Get to know the UNICS star on and off the court as he chats with Joe Arlauckas Mario Hezonja is one of the most-exciting players European basketball has ever produced and the UNICS Kazan swingman shares freely about his development, his career and his thoughts on basketball on both sides of the Atlantic in the second podcast of the season on The Crossover with Joe Arlauckas.
A native of Dubrovnik, a seaside town in the south of Croatia, Hezonja’s talent was evident from a very young age. By 14, he needed to move to the Croatian capital to continue his basketball growth and there, playing against guys who were two and three years older than him, Hezonja learned many lessons about what it takes to be a professional in both basketball and life.
"In the 92-93 generations in Croatia, we have ballers, not players. Ballers… Those guys at that time, I was a kid so I’m looking up to them. These guys are very, very good. I had to get better even get to play with them. Not to be better than them," Hezonja said.
"Some the coach didn’t trust. Some couldn’t afford to stay in Zagreb anymore. The ones that are in Zagreb start to mess around. Then drinking, drugs. You know how it goes. There are a lot of bad examples. But also there are a lot of good ones. You know how it is. The math is always that rarely guys make it. You have to be different to make it."
Hezonja proved to be different and he made it big. At age 17 FC Barcelona swooped in and the teenage rising star received a new level of basketball education from Coach Xavi Pascual.
"European basketball is very different. I think you learn every single detail here and every single detail matters. The game, as soon as it starts, is [about] winning. Only winning matters," Hezonja said. "It’s very high tempo. It’s very physical. People want to win here. It doesn’t matter how you look, how many you score, how many you rebound, how many you pass. Just win. It was a learning experience and I’m very thankful I had Xavi there."
In due time, Hezonja carved out a role for himself and even once shot 8 for 8 on three-pointers in a Spanish League game. Three seasons with Barcelona was enough for the rest of the world to catch on to his skills and talent.
Orlando selected Hezonja with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and he would spend the next five years in the United States. He suited up for Orlando, New York and Portland in that time. However the business side of the NBA wore on Hezonja and after the end-of-season tournament in the bubble in 2020, he took a break from the game.
"Long story short, I said I don’t want to do this anymore," Hezonja recalled. "Initially I said I’m gonna have a whole year for myself. I want to get my groove, just basically all the passion back. Because it was draining and I felt like the person it’s impossible to drain it, but of course, when a lot of BS is happening and a lot of negativity, even the biggest ones get drained. So it was unfortunate, but I went back at it. And then the call from PAO."
Hezonja had been a fan of Panathinaikos OPAP Athens for years and followed the team closely even when he was in the NBA. The chance to return to action with the Greens was just what he was looking for. He signed on his birthday, February 25, and debuted with 21 points against Barcelona one week later.
He expected to remain with Panathinaikos this season too, however, despite a verbal agreement, things did not go as planned and by the middle of the summer, Hezonja was forced to look at other offers. Joining UNICS was a no-brainer.
"From day one, UNICS was the most serious. They were always there. Whatever I needed, they were very professional. And most important, they were very honest with me. ‘We want you for this, this and this.’ Also having Coach Perasovic helped because he told me strictly, ‘this is what I want. This is what we’re gonna do. This is what we’re gonna do with you.’ I had a plan. I had a vision of what I’m gonna be doing, which is basically what I’m doing now,” said Hezonja.
With a one-hour format of exclusive one-on-one interviews, The Crossover with Joe Arlauckas goes well beyond the playing court with each podcast to delve into the life experiences that have made his guests protagonists and legends of the EuroLeague. The Crossover debuted in 2018 and has featured such current stars as Marius Grigonis, Shane Larkin and Kyle Hines, coaching greats such as Dimitris Itoudis, Andrea Trinchieri, Pablo Laso and Zeljko Obradovic, and legends like Theo Papaloukas, Nikola Vujcic and Mike Batiste, among others.