|"I am a joker, outside the court I like to tease the other players, [I am] a positive, bit crazy guy." - Damir Markota |
By Dimitris Kontos
You will not see him taking off his jersey in celebration or flexing his muscles for the cameras. He is not a football player, not even Italian, but Super Mario, according to sources in Croatia, is present at EuroBasket 2013.
He is one of the 12 players on the Croatia national team that is riding a six-game winning streak and have already secured a quarter-final spot ahead of Monday's Group F clash with Greece.
The name on his passport reads Damir Markota, but the nation's media often refer to him simply as 'Croatia's Balotelli'.
"It's a nice compliment, there is nothing bad about that," Markota told fibaeurope.com with a wide smile.
"I am just the guy who tries to be positive and bring the team together, so I like that.
"I am a joker, outside the court I like to tease the other players, [I am] a positive, bit crazy guy."
For Croatia head coach Jasmin Repesa, the label is mostly due to a restless youth.
"When he was younger, as many young people do, he enjoyed his life," the tactician told fibaeurope.com.
"But he has grown up so much as a person, not only as a player, now he is married, he has a son and so he is very different."
Repesa goes back a long way with most of the players on his team, but has known the 28-year-old Markota ever since he was just a teenager.
"In 2002/03, when I went for the second time to Cibona, Markota was a junior there and made his first pre-season with the senior team," Repesa said.
"I've had him as a player from that young age, then several times with the national team."
SARAJEVO TO ZAGREB VIA SWEDEN
|Poland's Maciej Lampe and Markota played on the same Swedish teams when they were younger |
Markota coincided with Repesa in Zagreb the year he turned 18, due to a chain of unlikely events that had happened when he was even younger.
"My mother is Croatian, my father is Bosnian and I was born in Sarajevo," the power forward explains.
"Once the war became really critical my family decided to move somewhere and Sweden was taking a lot of immigrants at the time, so we went there.
"We lived there rough at the start, I always liked to play basketball, actually (Poland's) Maciej Lampe and I grew up together and we were best friends.
"We were doing really well with the Swedish team, winning games around Lithuania, Estonia and those countries, so we were really good.
"But both Lampe and I knew that Sweden gave us a lot as children but if we wanted to make a step further it could not give us any more in basketball.
"My sister and I searched on the internet and found out about Cibona's training camp.
"I was 13 and-a-half-years old, I packed my bags and I told my mother 'I am leaving!'
"She probably just let me go because she thought I would come back, like all mothers do; that I would try out and not make it.
"But I stayed there [in Croatia] and never went back home, that was it," he says with a smile.
The transition was not easy at first, but the fighting spirit that Markota displays on the court in every game, probably stems from those early years.
"People knew me once I went to Cibona but they used to say 'this kid from Sweden', because Sweden is not a basketball country," Markota recalls.
"So when I got there, every day I worked as hard as I could because I knew it was the only way.
"I didn't want to go back home, so I almost lived in the locker room, like staying in the gym 24 hours."
POWER - THE STREAK - FORWARD
Markota's professional basketball career has taken him all over Europe, but ever since becoming a senior international at EuroBasket 2007, the big man has played for his national team almost uninterruptedly every summer.
"[Playing for Croatia] means everything, I think every player wants to be on his national team, and especially when the team is doing well," Markota says.
"At this moment we are doing well and I am really proud of Croatia, of the team, and I am proud of myself because we play good basketball."
According to his coach, Markota has a big share in Croatia's fantastic display so far in the tournament.
"He is a high-level power forward, very athletic and physical but also smart and understands the game very well," explained Repesa in describing his player.
"He's played really well in this tournament and he is one of the reasons we have had this winning streak."
When will Crotia's winning streak end?
"I hope never!" Markota replies swiftly.
"We just have to keep our feet on the ground and continue playing hard, try to win game by game."