Twenty Years Without Basketball's Mozart

07 June 2013

Drazen Petrovic - New Jersey Nets
Drazen Petrovic had his break-through in the NBA after joining the Nets, paving the way for other Europeans with his performances

It was raining heavily on the autobahn outside Munich on the evening of 7 June 1993, when a speeding red car drove into a truck that had previously crashed through the guard rails and was blocking the lane.

Back in the days when the internet or 24-hour TV news channels were still not an indispensable part of life, details of the accident took quite a while to emerge.

It transpired that there were three people travelling in that red Volkswagen Golf.

The young Hungarian woman who was behind the wheel escaped with relatively minor injuries and years later married a German football legend; the young Turkish woman at the back seat suffered severe head injuries and was in a coma for almost two months.

The news that sent shock-waves around Europe and the basketball world of the entire planet though, had to do with the fate of the third passenger.

He was a 28-year-old Croatian man, 1.96m tall, who was asleep in the front seat at the time of the impact.

'Mozart has died', we read in the newspapers the following morning.

Drazen Petrovic was not universally loved. For every legion of hardcore fans, he had a dozen of sworn detractors who would dismiss him as arrogant, judging him from his on-the-court persona.

Yet one would be hard-pressed to claim that numerous people, also in the detractors' camp, did not shed a tear or mourned his loss that day in June 1993, as if he was someone close to them.

Petrovic's team-mate on the New Jersey Nets, Sam Bowie, encapsulated the sentiment when he said: "Even if you were a fan of another team, you couldn't root against this player; you had to be impressed by him."

It's because the Croatian Mozart was much more than the quintessential shooting guard, much more than one of the best shooters in history, much more than perhaps the best European player of all time.

Petrovic was an artist and his means of expression was the basketball in his hands; his play elevated this sport to an art form, it brought out all the symmetry and beauty of this game.

His perfected style, his text-book technique were the result of countless hours of practice, for every single day of his life since he had been a child.

But combined with his rare talent for the game, they produced an explosive mix on the court that was simply poetry in motion, and even someone who had never watched a game of basketball could see that.

Nowadays, we understand better that the negative personality traits which were often attributed to basketball's Mozart in reality simply come hand-in-hand with the utmost determination and willpower that it takes to become a highly competitive top athlete.

Drazen Petrovic Memorial - Sibenik
The Drazen Petrovic Memorial in his hometown Sibenik was unveiled in 2011

When seen within the context of that time, even incidents like his now famous spat with former team-mate on the legendary Yugoslavia side of the late '80s and early ‘90s, Vlade Divac, which brought their long-time friendship to an abrupt end, can now easily be understood.

Petrovic was four months shy of his 29th birthday and coming off his fourth and best season in the NBA when that accident cut his life short.

He had led the Nets in scoring that season with 22.3 points per game on 52% field-goal percentage, and had been voted to the All-NBA Third Team.

Not even his agent at the time was sure however if Mozart would stay in the NBA or accept a multi-million offer from Panathinaikos, that were then making the first steps towards becoming the European powerhouse they are today.

In the months and years after his death, countless 'what if he had not died' and 'if only he had lived at least a bit longer' were heard in Croatia, across Europe and on the Eastern coast of the United States.

"I think the outcome of the Nets' history would be different if Drazen had lived, no doubt about that," the then General Manager of New Jersey, Willis Reed, even said.

It is even more probable that the history of Croatian and Euroean basketball would have been different, too.

But Drazen, during the 28 years that his life lasted, never speculated, never spent a single second on 'ifs' and 'buts'.

His view was always simple, that he would work hard every single day to be the best he could be, better than anyone.

And the only real certainty is that he was born to play basketball and show us what a genius and virtuoso could do in this discipline.

Just like what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who died at the age of 35, did with music.



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