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 Croatian national team 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
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," Nets Assistant Coach Tom Newell told the New York
Daily News. "He's the consummate pro in commitment and
Petrovic brought tireless enthusiasm to the game.|
Tim DeFrisco/NBAE/Getty Images
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.
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 in a game.
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 and the Blazers bought his way out of his
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 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
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
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
Late in 1993 the Nets retired Petrovic's uniform No. 3 in