Mario Hezonja was playing chess yesterday in a corridor of the Badalona Olympic.
The Real Madrid forward was looking for checkmate in a game on his mobile phone after team training.
The 64-square board is one of the few distractions for a player who constantly thinks about basketball.
And that he has become one of the most dangerous pieces of the white team, this Saturday (6:30 p.m., Movistar) semifinalist of the Cup against Unicaja Málaga.
Hezonja (Dubrovnik, Croatia; 27 years old) has found his place in his sporting maturity.
The where and when have coincided this course in the Madrid of Chus Mateo.
It is the last stop of a rising star that exploded very soon, was about to go out completely and now shines again with its own light.
The son of a very strict water polo goalkeeper with training and schedules, young Mario practiced his father's sport, handball and soccer (as a striker) until he gave his life to the basket.
Copa del Rey basketball 2023: dates, results and where to watch the games
At 17, Barça signed a diamond in the rough.
This is how Joan Creus, then Barça sports director, recalls him: “He stood out a lot for his physique, for his age he had a lot of speed and power, and technically he was good.
At the European level he excelled by coming out very quickly on the counterattack and scoring many triples, he was a scorer.
He crushed himself in the gym and in the technical part after training.
Without being a great defender.
By having so much quality, he looked more at the attack.
And he was a little irregular ”.
A dunk from Hezonja against Valencia in the Cup.EL PAÍS
It was Barça led by Xavi Pascual, who gave him a hint in the first team until the forward flew to the NBA.
Hezonja was sleeping in Barcelona when his name sounded in fifth place in the
draft , in which Willy Hernangómez was chosen in the 35th step.
Orlando, Knicks and Portland were his seasons in the mecca of basketball: 335 games and almost seven points on average.
There he learned to pass better.
And he especially enjoyed the summers, when he had time to polish his game in training.
But that time in the NBA almost ended in retirement.
After the covid season, Hezonja told his close circle that he would not play basketball again.
He had lost, remember, the love for the sport.
In two months he did not touch a ball, he only visited the gym.
The motivation came from Greece, with a call to join Panathinaikos.
The return to Europe helped the Croatian shooter, 2.03m, to recharge his mental battery.
From his next station, Unics Kazan, he left when the Russian teams were eliminated from the Euroleague after the invasion of Ukraine.
It was when Madrid cast the nets on the ex-Azulgrana.
.@mariohezonja showing his RANGE 🎯#7DAYSMagicMoment pic.twitter.com/GC2hnjsmZM
— Turkish Airlines EuroLeague (@EuroLeague) February 3, 2023
On the white team, Hezonja displays a huge catalog of resources.
He maintains that physical power that propelled him as a teenager and in attack he is an excellent finisher from the triple or with penetrations in which he ends up in the basket on the right or left side.
Its natural habitat is the perimeter.
His versatility also plays in his favor.
"Thanks to Chus Mateo for putting me in a place where I can be better," said Super Mario after the victory in the quarterfinals against Valencia.
The Croatian has also discovered a special connection with Dzanan Musa, with whom he understands himself on the court with just a glance and with whom he shares bets and bets on shooting after training.
When the two bombers go into a trance, it's hard to contain them.
Hezonja peaked in the EuroLeague in the recent visit to Monaco (91-95), with his record for scoring (30), assists (6) and efficiency (34) in the tournament.
"Today he is more regular", explains Joan Creus;
“Best rebounder, in attack and defense.
And he can play more positions, from two, three and even four”.
From any angle, Hezonja is ready for checkmate.
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