The story of Drazen Petrovic
One of the most far-reaching changes in the makeup of the NBA during the 1980s was the arrival of significant numbers of talented European players, a migration greatly accelerated by the fall of communist governments in Eastern Europe. No arrival from the former Soviet bloc was more eagerly anticipated than that of Drazen Petrovic. A two-time Olympic silver medalist, the Croatian native led the national team of the former Yugoslavia before developing into one of the NBA's top shooting guards in four seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers and New Jersey Nets. However, tragedy cut his career short when he died in an automobile accident in Germany at age 28.
To match the cool grace of urban American talents, the European newcomer brought tireless enthusiasm to the game, as illustrated by his fist-pumping in moments of triumph and furious agonizing over setbacks. He was not as strong defensively as his American counterparts, but he showed a penchant for daring three-point shooting. "I have never seen any pro or amateur player work as hard," Nets Assistant Coach Tom Newell told the New York Daily News. "He's the consummate pro in commitment and dedication."
Petrovic had shooting skills to match his energy. In his two full seasons with New Jersey he averaged 21.4 points. In his best-and final-season, 1992-93, he led the Nets with 22.3 points per game. "Even if you were a fan of another team, you couldn't root against him," teammate Sam Bowie told the Newark Star-Ledger. "You had to be impressed by him."
The son of a police chief, Petrovic grew up in Sibenik, a small port city on the Adriatic Sea. He and his brother, Aleksander, spent hours teaching themselves basketball on makeshift courts. When he was barely into his teens Petrovic began touring with the Yugoslavian national team.
He put up decent enough numbers to entice Notre Dame to try to lure him to the United States in 1984, when he was 19 years old. Two years later the Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the third round of the 1986 NBA Draft. But Yugoslav travel restrictions and, later, complicated contractual ties kept him away from North America until the decade's end.
Petrovic led Yugoslavia to the silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. He also played for Croatia in the Yugoslav professional league, on one occasion scoring 112 points against Slovenia. In 1988 he played in Spain for Real Madrid and promptly led the club to the European Cup championship. Offered an NBA contract by Portland, Petrovic had to go to court to buy his way out of his Spanish deal (reportedly for as much as $1.5 million), setting off a storm of outrage in Madrid.
Petrovic's U.S. debut in the 1989-90 season proved unspectacular. His defensive skills were still raw by NBA standards, and the Trail Blazers, already solid at the two position with Clyde Drexler, found only limited use for a shooting guard who was weak on defense. In 77 games in his rookie season he averaged only 7.6 points in 12.6 minutes per game.
In the first half of the 1990-91 season the Trail Blazers kept Petrovic on the bench in 20 of 38 games before trading him to New Jersey in a three-team deal that brought Walter Davis to Portland. The Nets also used him sparingly at first, but they gave him enough playing time to improve his point production to 12.6 per game. Playing an average of 20.5 minutes in 43 games, he had one of the league's best points-per-minute ratios.
Petrovic's outside shooting won him a chance to start the next season, and he jumped to 20.6 points per game. He began to gain league-wide recognition as one of the NBA's best outside shooters, particularly from three-point range. He hit on 123 of 277 three-point attempts that season, ranking second in the NBA with a .444 percentage. Petrovic also led the Nets in field-goal shooting (.508) and free-throw shooting (.808)
In the 1992 offseason Petrovic returned to his homeland to lead the team of the newly independent Croatia to the Olympic Games in Barcelona. Again, Petrovic emerged with a silver medal. Croatia lost only to the United States Dream Team, which featured such NBA rivals as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, against whom Petrovic (playing point guard rather than shooting guard) scored 19 points.
His NBA numbers got even better in 1992-93. Besides leading the Nets in scoring (22.3 ppg), he set the team pace with a .518 field-goal percentage and a .449 three-point field-goal percentage. The media voted him to the All-NBA Third Team at season's end. Fans loved his enthusiasm and energy, and his coaches admired the fact that he devoted offseason time to improving his game, especially his defense. "You couldn't have wanted a better teammate," New Jersey Head Coach Chuck Daly told the Newark Star-Ledger. "He was very talented, he played very hard and was able to lead by his example. He was indefatigable."
But, in fact, not all his teammates admired Petrovic's style. Some Nets players, Assistant Coach Paul Silas acknowledged to The New York Times, "had a little problem with Draz. They thought he shot too much and held the ball." In addition to the locker-room backbiting, Petrovic became unhappy with New Jersey management, which was slow to renegotiate his contract.
After the Nets fell in the first round of the 1993 Playoffs, Petrovic told reporters he would probably accept a two-year offer to play pro ball in Greece; he then left for Europe to rejoin the Croatian national team in European Cup competition. Following a 30-point effort in a qualifying tournament in Poland, Petrovic detoured to Germany to visit his girlfriend. On June 7 he was en route to Munich when the car in which he was a passenger slammed into a tractor-trailer. He died instantly. He was only 28 years old.
The loss particularly stunned European fans. "It's hard for you to imagine here in America, because you have so many great players," his brother told the New York Daily News. "But we are a country of four million. Without him, basketball takes three steps back."
Late in 1993 the Nets retired Petrovic's uniform No. 3 in tribute.