You'll read a bizarre love story. Hezonja went to play for his childhood dream team and was greeted there like a rockstar. After the frustrating years in the NBA, he felt alive there again. But something went wrong. After a few months, they had to go separate ways. One of the biggest EuroLeague stars, Mario Hezonja, shared his story on the Urbonus podcast, explaining why he left Panathinaikos Athens.

"I was done"

Mario Hezonja

Mario  Hezonja
Team: UNIKS Kazan
Position: SG, SF
Age: 26
Height: 202 cm
Weight: 91 kg
Birth place: Dubrovnik, Croatia

When the last time Mario Hezonja was traded, he didn't even know about it. Since September 1st, 2020, he has been at his home. He went on for digital detox, getting off his phone for two months.

He was tired of changing 18 million teams every year. If it was up to him, he preferred to finish his career with one team, Orlando, where he had a house and was ready to give the Magic his entire career. But that constant change every year got him frustrated. After the NBA bubble, he went through a challenging period of his life.

"I was done. After the bubble, I called my sister, and I said: pick me up before I rubbed over there," Hezonja revealed on the Urbonus podcast.

When Portland traded him to the Memphis Grizzlies on November 20, where he was waived a few weeks later, Hezonja thought it would take a whole year to reset his mind and body. He took the example from Joel Embiid and kept working individually to take two steps forward. After the digital detox, he felt incredible. 

"When I got into the gym, I couldn’t miss a shot. I was athletic with my moves. Running like I never stopped. It is insane what the mind can do to you: to harm and build you up. It’s unbelievable," Hezonja recalls his break from playing basketball.

But in February, he got an invitation he couldn't refuse. At first, he thought that was a joke. He believed that the EuroLeague transfer window was closed already. But it was real. 

"My greens called me and who am I to say no? Panathinaikos is my favorite team. It was my childhood dream to be there," Hezonja recalls. "I was like… I’m coming! No problem! The money? I don’t give a damn! I’m coming, see you tomorrow!"

When Hezonja left the United States on February 24th, one day before his birthday, he asked his financial advisor: "Are you sure about this? Because you know that when I step one foot in Greece, nobody will get me out of there." He was that serious.

Mario couldn't dream about a better birthday gift. Thousands of Greek fans came to the airport to meet their hero. All these years, Super Mario was expressing his love for the Panathinaikos. PAO family greeted him as a rockstar. And as soon as he stepped on the floor with green-and-whites, he quickly emerged as one of the main guys, averaging 14.4 points per 23 minutes in the EuroLeague.

When things with PAO got weird

Two months after his arrival, Hezonja walked into the Panathinaikos front office like a mobster. He was with his financial advisor.

"Listen, I'm staying here. I'm not going anywhere else," he told Panathinaikos.

Hezonja's deal with Panathinaikos expired after the season 2020-21. He became a free agent, but everyone thought it was only a matter of time when both sides agreed on the extension.

Mario said that he'd make up his mind officially by August. And he clarified to the other teams that he was not interested because he was going back to Panathinaikos.

"If I tell you the teams that came out to me, it would be a whole mess in Greece," Hezonja said on the Urbonus podcast. "But I can’t because I really respect my team. I really felt love there. I’m so thankful for them. They’re like my family down there. I can call it a gift that I gave to myself to play for Panathinaikos. It was the best thing I did to myself. I said thank you hundred times to them. I will say thank you for the rest of my life."

So what happened?

"The shit happens," Hezonja told on the Urbonus podcast. "It’s Greece. It’s different times. You can’t play games with me. I don’t have an agent. I sat down with them by myself. But you can’t play games with me. Agent games of whatever it is.

These European contracts and all that stuff really got messy. I was with the National Team. Dinos Mitoglou had a lot of interest in Europe, so they had to focus on him. Then you had to sign Papapetrou. And then you talk to me.

They went in some different direction. There were already a couple of players signed. The new coach was also signed. Do you ask me what I think about it? Do you ask our captain? I can’t call Papapetrou and ask, 'hey Pap, do you see what happened? Do you like this move or not?' We’re players, and we can’t be into that role. We have to know, man. It’s a serious team, and we’re the leaders of the team.

Especially when you have me and 15k people behind that are really passionate about the team. If I say something, they’re right there behind me. Those guys are like my brothers. Every single one of them. Because I’m at their headquarters, meeting with them before and after the games. I’m the one that 'everything is good guys, we’re not going to lose, you don’t have to come to practice.' Because they will come to the gym. That’s how much they love the team. And I respect that. I was the bridge from fans to the team.

But I think they (Panathinaikos) went in a bit of panic mode this summer. I was confused."

Hezonja had nothing against Panathinaikos dealing with Mitoglou and Papapetrou first. "They're Greek, and we're in Panathinaikos. I can't step over Pap, and I don't want to step over Dinos," Mario added.

He called Dinos and sincerely told him that he could stay in Panathinaikos and later go to the NBA. Although Mario technically wasn't sure if he'd stay in Athens, PAO also didn't have the head coach yet. He honestly said that the AX Armani Exchange offer looked solid because Ettore Messina wanted Mitoglou badly. In Hezonja's eyes, it was a solid situation for Dinos to establish himself in Italy and maybe even get a better opportunity for the NBA.

He also texted Papapetrou: "Listen, I know your dream is the NBA. But you go there if you have a good role. You're 27, and you have to think about yourself. You're captain here. There is nothing more than being captain of PAO."

Hezonja also offered Panathinaikos front office to sign Kendrick Perry as their starting PG. He thought that he was outstanding and could help them. Hezonja knew him from Orlando. He even texted him and wanted to meet him in the US.

"But then they signed somebody above him, another starting PG. It was a whole mess. I don’t mind who they signed. Ultimately we would end up signing these guys with me or without.  <...> The order was completely weird. Do they want this? Do they want that? Who will they bring? Who they’re taking out? Dinos taking a little bit of time. Pap takes a little bit of time. When he decided in July. It was a complete mess," Hezonja adds.

Hezonja didn't like that Panathinaikos started solid conversations with him only at the end of July. He also didn't have any solid discussion with the new coach Dimitris Priftis. He felt devasted.

"Whole July, I felt like shit," Hezonja was frank. "I wasn’t myself. I was calling my dad, mom. I usually don’t call anyone. I just do things because I know stuff. But you got me there calling my grandmother, and then I call my father… I called maybe a hundred people for advice and everything. Ultimately I had to decide what was the best for me. I can’t play games at this stage of my career.

I don’t have anything to say against them (Panathinaikos). I want to protect them to the maximum. But the things were not going in the order they should go. That was an issue. Later maybe they tried to push it as long as possible that I had to say, 'ok, guys, I come back on whatever terms.' But no, I have to play and focus on my career. We’ll see what happens in the future, but I really felt like I couldn’t go back."

There's no BS with Russians

Hezonja couldn't say no to Panathinaikos by himself. It would break his heart. So he asked his advisor to shut down the negotiations.

He took all the blame and approached the fans himself. He spoke with the main guys of Gate 13 and told them not to worry.

"Don't go to the team and don't tell them anything. I will take this for the team. Don’t worry. Hopefully, I will see you in the future," Hezonja told them. 

While dealing with Panathinaikos, Hezonja was already in contact with UNICS Kazan. He kindly asked them to hold on because he was entirely focused on Panathinaikos and the possibility of staying in Athens.

"I have to give a great comment to Kazan. To the president Eugeny Bogachev, his son Bogdan, daughter Olga, Claudio Coldebella, Velimir Perasovič. Everyone, man," Hezonja told. "It’s unbelievable… With Russians, you always know where you’re at. There is no BS. It is what it is. You name what you name: this is what we got, this is the role, this is the coach. I respect Kazan to the fullest.

We got along pretty quickly. We kept it quiet, and I really have to say congratulations to them. They really did an amazing job. The way they handled the stuff with me, knowing there’s like an atomic bomb in Greece happening with my signing and everything. It’s impressive how they handled all the situation. I’m so happy with them.

I was holding them: 'no, wait, let me see what PAO are doing. No, sorry, but wait a little bit, I want to hear what PAO GM says, what the president says.' I was acting so spoiled and weird. But at one point, I said, 'done deal.' 

They were professional from day one. They still are. It's a greatly run organization."

Rumors were suggesting that Hezonja might end up signing with Barcelona. The Croatian didn't speak to Sarunas Jasikevicius directly, but he contacted Barca through his advisor. 

"They already had an established team. They were already in the Final 4. They were already on the top. Maybe it’s not the right fit at the moment and the stuff that Sarunas wants to do right now," Hezonja told. "They needed a solid player. I think this guy from Zalgiris (Nigel Hayes) is very solid for them. They need pieces like that. They don’t need to bring a superpower or some crazy amount of players that are going to be like, 'hey, let’s just dominate the whole league.'"

If he wanted to sign with another European team, Hezonja had to pay a €300K buyout for Barcelona. That was the part of a deal he signed with Barcelona in 2012. Hezonja admits he didn't want to pay the buyout. He also thinks it wasn't an issue for a possible extension with Panathinaikos. However, some teams couldn't afford such an amount of money.

"I didn’t want to pay that, honestly. Knowing what they were doing to my contracts back there, maybe they didn’t even deserve that money. But since they were in the tough situation, I think it was respectful towards Barcelona," Hezonja explained. "Not a lot of teams have that money. If you think that it’s €300k, it’s the Euroleague, people have that... People don’t have it! Covid really pushed things back. Teams don’t have that type of money, and teams are struggling. So many teams were really respectful with me because there were a lot of calls. There were many calls, but to the point where they said, 'hey, we have interest, but sorry, we can’t sign you."

The leadership lessons in Portland

On July 31, Hezonja signed a one-year contract with UNICS, with an option for the second year. The EuroCup runners-up put their EuroLeague playoffs hopes on 26-year-old Croatian shoulders. If UNICS makes the Top 8, Kazan will keep their spot in the EuroLeague for 2022-2023.

Hezonja embraces this opportunity. Despite challenging years in the NBA, he learned to be vocal and lead by example.

He got the last brick in Portland, being around stars like Damian Lillard, Carmelo Anthony, CJ McCollum, the former head coach Terry Stotts, and the GM Neil Olshey. Portland made the NBA playoffs for eight consecutive seasons. For the first time, Hezonja played in a winning organization. 

"It was amazing there. I believe Dame is one of the best, if not the best, leaders out there in the league. I was looking at Dame very closely. And I was so happy that they brought Melo, even if he played in front of me. But I really didn't care. When he practiced, I literally stared at him. I was so annoying. I was calling him for dinners, lunch. I think he hates me, honestly," Hezonja laughs. "But I was always with Dame, always keeping an eye on those Hall of Fame type of players. I learned so much from them."

Hezonja recalls Terry Stotts getting on him in the middle of his workout because he didn't have a suit. Once Hezonja came out of the locker room after halftime around seven seconds late. Portland won the game. Stotts hugged him and said: "Hey, kid, you can't be doing like this. You have to be an example. You have to be on time and everything."

"And there are three guys out there coming out five minutes later than me," Hezonja laughs. "So I was like, ok, there’s a reason why he’s telling this to me."

Hezonja believes leaders are made, not born, although some might be against it. Mario himself was a silent type of killer at the beginning of his career. Very anti-social, quiet. Always to himself, unless there were some problems. But throughout his years in the NBA, he learned how to be vocal and lead by example.

"I learned a lot of things. It doesn’t happen overnight. But you have to be really locked in. You have to show it with work ethic, rituals, routine, professionalism, how you talk, treat people, how serious you’re, how you dress. Everything matters," Hezonja told on the Urbonus podcast. "I’m really thankful for them (Portland). I wasn’t playing to my level. I hated how I was playing. I was really mad at getting to play the amount that I wanted. But I focused on how to be a good teammate, professional, and leader, looking at Dame, CJ, what they do, how they practice, how hard they go, how they recover. I asked the guys. I was like a book, taking notes from everything. And that was the last box I needed in terms of this leadership.

Now it’s just coming out of me. You were born with this leadership that I want to be the main guy in your school, a soccer team, etc... But you have to go through the street, through life experiences, to build all of that for yourself. Then you can give it to other people. You have to build yourself first, to help other people build themselves.

When I figured I wouldn’t have a big role on this team, I focused on everything else that's one day makes the biggest role of my team. Dame was so helpful. He embraced me. That Portland year was very important for me. So now it’s easy to tell my guys in UNICS to do this, try this, practice like this.

But I’m not that type of guy who will always be on top of you all the time. Let them be who they are. If they want to do something great, listen, ultimately it’s for our team to get better and win games. I really like where I’m at right now."

Feeling alive again

Hezonja is focused on showing his leadership and helping his new team to reach the playoffs. He is ready to give 100% and more for UNICS to achieve this goal. But most importantly, he'll do it with the joy he was missing so much before coming back to Europe.

"It was a funny thing. I told my manager that there’s no way I’m happier on this flight going back to Europe than when I was on the flight coming back to America. This feeling is not right. It’s wrong. But it’s going to bring me back to who I am," Hezonja admitted. "You lose so many games. You see so many bad habits, so many unprofessional things. So many different things regardless of what it is. And the worst thing that can happen is that you can start to lower your box full of passion. You just take it out with the frustration that is created by your surrounding.

I said that to him, and it really stuck to him and me. But it was an honest feeling. As soon as I got back to Greece, I started to feel like myself. Like I’m this guy handling the ball, playing my pace, running in transition, dunking, shooting, scoring. It really felt like, okay, I’m alive. I’m thankful that I adapted so quickly. It was really like a quick switch. But also, that quick switch happened because of who I am. Because I never let myself down. I never quit. Never complained. Nevers showed my frustration. I used all of that as fuel.

Of course, I have frustration. I frustrate when I miss the free throws, so how I won’t have frustration when I don’t play in the NBA when I feel like the best? But I never talked about it. I always used it as extra work, extra motivation. I was trying to find the love for the sport through the frustration, negativity.

Sometimes it was hard. It’s not easy to stay calm when these guys are all laughing and joking, when they played 40 minutes, scored 35, and I'm over here looking at them and thinking, 'I wish I can play one on one.' They’re joking, going home, and enjoying their lives with their families. And I’m here like I’m going to blow up.

But then I go on the court to do something extra. Or I go to my own gym. That type of stuff helped me quickly go back to who I was when I came back to Europe. I’m not ashamed of anything. I’m not scared of anything. I'm absolutely fearless in my approach.

And I’m not ashamed of the road I took. I know I probably took the hardest way of all of them. But I’m completely committed to it. I know what I’m doing."

Watch the entire conversation with Mario Hezonja on the Urbonus podcast:

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