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Petrovic (Trail-)Blazed NBA Nets

Sharpshooting Croatian guard Drazen Petrovic was one of the key figures blazing the trail for the NBA's eventual explosion of international talent, earning All-NBA Third Team honors at the end of his fourth season, and third with the Nets. But "Petro" died at 28, following an automobile accident during the summer of 1993. In this retrospective, NJNets.com took a look at Drazen's career and its impact.

One of the most far-reaching changes in the makeup of the NBA during the 1980s and early 1990s was the arrival of a significant number of talented European players. One of the best was the late Drazen Petrovic , a two-time Olympic silver medalist who led the Yugoslavian and Croatian Men's National Teams before developing into one of the NBA's top shooting guards.

After four seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers and New Jersey Nets, tragedy cut Petrovic's career short when he died in an automobile accident in Germany at age 28.

Before his death, Petrovic made his mark in the NBA and around the world. 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," said Nets assistant coach Tom Newell, to the New York Daily News. "He's the consummate pro in commitment and dedication."

Petrovic had shooting skills to match his energy: In two full seasons with the Nets, he averaged 21.4 points. In 1992-93, Petrovic's 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," said former teammate Sam Bowie, to 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. Barely into his teens, Petrovic began touring with the Yugoslavian National Team.

His performance enticed Notre Dame's attempt 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.

Petrovic led Yugoslavia to the silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. He also played for BC Cibona Zagreb in the Yugoslav Basketball League, on one occasion scoring 112 points in a game. In 1988, he played in Spain for Real Madrid, promptly leading the club to the European Cup championship. Offered an NBA contract by Portland, Petrovic and the Blazers bought his way out of the Spanish deal (reportedly for as much as $1.5 million).

The Croatian star'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 2 with Clyde Drexler, found only limited use for a shooting guard who was weak on defense. In 77 games, Petrovic averaged only 7.6 points in 12.6 minutes per game.

In the first half of the '90-91 season, the 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 used Petrovic sparingly at first, but gave him enough playing time to improve his point production to 12.6 PPG. Playing an average of 20.5 minutes in 43 games, Petrovic tallied 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 PPG. He began to gain league-wide recognition as one of the NBA's best outside shooters, particularly from three-point range. He connected on 123 of 277 three-point attempts that season, ranking second in the NBA with a .444 three-point 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 U.S. "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 percentage. The media voted him to the All-NBA Third Team at season's end. Fans loved his enthusiasm and energy, and Petrovic's coaches admired the fact that he devoted offseason time to improving his game, especially defense.

"You couldn't have wanted a better teammate," said then-Nets coach Chuck Daly, to the Newark Star-Ledger. "He was very talented, he played very hard and was able to lead by his example. He was indefatigable."

But not all of Petrovic's teammates admired his style. Assistant coach Paul Silas acknowledged to The New York Times that some Nets players, "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 Men's National Team in European Cup competition.

Following a 30-point effort in a qualifying tournament in Poland, Petrovic detoured to visit his girlfriend in Germany. On June 7, en route to Munich, the car in which he was a passenger slammed into a tractor-trailer. Petrovic died instantly. He was only 28 years old.

The loss stunned European fans: "It's hard for you to imagine here in America, because you have so many great players," Petrovic's brother, Aleksandar, told the New York Daily News. "But we are a country of four million. Without him, basketball takes three steps back."

In tribute, the Nets retired Petrovic's No. 3 jersey in November 1993.

Drazen Petrovic Career Stats

YEAR TEAM G MIN FG% 3P% FT% REB AST STL BLK PTS PPG
89-90 POR 77 967 .485 .459 .844 111 116 23 2 583 7.6
90-91 POR-NJN 61 1015 .493 .354 .832 110 86 43 1 623 10.2
91-92 NJN 82 3027 .508 .444 .808 258 252 105 11 1691 20.6
92-93 NJN 70 2660 .518 .449 .870 190 247 94 13 1564 22.3
Career Totals 290 7669 .506 .437 .841 669 701 265 27 4461 15.4
Playoff Totals 29 609 .474 .324 .696 51 42 12 1 297 10.2

To find out more about Drazen's story, visit The Drazen Petrovic Memorial Center at www.drazenpetrovic.net or Like the DPMC's page on Facebook.


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