Like all young basketball players growing up in Croatia, Mario Hezonja knew all about Drazen Petrovic, the ex-Trail Blazer who died in an auto accident at the age of 28 in June of 1993. After all, there are some big-time athletes from Hezonja's home country – and then there is Petrovic, who is still known as the Croatian Mozart, on another level from the rest for his skills on the court.
So when Hezonja signed to play for the Trail Blazers this season, he wanted to carry on Petrovic’s memory and perhaps set some things straight in Portland. Petrovic was a seasoned and renowned international star when he came to the Trail Blazers as an NBA rookie for the 1989-90 season. He did not get immediate playing time behind Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and Danny Young and was disappointed. In the following season, after Danny Ainge was added as the team’s third guard off the bench, Petrovic wanted out and was traded to New Jersey, where, with regular playing time, he became an all-star.
Since that time, then-Portland Coach Rick Adelman was vilified in Croatia for not putting Petrovic in the starting lineup and the Trail Blazers were not a favorite team.
“When I realized that Portland could be an option for me, I knew that Drazen was drafted here but the team was stacked, or whatever the story was,” Hezonja said Tuesday after the Blazers’ first training-camp practice. “I talked to people back home and his brother, who was my coach, and Drazen never wanted to be on the bench, right? Regardless if there were better players than him.
“An amazing player and our best of all time. In Croatia, we don’t treat any of our athletes like we do Drazen, because he’s not with us anymore. He’s like a legend for us. I never had a thought of wearing my number here. Out of my heart, and the hearts of all Croatians, I decided to continue his journey and finish what he couldn’t.”
So this season, Hezonja will become the 13th player to wear No. 44 for the Trail Blazers.
And it could actually be Petrovic’s career in reverse.
While “Petro” never got a real chance to show what he could do in Portland, Hezonja might find his own personal salvation with the Trail Blazers, after a struggling start in Orlando and New York.
He arrived early in Portland and has been a regular at the team’s informal pre-camp workouts at its practice facility. And he’s been a big topic of conversation because of his speed, his movement, and his playmaking ability. It appears he may be a point-forward on the team's second unit, perhaps making that group more uptempo than the starting lineup.
“I can run,” said the 6-8, 225-pounder. “I can get out.”
And in Portland, he’s going to get a chance to run, make plays and do the things that made him the fifth pick in the 2015 draft.
“Where I’ve been before, you’re always bothered by something,” Hezonja said. “There was always so much negative. I am so happy coming to practice here. There is no negativity here. Other places, there was ‘Watch out for this guy – he’s weird.’ I don’t have that here. I have been here for the month and I can’t think of one bad detail. I don’t have a bad feeling about anything or anybody. The is the first time in many years when I’m happy – happy with what I’m doing, happy with where I’m at and happy with my teammates around me.
“We’re all here for one thing – to win a championship. But we don’t talk about that. It’s in our minds, our goal is to do that. But slowly. We don’t talk about it.
“The coach lets us do our own thing but we have to be on the same page.”
And for Hezonja, that will be page No. 44.