Mario Hezonja: «I like everything in Russia very much. Rains or frosts don't scare me»




One of the most notorious European transfers this summer was the 26-year-old Croatian forward Mario Hezonja's move from Panathinaikos to UNICS. The most spectacular player of the Greek league last season was selected in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft under the 5th number by the Orlando Magic. In an interview with the VTB United League reporters, he shared his impression of Russia, named the reasons for choosing UNICS Kazan, and also talked about the dunk through Yannis, the chaos in Orlando and the meeting with Kobe Bryant.

Last summer, the 5th number of the 2015 NBA draft, Mario Hezonja, surprised everyone and moved to Russia, signing a contract with Kazan UNICS. The Croatian forward has already excelled in the VTB United League Super Cup, where he got into the top five of the tournament: Mario scored 22 points against Zenit and 27 against Lokomotiv-Kuban.We spoke with the former Orlando, New York and Portland player and found out:
• why he chose UNICS,
• whom does he consider to be the main culprit for an unsuccessful performance at Magic,
• where did he get mad love for "Panathinaikos" and Greece,
• how does he relate to social networks
• and what food in Kazan he liked the most.

Russia is a country of small fines

- You said that you did not ask your acquaintances about Russia, because you wanted to see everything yourself. How do you like it?
- At the moment I can say that I really like everything in Russia. Of course, there are differences compared to the USA or Croatia, but I came here to play basketball, I am not afraid of rains or frosts, I can easily adapt to this.
- What surprised you the most when you arrived in Kazan?
- From the good - fines for violation of traffic rules, they are very small. The amounts for speeding in other countries are fundamentally different. I was also surprised that there are quite a few Russian and Croatian words that are similar in meaning, sometimes I understand the inscriptions in stores, although I do not speak Russian at all. From what surprised me on the negative side, almost no one speaks English. But I can understand people, if I lived in such a big country, then perhaps I would also not be bothered about learning another language.
- You mentioned traffic fines. Have you already driven a car in Kazan?
- Yes, I use the car that the club provided me. If I had brought my cars here, I think I would have already paid several thousand rubles for fines. So, I hope I still won't take them to Russia.
- How do you like the traffic in Kazan?
- Ok, but there are still traffic jams, so most of all I like to get behind the wheel on Saturdays and Sundays. If we talk about the craziest cities in terms of traffic, then my top 4 looks like this - Istanbul, Los Angeles, Moscow and New York. These are cities where there are a lot of people, where there are so many people that it starts to annoy you.
- In your hometown Dubrovnik, on the contrary, there are very few people, and there are now 25 degrees Celsius and the sea. How badly do you miss this in Russia?
- Everything is enough for me, except for the family. I definitely don’t miss the weather, because during my career I managed to live in different parts of the world. In Orlando it was too hot and high humidity, in New York in winter it was 15 degrees below zero, in Portland it was constantly raining. And nothing, I adapted!
Basketball since childhood
- By the way, many famous water polo players were born in Dubrovnik, your father was a water polo player. Have you been involved in this sport yourself?
- In Dubrovnik there was a water polo event like the Summer League, but I myself have never played in the pool. My friends and I loved to throw the ball into the sea, designated the conditional goal and tried to hit the target. In fact, as a child, I played many sports - football, handball, tennis and others. But my main love was basketball, and it was my father who instilled this love.
- When did you realize that your life will be connected exclusively with basketball?
- It's hard for me to name a specific age. When, as a child, you do what you really like, you just continue to do it further, without thinking about what awaits you in the end. Even if they ask me now: “Will you be a professional basketball player in 15 years?”, I will answer: “I don’t know”. I don't think about money and other such things, but just continue to do what I love, step by step, game after game, season after season. As for the age when I first stepped on the basketball court, I can say that it happened very early. I think at 3 or 4 years old my father first gave me a basketball. It was a small ball that I still have at home. Of course, I didn’t throw it to the basket, I started airballs, but I still enjoyed what was happening.
- Name a moment when you felt that SuperMario was a superstar in European basketball.
-In Barcelona". I came there as a talent, but I had a special mentality. Then in my head there were thoughts like "Give me the ball, I am the best, I can decide the outcome of the attack, like Kawai", but it was wrong. I was surrounded by basketball players who were among the greatest in Europe: Pete Michael, Juan Carlos Navarro, Marceligno Huertas, Victor Sada, Ante Tomic. All these players, together with the head coach of the team, Xavi Pascual, helped me to maintain a special mentality of a winner, but at the same time they guided me in the right direction, taught me how to play basketball “correctly”. When I got a foothold in Barcelona and began to feel comfortable there, then SuperMario appeared.

The mess in "Orlando"

- You became one of the few Europeans to make it into the top 5 of the draft. What were your emotions when you found out that Orlando had chosen you?
- In general, there were no emotions - the draft should have been a different order, but I did not go to Los Angeles for the workouts. I treated everything professionally, respected Barcelona and said that I would help the club in the crucial part of the season instead of going to America. After the final series of the Spanish championship, I did not even have time to catch the draft itself, I just sent the video and the rest of the materials necessary for the ceremony. I knew that in the end I would go to the NBA: even under the 1st peak, even under the 10th, even under the 60th. Most of all, it was important for me that I got into a team that would understand how important it is for me to be myself. Then I was glad first of all that I made another big step in my career.
- It seemed that 6 years ago no one wanted to play for Orlando. For example, Markus Smart spoke about this openly.
- Few people wanted to play for Magic, but I treated the club with great respect. Have you drafted me? Okay, so I'm the guy you want. I don't like political games, just let me play basketball. But the situation I got into was one of the worst in my entire career. Everything was terrible until Jeff Weltman and John Hammond, the new general manager and president, came. I talked with them for hours, we constantly discussed what can be changed, how the team can be improved ...
But then I got an offer from New York, and I accepted it, and returned to Orlando during the break for the All-Star Game. I had a house in Florida, and I had to pick up some things from the Magic Room. When I saw what Weltman and Hammond did in a short space of time, I was shocked. It was just a spaceship compared to what we had. So what happened to me in the NBA was a combination of unfortunate circumstances, I was at the wrong moment in the wrong place. With a bit of luck, I could have become the best player of my generation.
- Before Jeff Weltman, the general manager of the club was Rob Hennigan. It turns out that he is the reason for your failures?
- I don't know what Rob Hennigan and Scott Perry were doing: they first fired one coach, then another, then a third ... It was crazy. Is the organization serious that got rid of Tobais Harris, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and me in just a few seasons? If everyone could be saved, then together with Vucevic this team would have achieved success. Even if we had a 0-82 result in the first season, we would have stayed and the next season would have fought for a 1-81 result. Etc. We would go step by step, give everything to the club and in the end we would have achieved what we wanted.
Under Hennigan, the environment was such that no one enjoyed the game. Orlando seems to be a wonderful city, gorgeous weather and all conditions for life, but not for basketball. All the players were drooping and understood that the end result would be unsatisfactory, that the basketball players themselves would open up in another place, not in the Magic. I cannot tell many stories about Orlando, but I believe that all the problems were in the organization. People left the hall and asked the question: "What the hell is going on here?"
“But Hennigan was praised a lot when he came from the Oklahoma front office, they called Sam Presti's apprentice.
- In Oklahoma, the organization was really at such a level that they could give a master class to all NBA clubs. And Rob Hennigan was smart enough. But he was too young, he came to a completely new team for himself ... Perhaps, someone did not allow him to be himself, but it turned out that in Orlando Hennigan was just a bad manager. Very bad.

Kobe, Yannis and others

- Where did you get more basketball knowledge and experience - in Orlando, New York or Portland?
- Oddly enough, I got the most knowledge and experience in my worst year in the NBA, in Portland. Back then, I was surrounded by elite players who are in the top 10 all over the world. For me, these were primarily Dame, CJ and Melo. My view on training was always directed at one of them, I tried to get the most out of communicating with them, because I realized that at one moment everything could change.I am very grateful to Lillard, McCollum and Anthony, grateful to the coaching staff and Neil Olshey, this is a very professional club that has been in the playoffs over the past 8 years, the front office knows its job very well.
- There are many elite defensive players in the NBA. Who was it most difficult for you to play against?
- I remember how we played against Phoenix, and P.J. Tucker defended against me. It was great! After the game, I went up to him and said: "PJ, thank you for making me better this evening." And there are a lot of such basketball players in the NBA, almost everyone can defend themselves well one-on-one.
- By the way, Tucker also played in the VTB United League about 10 years ago - for the Ukrainian Donetsk. Patrick Beverly also performed in Russia.
- Wow, I didn't know about that. I heard that the guys played somewhere in Europe, but in the same championship as me now? Wow! But it was still more difficult to play against Tucker than against Beverly. Tucker is huge, he has broad shoulders, he is massive, but at the same time very mobile. When you play against Pat, you expect that first of all he will intercept the ball on dribbling, it is easier to "push" it. But, in fact, they are both real "chain dogs".
- You have three nicknames - The Beast, Super Mario and Crobe. With the first two, everything is clear, tell us what the third nickname means?
- Croatian Kobe - I was given this nickname because of my love for Kobe Bryant. Pay attention, even now I am wearing a cap with the Mamba logo. I always tried to imitate him, always wore his sneakers and always considered him my favorite basketball player. And I don't have so many of them.
- As far as I know, you never managed to play against him.
- Yes, my debut season coincided with the last season of Kobe. But Bryant didn't want to play against us, we were so terrible that Kobe probably thought, "I'd rather be injured than go to the floor against such a team." I was very upset. Especially considering the fact that Scott Skiles was ready to put me in the starting five, so that I would be the one to take care of Bryant, he knew that this would be additional motivation for me. But that never happened. Nevertheless, I saw Kobe more than once, trained in the same gym with him and remembered that people just froze when he said or showed something, no one moved. He was a real basketball Jesus. For all basketball players, his death was a huge loss, he did a lot both for sports and for people's lives. For many years more videos with him will be watched, they will try to repeat his movements, his throws with deviations and shout "Kobeeee".
- Was there a moment in your career that you regret?
- No, I have nothing to regret. Of course, throughout my career I had moments when I had to choose one of two things: stay in Barcelona or leave for America, move to New York or Portland, pursue a career in the NBA or Europe ... But I believe that I made the right choices, I absolutely would not change anything, I have no regrets.
- Even when you stepped over Yannis Antetokunmpo after the dunk?
- Oh, this is complete bullshit, it was an ordinary basketball game moment, at which the media wanted to poke around - they began to discuss on social networks, make prints on T-shirts ... I never talked about that episode at all and was surprised at what was happening around. I wanted to ask everyone the question: "What the ##### are you doing?" Sorry for the mate. This is basketball guys! Yiannis from my beloved Greece, we have played against each other thousands of times. He wanted to hammer through me every time I caught his eye. I wanted to destroy him every time he came out against me on the site. After that game, we talked to him, as usual, everything was fine. Only the fans went crazy.
- Congratulated Giannis on the first trophy and the final MVP?
- I do not have his phone number, our communication has always been limited to the basketball arena. But I saw Giannis in the bubble a year ago, then I wished him luck in the fight for the title. As you can see, he still took it. I will definitely congratulate you as you get the opportunity. Both him and his brother - Thanasis, who played for Panathinaikos.
Love for "Panathinaikos"
- You changed your agent in 2016, now you do not have an agent. Why is it this way?
- I have a manager who does a lot of work, and at the same time is my financial advisor. We have a good relationship, we help each other. In fact, I don't like all these agency games, money chasing and the like. We're primarily here to play basketball. I have nothing against agents, but I like to control the situation and make decisions myself. Will I have an agent in the future? Perhaps. But it is very difficult to find that person whom you can trust, who will not let you down.
- You said that you want to return to the NBA. Is it possible to return there without an agent?
- No problem. The clubs will just have to contact my manager, not the agent. By the way, that is what happened when I signed a contract with Portland.
- In January there was news that you can become a CSKA player. Was there really an interest in you from the army?
“I don’t think this is true. Perhaps my manager talked to Dimitris Itoudis, but I did not know about this interest, there were no official offers from CSKA. Moreover, when I returned to Europe, many clubs tried to contact me. There were a lot of rumors, someone even wrote that I could go to Real. When I saw this, I thought, “What the hell is going on? Never!"
- UNICS is one of the main rivals of CSKA. Name the reasons why you chose the Kazan club.
- We need to start with the fact that in the offseason I really wanted to stay at Pao. I even told my manager that I was not so worried about the financial issue, I just wanted to continue playing for the club. But when things didn't go as planned, I started looking at other options. UNICS was one of the clubs that asked about my status throughout the offseason. I realized that the Kazan team is very serious, the organization really wants to see me in its ranks. I appreciated that. And when UNICS appointed Velimir Perasovich as head coach, all questions about continuing his career disappeared altogether. This is the best decision I could make this summer.
- You told Donatas Urbonas about the situation with Panathinaikos in detail ...
- Well, not exactly in detail. Believe me, no one would like to hear all the details of the situation with "Pao". First, people may not understand what happened. Secondly, I do not want to harm the club, on the contrary - I will defend them, I have been a fan of Panathinaikos for many years, I have dreamed of playing for Pao since childhood. The club signed me during the last season, gave me a lot, the fans loved me. It was very painful for me to watch the situation, all June and July I felt not in the best way in connection with the situation under the contract. But I will always describe this situation as correctly as possible.
- Explain to the fans - is it normal for the general manager and management to consult with the team leaders about signing the coach and new players?
- Yes, this is a common practice. The team has a certain pyramid, at the top of which is the captain, the best player, the leaders of the team. One basketball player can combine both the title of captain and the status of the best player. It was about the same in "Panathinaikos". We constantly talked, could advise the management of some basketball player. When we needed a point guard, we asked to pay attention to Kendrick Perry. And I liked it, everyone was involved in the process, everyone was a puzzle of the champion team, we could be called a basketball family. But in the summer we were in touch with Nedovic and Papapetru, asking each other the same question: "What's going on?" The club signed one newcomer, then another, then the coach changed, we are sitting without a contract. Papapetru is our captain, and you only sign him at the end of July, seriously? At the same time, none of the team leaders was aware of the actions of the leadership, everything was happening chaotically.
- Have UNICS already been advised by any of the players?
- No, but if the club asks me to share my opinion, then I will definitely help. I trust the management of UNICS, this season the club has done a phenomenal job.
- You said that you dreamed of playing for Pao since childhood. Where does this love for the club and Greece come from?
- When I started watching basketball, they won many different trophies. Plus, my favorite color is green. In 2011, we won the Euroleague Junior, and they won the Euroleague Final Four in Barcelona. I was then in the stands, enjoying the game of the team, their fans. Even after I left for the NBA, I still watched Panathinaikos football and basketball games. This is the case when you feel that the team is yours, you remain a fan under any circumstances.
- Did you learn Greek while playing for a club or before coming to Greece?
- I knew some phrases before coming to Greece, but I learned the language already while playing for Pao.
Want to learn Russian?
- Yes, I understand that it will take some time, but I will try to learn the language a little.

Social media, girls and food

- By the way, how do you feel about social networks?
- I'm not very involved in them, but it's a good way to communicate with people. You can find some kind of service through Instagram, for example, a barbershop. When I was in the USA, I also ordered a box of my favorite sauce through Instagram. But some things still amaze me. Imagine what you need to have in your head to get into Twitter or Instagram and write some nasty thing to an athlete you don't like or who conditionally broke the rules on your favorite? This is complete nonsense. Therefore, I sit on social networks without any emotion. "Hey, dude, you're cool" - like and thumbs up. "Hey, you are the worst player in history" - like and thumbs up. People who write negative comments are actually far from sports. It's pretty funny when they write something to us, professional athletes, in all seriousness. But I do not show any aggression, I do not try to answer them, because I understand that there is no point in this.
- On Twitter and Instagram, you don't follow anyone at all. Why?
“I don’t want to know more about other people than I need to. Why do I need it? I don't care what happens in other people's lives, what they do. If I am asked about something, I will listen, I will try to help, but looking at photos and reading tweets is not mine. Most of the content is personal in one way or another. And I am satisfied with hashtags and topics on Twitter, by which I can find the information I need.
- At the end of August, you tweeted "Food in Kazan is just fire." What have you already tried?
- In Kazan, I visited 4-5 restaurants. I managed to try a pizza that is in the top 3 of all time in my personal rating. Just don't tell the coaching staff that I ate pizza! The place was called Brooklyn Pizza. Oh god, that was incredible, I swear. I have no idea how the Brooklyn pizza ended up in Kazan, but the guys who work there really know their stuff. In another place, I ate sushi, which also entered my personal top-3. I'm a big sushi fan! In general, I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere and quality of food in these restaurants.
- In Kazan, there is still a popular "Khanskaya vodka". What is your general relationship with alcohol?
- None. I have never drunk alcohol, I am crazy without it.
- In the USA, where you have lived for 5 years, very junk food. How did you deal with this?
- In the first month it was really difficult, after moving to the USA I became more overweight and massive. I tried to avoid junk food, I did a lot in order to eat right. There is just a rule: if you want to eat healthy food, pay more money. In America, I tried to order groceries and cook at home, I had special diets to keep in good shape.
- You are in Russia, and you do not have a girlfriend ...
- How do you know?
- They wrote about this on the Internet.
- It is very strange. That's why I don't like social media and everything that happens in them.
- So it’s not true?
- I do not know! I don't know anything about it.
- But fans write to you in direct, right?
- I do not know!
- In any case, you are very popular with the fans. Are you already recognized by people on the streets of Kazan?
- I would not say that I am very often on the street. My main locations are the house, gym and arena. I very rarely go out for a walk. And I think that the most popular with the fans are the guys who played last season - Isaiah Canaan and John Brown, they have already adapted to Russia, they will definitely be recognized on the streets.

Source: Единая Лига ВТБ