PAO’s Super Mario Hezonja looks to press the game over button on Maccabi Tel Aviv’s season

Mar 11, 2021 | Holyland Hoops

Maccabi Tel Aviv visits Panathinaikos in Euroleague action on Thursday at 21:00 Israel time as the Yellow & Blue look to win their second straight in continental play. Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad who enter the matchup with a record of 11-15 will attempt to keep their slim postseason hopes alive when they face an old foe on the PAO sidelines in head coach Oded Katash. The Athens based team comes into the game with a disappointing 9-17 record but will also have their new super star making his third European appearance in Mario Henzonja who recently signed with the Greens.

Hezonja arrived in Greece after playing in the NBA with the Orlando Magic, New York Knicks and Portland Trailblazers between 2015-2020. The 5th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft made his first foray into the world’s best league after having played with Barcelona when he signed with the club in 2012 as a 17-year old from Croatia. After posting modest numbers with the Catalonians, Hezonja’s best season in North America was in the 2017/18 campaign with the Magic where he averaged 9.6 points and 3.7 rebounds, however, he never reached the potential that the scouts had projected.

Mario Hezonja – Photo Credit:

After not hooking up with an NBA team for the 2020/21 campaign, rumors began to swirl that Hezonja would be heading to Europe with CSKA being a potential landing spot, however, it was Panathinaikos that won the sweepstakes as the Croatian who also happens to be a huge fan of the club, signed with Panathinaikos at the end of February for the balance of the season.

Although Barcelona still retained the swingman ’s rights an agreement was made between all of the parts involved to make Hezonja’s dream come true.

“They are my family. I was looking forward to coming and joining this team. I wanted it for years and it finally happened. It is a dream come true. It’s like family. When I won the Euroleague in the juniors, Panathinaikos won its own in Barcelona and I celebrated with the fans”, Hezonja said as he arrived in Athens.

“For me, there was only Panathinaikos. Panathinaikos is like a religion here. They have earned this. They have won everything and for me, Panathinaikos’ fans are the best in the world. I am grateful for their love. I was in many teams but they were my most fanatical supporters”, he added.

Mario Hezonja – Photo Credit:

Soon after landing, Hezonja was asked about the next season and he had this to say to the PAO faithful, “Basketball has come a long way both in the States and in Europe. A lot of things are about business and money right now, so we will have to sit down and see all the offers that we will have and we will see. I speak to my team all the time and for me, it’s an easy decision. But of course, we will have to see after these three months and I hope so, that I will be in Green.”

Hezonja is definitely a fantastic player but also has become a fan favorite and icon from the second he landed. According to some Greek journalists they can’t believe that he hasn’t played competitive basketball for a number of months because he has looked more than solid thus far scoring 21 points against Barcelona and 14 versus Bayern Munich although both were losses. One even stated that it’s clear Hezonja is a superstar level talent for the Euroleague.

“Part of the defeat belongs to me,” Hezonja said after his debut. “It’s my fault too. I had forgotten how difficult it is to play in the EuroLeague. It was a bit of an emotional moment for me to play against my ex-team. After six months I did not have good breath in the first half. But things went well for me, not for Panathinaikos. Panathinaikos fans make me feel at home. I am grateful and I wish they could come to the stadium. I’m not interested in my personal performance, I only care about the team.”

Oded Katash – Photo Credit: Panathinaikos

His new coach Oded Katash, who came over from Hapoel Jerusalem spoke about Hezonja as well as Maccabi ahead of their Euroleague game as he complimented his new star whole also stating what his team needs to do to take the OAKA victory, “We are getting better. I believe that Mario is a key player for us but needs a bit more time to understand things. But he’s getting better. We are in better shape after all the COVID issues. All teams have weaknesses, especially against Maccabi we have to cut the cheap points. They are aggressive in defense and like to run. In the last few games we turned the ball over a lot. It’s a key for us. It’s another EuroLeague game against a good team. Preparation is the same.”

Mario Hezonja

Elijah Bryant is very familiar with Katash and his style of play, “They are a good team, so we will come focused and do what we need to do to get the win. We understand they play similar to how Kattash coached in Jerusalem, and we’ve played them a few times, so most of the guys are familiar with his style of play.“

Coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos also spoke about the challenge that lies ahead for the Yellow & Blue, ”For us, it’s really important to follow our gameplan because Panathinaikos, under coach Kattash, plays his style of basketball, moving the ball more while trying to find their best shot patiently. They have good movement on offense, and everybody is involved, so we’ll need to be concentrated on the defensive side of the ball.”

But clearly, Hezonja will be the key to the game and if Maccabi can limit his effectiveness, they will have a good chance to come away with the coveted victory as Ante Zizic said, “He’s a great player and if you allow him to score easy baskets he can destroy you.”

Maccabi hopes that they will be able to contain Super Mario, but it won’t be easy as not only is Hezonja a player possessed with the present but also relies on the Panathinaikos past for his inspiration. In fact, he selected the number 11 as a tip of the hat to fellow Croatian Stojko Vranković who played for the Greens between 1992-1996 and won the Euroleague title in his final season with the team.

It’s clear that Hezonja sees himself as a link in the chain with the club’s history and is more than just a player for Katash; he’s a star with superhero like powers which he will try to impose on Maccabi. However, as one reporter told me, will the desire to make those plays also lead to flawed decision making and the drive to prove something lead to mistakes.

If you’ve ever played the Super Mario Bros. you’ve got to be super familiar with the famous music as Mario races to save the mushroom princess. There are highs and lows throughout the game as the soundtrack plays on, but what music will be played at the end? Will it be that of victory or that of “game over” for Maccabi as Mario its the hammer down on their playoff chances?

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