STANFORD, Calif. — The man called the Michael Jordan of American water polo took a fond nod of the head toward the main pool at the Avery Aquatic Center at Stanford University on Sunday.
“Down 8-1 in the fourth quarter against Pepperdine (and) Jesse Smith, big rival, one of the best players in the world, four-time Olympian,” Tony Azevedo said, harking back to a moment that happened just a few yards away during his freshman year at Stanford in 2001. “We had a comeback, and it started with a full-court pass I gave to a teammate (J.J. Arden) who turned, landed and scored. Then 8-3, 8-4, 8-5 — we won 9-8. That was one of my favorite games because I didn’t score a ton of goals, it was a team effort, and that really sparked us for winning (the NCAA title) that year.”
The past, present and future merged seamlessly over the weekend for Azevedo, a weekend anchored by his final water polo game in a long and distinguished career.
The U.S. national team, for which Azevedo has played since 1998 and through five Olympic Games, lost to last year’s Olympic silver medalist Croatia 9-8, but that wasn’t the point of this exhibition match. It was about honoring No. 8.
Azevedo started and scored a first-period goal, then sat out the second half, as planned.
“It was great,” Azevedo said after the match. “They were after me; they wouldn’t let me score. I’m glad I went out with my favorite shot. The one up-and-over, near-side-bar in, I’ll take that. … Don’t worry about it. I got my G!”
At a halftime ceremony that kept fans in their seats, Azevedo’s old Stanford coaches, John Vargas and Dante Dettamanti, presented him with an award on behalf of the university where he won two NCAA titles. Croatia, a country in which Azevedo played professionally and where his son was born, presented him with his own Croatia No. 8 cap. And Team USA gave him a commemorative plaque, with his No. 8 cap inside the frame with a picture of himself and the words “Five-time Olympian” — a claim no one else in American water polo can make.
“It meant the world to end my career here,” Azevedo told the crowd. “I thought I’d feel a little better after a six-month taper!
“All I can say is, 22 years ago I was inspired by a game, and by an athlete. I hope for those of you who were here at the clinic today or those of you watching, when I was inspired, it took four years hard work, and I did it, and became an Olympian. There’s nothing better for me than ending with these guys right here. I’ve literally bled, sweat and cried with Team USA. Being one of 13 people chosen every fours years to represent their country, there’s no better feeling than that.”
Dejan Udovicic, who has coached Team USA since 2013 and has competed as a coach against Azevedo with his native Serbia, said it would be hard to replace the best American water polo player in history. Azevedo, 35, led the United States to a silver medal at the Beijing Games in 2008, American’s first Olympic medal in men’s water polo in two decades, as well as five Pan American Games gold medals.
“You cannot top Tony,” Udovicic said. “Tony is unique. … We will miss him in the locker room as well as the pool. … All those years with the U.S., just a true professional.”
It was actually Udovicic’s idea to have the Tony Azevedo Game at Stanford. Azevedo had announced his retirement in December after winning a club championship and league MVP honors with Sesi in Brazil, and he was reluctant to get in the water again. But Udovicic convinced him, knowing how much Azevedo has meant for water polo in the United States. And Azevedo is glad he did.
“It was set in my mind that I was never going to play again,” said Azevedo, who was born in Rio de Janeiro and moved to the United States as an infant. “I finished my career in Brazil, there was a celebration, I was in great shape, it was amazing and I didn’t want to play again. … But I think it’s meaningful. Especially doing it in front of the American crowd.”
His weekend began Saturday with a tour through the Stanford campus and the neighboring town of Palo Alto. He dined with Dettamanti and Vargas, important men of his past.
He started Sunday by taking his wife, Sara, and two children — 4-year-old Cruz and 8-month-old Luna — to a local park. Before his match, he hosted a 90-minute water polo clinic with about 100 kids. And Monday, he was scheduled for meetings in Silicon Valley as part of a master plan to grow the sport of water polo in the United States. All of that is about the future.
Azevedo could have played in a sixth Olympics — the 2020 Tokyo Games beckoned. Udovicic said “he’s a player who can play for sure for another (Olympic) quad. His body’s in good condition.”
But there are other concerns — chiefly his young family.
“If I didn’t have them, I’d play in another Olympics,” Azevedo said. “Staying in shape is not the problem. But it’s the time for me to make their lives better by being home more.”
And it’s also time to grow the sport in the United States, something Azevedo believes he is uniquely qualified to do. He has no interest in coaching, but instead has an ambitious goal to help create a professional league, such as they have in Europe, Brazil and other countries; a national youth organization akin to Little League baseball and Pop Warner football to teach fundamentals, and bigger marketing and television opportunities.
That’s why he was due in Silicon Valley on Monday. Later this summer, he’s hosting the first Aquatic Games in his hometown of Long Beach, California — an Olympics-style event that will include other water sports. It’s part of a plan to raise the profile of water polo.
“A professional league is needed here,” Azevedo said. “The sport is loved when it’s seen. How can we make our sport better on TV? Everyone in water polo, they end up going to four-year colleges, it’s the toughest sport in the world, you get tan, you’re outside; this is the sport parents want to get their kids into. But after college, there’s nothing for us, and that’s not OK.
“Look at lacrosse. They started small, and their professional league isn’t the best in the world, but they’re getting there. We need to move in the same direction. If any country can do it, it’s ours.”
Earlier Sunday at the clinic, Azevedo was working at the grassroots level. He conducts a lot of clinics, and they give him great joy.
“One of the most important things is keeping your hips up,” Azevedo tells the kids, meaning to keep the hips vertical. “Use your arms and legs. … Your head should be out of the water the whole time!”
The first 35 minutes were devoted to swimming and water techniques. Only then were balls introduced. And then: no shooting.
“Passing is the most important part of our game,” he bellowed. “Pass, pass, pass, pass! Nice, soft passes. I shouldn’t see the ball touch the water.”
Azevedo aims to inspire during these hands-on sessions. And judging by the nearly 30 minutes of signing autographs and talking with the kids afterward, he succeeded.
“In a two-day camp, or a one-day camp like this, sure, they’re not going to learn enough to be great,” Azevedo said. “But if I can inspire one kid or two kids to work hard, to wake up early, to take 10 more shots after every practice, then it’s definitely worth it.”
So Tony Azevedo has played his last water polo match. But he is very much still a part of the present of the sport in America, and a big part of its future.