|Drazen Petrovic in a New Jersey Nets jersey|
There is perhaps no bigger name in the history of European basketball than Drazen Petrovic. This “Basketball Mozart” was a boy genius who put the Croatian city of Sibenik on the map. He would go on to dominate basketball in his country, win honours with Spanish giants Real Madrid and make the leap to the NBA.
It was just when he was establishing himself as the first European to be an NBA star and that Croatia was basketball’s strongest country behind the US dream team, that his life tragically ended in a car crash outside Munich, Germany.
Born in the Dalmatian town of Sibenik in 1964, Petrovic would follow his brother in whatever hobby or sport he was interested in. Fortunately, Aco chose basketball and at age eight and little brother Drazen began to play his chosen sport. Blessed with a raging competitive spirit and unrelenting work ethic, he soon excelled at his new-found passion.
Petrovic’s devotion to basketball became legendary and even at a young age he would regularly be at the gym before dawn shooting jump shots and spending hours dribbling around chairs.
“For me this (hard work) was perfectly normal. If by some reason I didn’t go to practice, and this could only be purely co-incidental, I would immediately get sick. For me to miss practice was almost like a deadly sin,” Petrovic said in the 1997 book “Drazen Petrovic”.
The hard work translated into immediate success and at the tender age of 15, Petrovic had already won a cadet national championship and a Balkan cadet title. At age 17, he was elected the best sportsmen in Sibenik.
Petrovic moved to the senior team in 1982 as an 18-year old. Sibenik’s basketball club had been created in 1972 and was yet to make an impact on the Yugoslav League. That all changed when Drazen suited up for his home-town side and in the next 2 years Sibenik would scale both domestic and European heights.
In 1983, the 19-year old’s last second free throws secured an 83-82 win over Bosna which gave Sibenik its first Yugoslav title. The win would later be annulled by the federation, but Sibenik remained champions in everything but name.
In 1982, Sibenik reached the finals of the Korac Cup, a feat they would repeat in 1983. But on both occasions, they suffered defeat to French side Limoges.
Petrovic made the difficult decision to leave Sibenik and join Cibona Zagreb in 1984. It was a decision made easier by the fact that Aco was Cibona’s point guard and it would give the brothers the chance to play for a European crown.
“Love is love, but on the court I put my emotion aside and don’t recognise anyone. I’ll beat them again if I can.”
Those comments came after Petrovic scored 56 points against Sibenik in the first meeting with his former club and just serve to underline his competitive nature.
Petrovic spent four seasons with Cibona and won seven trophies, including two consecutive European titles.
One club that bore the particular brunt of Europe’s top young player was Real Madrid. In give games over two seasons, Cibona recorded a 5-0 record against the Spanish giants and Petrovic averaged 44.4 ppg, including a 49-point 20-assist explosion in 1986.
If you can't beat him, sign him, was the policy adopted by Real and in 1986 they secured the signature of their greatest individual foe.
At the age of 21, Petrovic inked a 4-year 1.5 million dollar contract.
Petrovic still had a 4-year contract to fulfil before going to Spain. Those four years included a Cup Winners Cup in 1987 and in his final season, a Korac Cup final against his new club Real.
Cibona lost the first game in Madrid by 13 points. In Zagreb Petrovic played his final game for Cibona. He produced 47 points, but could not prevent his side from losing.
In 1988, the Spanish adventure began and the first test of character came in the semi-finals of the European Cup Winner’s Cup, a match-up with Zagreb.
Petrovic proved once again that he was the consummate winner and it was his 38 points, including two last second free throws which beat his old team in Zagreb, 92-91. In the return leg, he scored 47 as Real won 119-97.
An Oscar Schmidt-led Udine waited in the finals and any hopes that Real’s top player had peaked in the semis proved to be off base. Petrovic exploded for 62 points (Schmidt had 44), including 12-of-14 two-point field goals and 8-of-15 from three-point range as Real recorded a 117-113 overtime victory.
On the domestic front, Drazen won the King’s Cup but Real lost in the Spanish League to Barcelona.
Then there was the McDonald’s Open.
In October 1988, Petrovic met up with Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics in a battle of the best from the two continents. The Celtics won the tournament, thanks to a 111-96 win over Madrid in the final, but the individual stats are worth mentioning.
In two games, Bird scored 56 points as did Petrovic. Both players had 16 assists, while Bird had 11 rebounds to Petrovic’s 14.
Petrovic’s 1989 European win with Real would be his last club game on the continent. After one season in Spain, he was ready for a new challenge.
“Europe could no longer offer what I wanted,” he said.
“I was a champion, I had won so many trophies. Why win another European Champions Cup? So What! The NBA was a challenge I couldn’t resist. I don’t know what to expect, but I can play there.”
Petrovic’s was certainly right in his assertion that he could play in the NBA, but it would take a while before anybody else believed it.
By August 1989, Petrovic was in Portland. He had signed a 3.6 million dollar contract and expected to be a replacement for Clyde Drexler or Terry Porter. Why else would they sign him for so much money?
But for Petrovic, any optimism was quickly muted by the harsh glare of reality. It soon became clear that Porter and Drexler would play, while Drazen was limited to the bench. To make things worse for the new import, Portland was having a fantastic season, but he wasn’t a part of it.
Petrovic eventually got his chance to play when Drexler picked up an injury and once he was on the floor, he didn’t disappoint. He scored 22 points in 19 minutes against the Charlotte Hornets and was a major contributor to the team’s run to the NBA finals, nailing a clutch shot in the series deciding win over San Antonio and scoring ten fourth quarter points against the Phoenix Suns in game six of the conference finals.
But he was not happy. Petrovic could not sit on the bench for any team and by the end of the season he was not on speaking terms with coach Rick Adelman.
Redemption came in the form of a trade to the New Jersey Nets, 18 games into the 1990-1991 season. Petrovic now had the luxury of a guaranteed 20 minutes on the court and he took advantage of hit. He increased his scoring average from 4.4 to 15 ppg and finished the season as the NBA’s second best three-point shooter at 44%.
However, the Nets finished with a 26-56 record and had no chance of making the play-offs.
In the 91-92 season, Petrovic finally lived up to his own promise. He averaged 20.6 ppg, but more importantly the Nets started to win. They finished with a 40-42 record and made the play-offs for the first time in six years. They were eliminated in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but not before Petrovic had scored 40 points in New Jersey’s only win of the series.
The summer of 1992 saw Petrovic lead Croatia to a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics. When the new NBA season started the goal was to join the NBA’s elite. Despite having just a total of eight day’s rest, Petrovic came back to the USA in sensational form. He upped his scoring average to 23.5 ppg (10th best in the NBA) and the Nets finished with a 43-39 record.
Once again they met the Cavaliers in the play-offs and although this time it was a competitive series, they lost in five games.
Petrovic’s contract had expired and the Nets offered him a 4-year contract worth 3.35 million per year, the second highest for any shooting guard in the NBA, other than Michael Jordan.
But Drazen was in no hurry to make a decision. He had the summer to mull over his options, which included multiple offers from European teams. In the meantime, he had national team duty and he led Croatia to qualification in the 1993 European Championship.
In the six games played at a tournament in Wroclaw, Poland, Petrovic averaged 33.6 ppg (including 48 against Estonia) and was selected MVP.
The Croatian national team flew from Wroclaw to Frankfurt on the way home. Petrovic said his goodbyes to the team, and told them that he would be home the next day as he was meeting a friend in Munich. It would prove to be a final goodbye and on the car trip from Frankfurt to Munich, Petrovic was killed in a car crash.
On June 7, 1993 Europe lost arguably its greatest ever basketball player. He was 28 years old.
This article is adapted from the 1997 publication Drazen Petrovic by Mario Zorko