New Hall of Famer Dino Radja remembers Nets legend Drazen Petrovic
Radja and Petrovic teamed to take on the Dream Team for Croatia in 1992
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — When Dino Radja played his first game for the Yugoslavian national team in 1987 at the age of 20, Drazen Petrovic, three years older, was already established as the team's star player. They would go on to play five major international tournaments together, the first four for Yugoslavia, the last -- the 1992 Olympics -- for Croatia after war split the country.
This year, Radja is joining the late Petrovic, a 2002 inductee, in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2018.
"He was a great guy," said Radja. "He was a great person, a great player. He was a guy that you could count on day in and day out. He was interested in all sports. He used to call me in the middle of the night and ask me for water polo, handball scores in Croatia for third division game, how many points certain guys scored. And we would talk for an hour at least every time.
"One of the greatest guys I ever met."
Petrovic made his mark in the NBA with his two spectacular seasons with the Nets in 1991-92 and 1992-93 following a midseason trade from Portland the year before. Radja would not arrive in the NBA until after Petrovic's tragic death in the summer of 1993, beginning a four-year stint with the Boston Celtics that fall. The 6-11 forward and center eventually returned to Europe and continued a storied international career that concluded in 2003 and propelled him to this year's honor.
In the years Radja and Petrovic played together for their national team, they won bronze at 1987 Eurobasket, silver at the 1988 Olympics and gold at both 1989 Eurobasket and the 1990 FIBA World Cup, all representing Yugoslavia.
The war that split the country changed all that. In 1992, they represented Croatia in the Olympic Games in Barcelona.
It was, of course, the summer of the Dream Team. Michael and Magic and Larry and a squad filled with Hall of Famers in the first Olympics featuring American professional players.
It was Petrovic and Radja's Croatian team that outlasted the rest to face the United States in the gold medal game. Their only loss in group play had also come to the U.S. In the 75-74 semifinal win over the Unified Team, Petrovic and Radja each played the full 40 minutes while Petrovic scored a game-high 28 points and Radja had 19.
The star-studded U.S. team triumphed for the gold, despite 24 points from Petrovic and 23 from Radja. But it didn't diminish their pride in what they had done in a tumultuous time.
"Most of the people say, 'where are you from?' 'Croatia.' 'Ah, Russia.' Because they never heard of Croatia. So you have huge stage, you are showing your country exists. You are showing your flag. So the responsibility was huge for us," said Radja. "We had a great team, experienced team. I really enjoyed playing with that team. When we won the semifinal game against the Russian team, it was so emotional that we were all crying in the locker room like babies. And then the finals, and you know you're going to be watched by a billion people and see that the country exists and it's in a war and they're going to look up what's happening, maybe that will help to end the war a day earlier. It's an amazing feeling. That '92 was a special year."
A year later, Petrovic was stunningly gone, killed in a car accident while traveling back from a Eurobasket qualifying game in Germany. He remains beloved in Croatia, cited for years as an inspiration by Croatian athletes in many sports, not just basketball, and is honored with the Drazen Petrovic Memorial Center in Zagreb, with his statue out front.
"He is a symbol of hard work," said Radja. "Whenever I talk about him, that's the first thing I tell them that I learned from him. Hard work, hard work, hard work. If you have a problem, solve it in the gym. No baby crying. Just go in the gym and whatever your problem is, solve it. That's a very important lesson, the most important lesson I learned from him."