was there too. It's a different story now because he has matured. He's won two NBA MVPs. The NBA is a different kind of basketball.

Now, he's calmer and a leader. He wasn't a leader back then; he was like me, a young guy that comes in with energy.

There's Sloukas and Calathes, who are Greece's motors, but Giannis has a completely different role now. He took 25 shots against us. It's very hard to defend someone with the green light to do anything, plus Dimitris Itoudis on the bench. I've played against Itoudis, so trust me, I know! 

How will Croatia manage in the upcoming tournaments without Bojan Bogdanovic since he said this would be his last one?

He just became a father, so I can't tell him much. Even if he doesn't intend to play again, I'll be the first one to call him for the next tournament. I don't care what he says; I'll drag his ass back to the team. I will be the first one to reach out to him if he does decide to retire. 

How hard was this summer for Croatia? The federation underwent some significant changes, with Jaleen Smith joining in even though Dino Radja, former chairman of the Board of Advisors, was against naturalized players being brought into the national team.

We lost to Finland (editor's note: in the 2023 World Cup qualifiers). We played some tough games. We have a talented squad, but sometimes you need a guy like Jaleen, who's doing a great job for us. He's creating for us, and I think it's a great decision. 

So, yes, we had a lot of changes, but I'm not into all of this. I'm not a decision-maker, and I don't know what the hell is happening. I spoke to Dino Radja before the tournament and he sounded OK.

All Croatians would think it's better to avoid naturalized players, but is anybody asking about Mike Tobey in Slovenia? Everyone's talking about Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic. That's how people are. 

How would you define success and failure for Croatia in this tournament?

You know how things are. You lose in one quarter and you're the worst team in the history of basketball; you win one game, and you're champion. That's our mentality, unfortunately. The less attention you pay, the healthier and the better off you are. We only have to focus on our team and what Mulaomerovic says and how he prepares the team.

Before signing with Real Madrid, did you have any other thoughts?

During the summer, no. It did take some time for them to announce me, but it was a mere formality. Don't listen to these Twitter rumors. I was getting a lot of messages from Panathinaikos and Partizan fans. I want to thank them for reaching out.

It was a crazy summer, but everything had been arranged before. Now, I think it's time to win big. This is my ultimate goal, what I 'm going for. I showed what I can do. At Panathinaikos, I wasn't the best player in Europe. It was a quick three months for me. I think that I fit in Madrid and they fit me well also. It was very easy. 

Did Partizan and Panathinaikos actually reach out to you?

Yes, but it was too late. We're in constant touch with Panathinaikos; we speak all the time, regardless whether I'm there or not (laughs). When they contacted me, I could do nothing. It was unfortunate. 

I guess there's no bad blood between you after what you said about the way you said they handled your case last summer. 

I've seen fans from other teams tell me bad things, but no PAO fan will do that. We're very connected to each other, and I spent a lot of time with them while I was in Athens. I lived the same life as them when I was in Croatia. I love what they do to support the team.

Would you fancy going back in the near future?

I'd love to! It's my favorite team. I don't need to hide any emotions for Panathinaikos. But I'm with Madrid, and I want to win. 

Are you sticking to your decision not to follow any account on social media?

Absolutely. The less I see, the better I am. Trust me. I don't want to see anyone's stuff. It's the only way to be calm. I could only follow Gate 13 (Panathinaikos' ultras), but that's it. Nobody else. 



We want to hear from you. Be the first to comment!

Add comment

  Subscribe   Total comments: 0

We have the right to remove comments which are offensive, contains abusive language, or violates other rules of the website