Drazen Petrovic left a legacy with a personal connection
As he grew into a star, Petrovic bonded with Nets ballboy David Turetzky
Sometimes on a Saturday, David Turetzky would have the arena all to himself in the afternoon.
There would be a Seton Hall game at noon or 1 maybe, and then the Nets at night. His father, Herb Turetzky, was the official scorer for the Nets - and still is today, in his and the franchise's 51st season - and would come in to score the college game first.
David was a Nets ballboy, but he wouldn't miss the chance to come in early. And after the college game, when the stands had emptied and the building turned quiet, save for the postgame clean-up and pregame set-up, the teenager would go out and shoot where the pros shot, all on his own.
And then Drazen Petrovic would arrive.
"Draz was always getting there early," said David. "So he'd get there early and he'd come out to warm up and there I am dripping from running around the arena all this time. So he would come out and shoot around with me."
Turetzky was in eighth grade was Petrovic was traded to the Nets in January 1991. The Nets gave up a first-round pick in the deal, but the player was a bit of a mystery. He'd been drafted in the third round in 1986 and joined the Portland Trail Blazers three years later. Petrovic was a sensation in Europe, but the flow of foreign players to the NBA was still in its infancy. For the Blazers, he averaged 7.0 points in 95 games, and in his second season played in just 18 of the Blazers' first 40 games before being traded to New Jersey.
"He was still kind of feeling out the league," said David, "and feeling out people and getting more comfortable with his English."
The uptick in his numbers that came with steady playing time over the second half of the season - 12.6 points per game - offered a glimpse of what was to come. But the real first impression, Turetzky remembers, came outside the 48 minutes, in the preparation.
"When he first got here, I remember everybody marveled that he was the hardest worker they had ever been around," said Turetzky. "He was obsessed with his body and keeping himself in condition and in shape.
"He was an absolute machine. He would work. That's what he did. He was so driven and he was so passionate about it. As a young kid at that time, for me to see that from him, it was amazing, that dedication and the level of commitment and the time he put in."
Over the next two years, the Nets and the NBA saw the player who had been one of Europe's best from the time he was a teenager.
Petrovic averaged 21.4 points per game during the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons combined, 13th among all NBA players. He led all NBA players with a 44.6 3-point field goal percentage, and his overall shooting percentage of 51.2 was 25th among all players and 10th among guards. He led the Nets to the playoffs both seasons, ending a five-year playoff drought, and was named to the All-NBA Third Team after the 1992-93 season.
David Turetzky worked the Nets locker room before and after games, helped rebound and pass to players during warm-ups, and once the game started, was typically stationed under the basket on the visitor's bench half of the court. It was a hell of a view of the game, but Turetzky spent those years mostly watching one guy.
"It was the coolest thing ever," said Turetzky. "This is just amazing. And then on top of that, to be out there as a ballboy, you're sitting right at the edge of the court and to watch him, this unbelievable worker, go out and play in a game and do what he was doing to people, it was, 'oh my god,' it was awesome. You could see the impact of the work he was doing."
Through it all, the high school ballboy and the rising star connected. Petrovic was legendary for knowing his own numbers down to a percentage, but he always wanted to know how David's high school games were going. And after nearly every home game, he would take off his sneakers and hand them off to David, who wore the same size 12.
"I had almost too many at one point," said Turetzky. "Every high school practice, every game, they were in his shoes. That was awesome. He became my idol. To know that I'm wearing his shoes and I've got a game and then I'm going to a game at the Meadowlands tomorrow and Draz is going to want to know what I did."
There was one pair of shoes that David didn't want to take. When Petrovic insisted it was no big deal, he and his father reminded Petrovic that he had just scored 44 points - his NBA career high - against the Houston Rockets. But Petrovic had routinely averaged 30-plus points in Europe. He didn't think it was anything special. So they had him sign the sneakers instead, and kept them as a keepsake.
"He didn't understand why we wanted him to sign those and why I wasn't going to play in them," said David.
That was in January 1993. A few months later, Petrovic and the Nets would conclude the season with a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. He was a free agent that summer, and like a lot of Nets fans, David and his family waited and hoped that Drazen would return.
Instead, one morning that June, David's mother woke him with the news that Petrovic was gone, killed in an automobile accident in Germany, just 28 years old.
"I've never looked at any of the pictures or any of the video or the news coverage of the accident," he said. "I've always refused, like maybe if I don't look at it it's not true on some level."
David graduated high school two years later and went out to Montana State to play ball. He came back east after a year to play at Keuka College upstate. Sidelined by an injury, he got into coaching before he even graduated, and went on to coach at Adelphi University and Manhattan College, among others.
These days, he's a guidance counselor and coach at Germantown Friends Academy, outside Philadelphia. He's spent his life around the game, but those seasons with Petrovic stand out.
"I would say probably one of the highlights of my basketball life," said Turetzky. "He was the man."