Tony Azevedo caps water polo career at Stanford in USA's loss to Croatia

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Tony Azevedo had no visions of going out like Kobe Bryant Sunday afternoon at Avery Aquatic Center like some were hoping for. He had already retired, telling USA Water Polo head coach Dejan Udovicic as much in December.

In his mind, he had played his last game after leading his professional team, Sesi, to first place in the Brazilian club championship and winning MVP honors. Having not played in six months, the Stanford Athletics Hall of Famer and Pac-12 Men’s Water Polo Player of the Century wasn’t about to go out and get the water polo equivalent of a 60-point game against Croatia like Bryant did against the Utah Jazz in his final NBA game.

A five-time Olympian and four-time Cutino Award (best collegiate player) winner, no American had accomplished more than Azevedo. To celebrate that, Udovicic wanted to give Azevedo a hero’s send-off and convinced him to put on his No. 8 cap one more time at the pool that helped spark his illustrious collegiate, professional and international career.

“I wouldn’t want [a farewell game] anywhere else, that’s for sure,” Azevedo said before the game, shaking every reporter’s hand before conducting the pregame press scrum. “In front of a crowd, in front of a school where I literally met my wife, where so many things happened in my career.”

From a competitive standpoint, Sunday’s game between USA and Croatia meant very little, as both teams are using these games as test matches to prepare for the FINA World League Super Final in June and FINA World Championships in July. Sunday was about honoring the man who had given so much to the game and will continue to do so in retirement.

“He is a true example of a real professional in this sport,” Udovicic said of Azevedo. “When players come to this stage, they think they know everything, but Tony is different. He’s open minded, he’s ready to accept new things, he’s ready to learn until the last day and I wish him all the best in what he wants to do right now when he retires.”

For what it’s worth, Croatia defeated USA 8-7, not a bad result for the Americans considering the Croatians took silver in Rio last summer. The game featured a lot of big moments from Stanford products in their home pool – Alex Bowen registered a hat trick, goalie Drew Holland stopped a five-meter penalty shot as one of his five saves and promising center Ben Hallock came up with a big field block in the first half. And, for one last time, Azevedo was able to rattle the cage by stuffing one in nearside (his favorite kind of shot, he’d say after the game) to give the Americans a 2-0 lead midway through the first quarter.

At halftime, Azevedo was bestowed with commemorative items – a glass vase from Stanford, a picture of himself and his No. 8 cap from Team USA and even a No. 8 Croatian cap loaded with signatures of the Croatian players. After addressing the crowd, Azevedo changed into his jeans and took in the final 16 minutes on the pool deck with family and friends. Nobody was going to try to convince him to get back in the pool.

“Once I got out there, it was the same feeling [as] always. I’m representing my country with the boys that I love,” Azevedo said. “And being able to hear what people said about me and having the crowd be there, I was just taking in that moment and it’ll be something that I never forget.”

Though his playing days are over, Azevedo will still be deeply involved with the game, running the Aquatic Games in Long Beach this August alongside other camps and clinics across the country with the hope of growing the game.

“I really see this as a critical point in water polo where if we don’t make a difference in how we can monetize the sport and how we can show it at a higher level, then I think we’re at risk in the Olympics and in general,” Azevedo said. “And I want my kid to know what the hell his dad played and not say, ‘hey, what sport is that?’”

One day, he’d like to see professional water polo league in the United States and will work to try to make that a reality.

“A professional league is needed here. The sport is loved when it’s seen,” he said. “This is a sport that parents want to put their kids in, but after college, there’s nothing for us. And that’s not okay.”

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