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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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