When he first left his native Hungary for Spain in 2011, Adam Hanga was very much a complete unknown, certainly for fans. More than a decade later, his career lacks only a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague title to seal his status as one of the signature players of the competition since his debut in 2013.
Adam Hanga, Real: 'The third time is the charm, right?'
Hanga arrives in Belgrade this week for his third Final Four with three different teams: Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz, FC Barcelona and, now, Real Madrid.
In his very first Final Four game, an overtime semifinal loss to Fenerbahce Istanbul in 2016, Hanga was on the court for almost 42 minutes, more than any player in a Final Four game since 2010 and the third-most ever.
"I can recall that game minute-by-minute, to be honest," Hanga says. "I remember the gym was full of yellow because they were all Fenerbahce fans, and the experience was amazing. Obviously, I was a little bit nervous at the beginning, but I think that was the year in my career when I established myself as a player. So, for me, it was a really important year, and obviously to get to the Final Four with that team... If you look back now at the roster, you understand why we made it to the Final Four. But at that moment, no one was expecting us to be there."
Hanga was a tad older than Tornike Shengelia and Mike James, among others, as they went on that magic carpet ride to Berlin with Baskonia. The next season, EuroLeague head coaches recognized Hanga with the Best Defender Trophy. Then, he moved to Barcelona for four years, culminating in the team's runner-up finish at last season's Final Four in Cologne, Germany. In contrast to his first Final Four experience, however, Hanga was barely used in last season's championship game, which Barcelona lost to Anadolu Efes Istanbul.
"If you talk about possibilities of winning the Final Four, winning the title, last year I was pretty close to it," Hanga recounts. "Obviously, it was really unfortunate that I couldn't play that many minutes. But you know, I've always been a team player and I always try to be a good teammate. And my goal was always to win as a team. Last year, I was at a moment of the season when I was not one of the most important players in Barcelona, so I accepted it. It was obviously tough; everybody has character and, obviously, I wanted to play. But I accepted it and I was the one going crazy on the bench for 40 minutes in the final."
When his contract with Barcelona ended, Hanga was snapped up by Real to bring his proven defensive pedigree to the backcourt. Hanga plugged right into head coach Pablo Laso's rotation and has started 24 of the 29 games he has played this season.
"The adjustment was easy because I played against Madrid so many times in the past 10 years that I kind of knew everybody. I kind of knew the system. I kind of knew what they want to do," Hanga explains. "So, for me, it was like the easiest transition to come from Barcelona to Real Madrid."
His old and new teams jockeyed for the top two spots in the EuroLeague standings until Real struggled down the home stretch of the regular season and tumbled to fourth place. That presumed a tougher playoffs matchup with fifth-place Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv, which was as hot as Real was cold late in the season. Nonetheless, Real found its mojo and registered the only playoffs sweep of any series as Hanga's averages soared to 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists and 1.0 steals. In just 21:49 minutes per game, roughly 3 more than until the playoffs, he more than doubled his performance index rating to 13.0.
"Throughout that bad period, already we were saying to ourselves that we knew we were going to get through it. Obviously, this happens sometimes for teams; the only thing was that for us, it was pretty long. It's like we looked pretty desperate to get out of that hole. But the confidence, we had it from the very beginning," Hanga said.
"Nobody sees inside our locker room. Nobody sees what's going on. People might see what's going on on the court, or what we tell to the press. But nobody sees what's going on in the locker room. And in the locker room, I think we were always confident.
"And I think we came back at the best moment, to be honest. Right before the playoffs, we got together one last time. We had a barbecue at Rudy [Fernandez]'s house. We talked about it again, and we came through. So, that's all that matters."
Another part of Real's story this season has been losing to Barcelona, its semifinal opponent on Friday in Belgrade in what will be just the third such El Clásico in Final Four history.
"It's no secret that they've had the upper hand in the last five games they beat us, including the Spanish League and Spanish Cup final," Hanga says. "So obviously, they have found a way in which they could beat us. And we have to find the way that we can beat them. As we all know, it's one game, so defense is going to be key. Apart from that: physicality, concentration. Obviously, the team that's going to make less mistakes is going to make it to the final."
It is safe to say that Hanga is unlikely to be cheerleading for much of the semifinal on Friday. But neither is he distracted by the idea of showing his old team what they are missing. Rather, he is keen to keep his eyes on the only major prize that has eluded him in his rise from relative anonymity to EuroLeague standard-bearer.
"This year, to be honest, I was not thinking about revenge or anything like this. I was focusing on the task ahead of us, which for us at Real Madrid was making it to the Final Four. This was the only thing on my mind," Hanga says. "Even now that I know we are going to play against Barcelona, and all of my friends and a lot of people are asking me, 'Do you feel like revenge?', I say, 'No, to be honest, I don't really feel anything like this.' The only thing I feel is that I want to win because I want to lift the title. But it has nothing to do with Barcelona. If we have to go through Barcelona, so be it."