Drazen Petrovic

How Mario Hezonja's admiration for Drazen Petrovic fuels his journey

How Mario Hezonja's admiration for Drazen Petrovic fuels his journey

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.

Mario Hezonja has plenty to prove after signing with the Trail Blazers

Mario Hezonja has plenty to prove after signing with the Trail Blazers

Mario Hezonja had a lot of reasons for choosing to sign with the Portland Trail Blazers. But most of all, he’s here to prove he can play in the NBA and wants to carry on the legacy of one of his country’s greatest sports heroes.

Hezonja, from Croatia by way of the Orlando Magic and New York Knicks, met the media Wednesday morning at the team’s practice facility.

Taken as the fifth pick in the first round of the 2015 NBA draft, Hezonja’s career so far has been a disappointment. He’s played in 277 games through his four-year career, but started only 65 of them, averaging 7.3 points per game while shooting 41.7 percent from the field and 32.1 percent from three-point range.

“I haven’t put up anything yet,” he said. “But it’s fine, because I will. It’s kind of sad to say I couldn’t do what I (wanted to) do in Orlando and New York … For Orlando I couldn’t be myself because it was one season this and one season that. We were a young group not ready to win yet and then we had a lot of veterans. It was messy a little bit. But it is what it is – it’s the NBA.

“I just go out there to kill. It’s pretty simple. In this situation it will be manifested even more. It’s a Western Conference finals team. I think I’ve gotten better every year.”

He cited his relationship with Neil Olshey as a reason for coming to Portland, a team that chased him in free agency last year before he signed with the Knicks.

“I’ve known Neil since a long time ago,” he said. “He’s connected to my agent’s family. I was talking to them last year. Very familiar to the situation, very familiar with Dame and CJ and the coach.”

And he also has a very close relationship with Portland center Jusuf Nurkic, who lived in the building next to his in Zagreb.

“We lived door-to-door back home,” Hezonja said. “My building is right next to his. I can yell at him every day. He is probably closer to my father than I am because when I left he still played in Zagreb. My brother – there’s nothing more to say. He’s super, super close to me. He always told me about this city, about this team and we’re super close.”

Hezonja is going to wear No. 44 this season, a tribute to Croatian great and former Trail Blazer and Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic, who wore that number in Portland. Drazen's brother, Aleksandar, coached Herzonja on their country’s national team.

“Obviously the greatest European player of all time,” Hezonja said. “It’s out of respect to him. The journey continues in his name right now. I’m glad I’m the leader of the journey right now. Carrying my entire country with it.”

Hezonja grew up playing point guard and still has a lot of those skills, even though coaches have shuffled him between the forward spots in the NBA.

“It’s weird even for me,” he said. “I was drafted at 6-6, 195 and now I’m 6-9, 240.”

But he still has passing skills that were modeled after Petrovic.

Petrovic came to the Trail Blazers in 1989 as a highly acclaimed star in Europe. And although he played 77 games for Portland that season, he did not start a single game and played only 12 and a half minutes a game. That wasn’t enough for Petrovic, who asked for a trade the following season and was shipped to New Jersey, where he became a star.

There was more to the story, of course. Portland was in the hunt for a championship, had Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler firmly installed as the starting guards and Danny Young as their backup. Petrovic, in his first season adjusting to the NBA, had some turnover trouble, too, and wasn’t going to get big minutes. The Blazers were well aware of Petrovic’s potential but couldn’t invest the playing time in him at that moment.

But in Croatia, the Blazers and Coach Rick Adelman were vilified for not giving Petrovic a chance. And that feeling lasted a long time. Is Hezonja aware of that?

“Yes, that’s the story back home,” said Hezonja, who wants to change that narrative. “I chose his number so I can have success.”