This is a job where you don’t have a privilege of having a bad day. More than everything I felt obligated to my fans. You have to return their love. That is the reason I never took a day off when I was on the basketball court. I played every game for them, and then for myself and the club.
Drazen Petrovic, a Croatian-born basketball player, was selected by the Portland Trailblazers in the third round of the 1986 NBA Draft. After only four short seasons in the league, Petrovic proved how apt it was that he'd been drafted by the "trailblazers", since not only was he the greatest European baller to grace the hardcourt, but he'd paved the way for an influx of future NBA superstars from across the Atlantic. After his fourth season, Petrovic seemed ready to take over the basketball-playing globe, starting with the NBA championship. Instead, his career was tragically cut short after his sudden death in a car accident on June 7, 1993, while in Munich, Germany. He was only 28 years old.
Petrovic was born in Sibenik, a small port city on the Adriatic Sea, the son of a police chief. The basketball bug bit young Drazen early on, and he and his brother Aleksander spent hours teaching themselves basketball moves on makeshift courts. Their dedication paid off, and while Aleksander went on to play ball in the Yugo league in Zagreb, Drazen went to play in the local professional club, Sibenka, at the tender age of 15.
At such a young age, his work ethic was astounding. Young Petro didn't like losing, and after every loss, he would stay by himself in the gym and practise his shooting. A normal day for Drazen consisted of 500 shots every morning before school, later followed by practice with the team in the evening, where he would always be the first one there and the last one to leave. He was known to spend 6-8 hours a day in the gym, without ever even considering taking a day off. He was recruited by the Yugoslavian national team at age 17, who he would lead to silver in the Seoul Olympics, while around this time he began to recieve increased minutes with Sibenka.
When Petro was 18, he led his team to their first victory at the Korac Cup. As Drazen sank two critical free throws to win his team the national championship, political tides swamped sportsmanship and two days later the title was taken away from Sibenka, allegedly due to bad refereeing. But Drazen wouldn't let his hard work go for nothing. The next year, he again appeared in the Korac Cup finals, where his dazzling offense caught the eye of several American institutions. After a year in the army, Petrovic rejected offers from the likes of Notre Dame University, and instead left Sibenka to play in the European Premiere League, with his brother and Cibona Zagreb.
In his first game with his new team, Petro went out and nuked his former team by scoring 56 points against them. In his four years with Cibona, they won every possible title, including the European Cup Championship, National Championship, National Cup Championship, and two European Championships, as well as making some unsuccessful final appearanaces. It was during his stint with Cibona that Drazen famously dropped 112 points in a single game. His pure basketball genius earned him the nickname "Amadeus", in reference to the classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. While Drazen spoke openly to the press about his love for Zagreb, and told them how he looked forward to eventually settling there, his talent and drive were at the time beckoning him elsewhere.
After being selected in the third round of the 1986 NBA Draft, Petrovic opted to remain in Europe, signing a lucrative contract with the Real Madrid basketball club. Despite his incredible talent, he was still somewhat intimidated by the NBA as it was almost exclusively American. The only European players of any stature in the league had all attended university in the US. After playing only a year with Real Madrid, Drazen's talent proved too great for Europe to contain. That year, his team cruised to a European Cup victory on Drazen's 62 points in the final game. As the Portland Trailblazers watched their draftee shatter record after record in Spain, their pressure on Petrovic finally brought him over to the US, and the Blazers bought out his contract for $1.5 million.
Drazen's rookie season (1989-1990) was mediocre at best, as he averaged a modest 7.6 ppg with 1.5 apg. In the grand European tradition, Petrovic, despite being a potent scorer, was weak on defense and thus limited to only 12.6 minutes per game by Blazers coach Rick Adelman. Already set at the SG position with Clyde Drexler, Adelman had no use for a backup SG with little defensive ability. In the first half of his sophomore season, Petro was benched for 20 out of 38 games. But his situation changed when, in an historic three player deal, Petro was sent to the New Jersey Nets. Ironically, only Clyde Drexler recognised the talent Portland had given up, and was quoted as saying, "We just traded an All-Star." With the Nets, his time increased to around 20 minutes per game, and with that his scoring went up to 12.6 ppg, giving him one of the best points-per-minute ratios in the league at the time.
Petro's superior outside shooting won him the starting position in the 1991-92 season, and his output increased to 20.6 ppg. Like most successful European ballers, Petro was deadly from the three-point line. He ranked second in the NBA in 3-pt field goals with 44%, while leading the Nets in field goal percentage (51%) and free throw percentage (81%). That summer, Petro attended the Olympic Games in Barcelona as a member of the basketball team of the newly independent Croatia. Again, he earned himself a silver medal, losing only to the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and the rest of the USA Dream Team.
In his fourth and final season, Drazen's stats continued their upward climb to unrealised stardom: 22.3 ppg on 52% FG shooting, with 42% from behind the 3 point line. Despite not being named an All-Star, Petrovic was invited to the 3-point shooting contest, an invitation which the miffed Petro declined. At the end of the season he was named to the All-NBA third team. By this time, things in New Jersey began to unravel a bit. While head coach Chuck Daly sang Petro's praises, calling him "indefatiguable" and citing his work ethic and ability to lead by example, some of his Nets teamates ignored the fact that their team hadn't been able to reach the playoffs until they'd traded for Petro, and claimed he was a ballhog. Drazen himself felt New Jersey had been too slow in renegotiating his contract and was entertaining several offers, most notably from the New York Knicks and a professional club in Greece.
Before anything could be finalised, however, Petro had to go to Europe to represent Croatia in European Cup competition. Following a victory in Poland, Drazen made a spur-of-the-moment detour in Germany to visit his girlfriend. While en route to Munich with his girlfriend at the wheel, their car slammed into a tractor trailor, instantly killing Petrovic.
No one did more to advance the plight of Europeans in the NBA than the 6'5" 200lbs Petrovic did in only four short seasons. While Dirk Nowitzki seems destined to surpass his late Croatian counterpart as the NBA's greatest Euro import, without Petrovic, Nowitzki would probably today be employed as a house-painter as his father was, back in his native Germany.
When asked how great his late teamate could have been, former Net Kenny Anderson bristles: "He was already great. He was just going to get better and better and better, because of his work ethic and his understanding of the game, which kept improving...He had a huge heart, he was a fierce competitior, and he had a great mind for the game."
While his teamates without exception remember and admire Drazen for his obsession with basketball, another darker obsession pervaded his life. This was, understandably, the brutal war which tore his homeland apart. With the lives of his family hanging in the balance, a distraught Petrovic could often be found hunched over a short-wave radio in his apartment, listening to news reports from his home. Vlade Divac, a Serbian basketball star, had once been a good friend and teamate of Petro's in Seoul, but no longer spoke to him as a result of the war. While Divac was able to detach himself from the fighting and could have easily carried on his friendship with a Croatian, the passionate Petro was unable to leave behind the terror of the war. His friends recount how Petro went back to Zagreb during the offseason, spending his vacation successfully dodging bombs, only to be unexpectedly and tragically killed a year later during a fluke visit to Germany.
SLAM November 2002, No. LXIV