Drazen Petrovic’s future was still undetermined when he traveled to Poland in June 1993 to participate in a EuroBasket qualifying tournament with his Croatian national team. The summer before, Petrovic and his national teammates — including Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja — had won the silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics, their only two losses of the tournament both coming against the American Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Petrovic had followed with the finest of his four NBA seasons in 1992-93. Now an NBA free agent, his options included re-signing with the Nets, signing with another NBA team, or returning to play in Europe, where he had been one of the continent’s greatest players since he was a teenager. It was on his return home from the qualifying tournament that Petrovic was killed in a car accident on June 7, 1993, leaving a legacy that resonates to this day.
“He is a symbol of hard work,” Radja told BrooklynNets.com during the weekend of his Hall of Fame induction in 2018. “Whenever I talk about him, that’s the first thing that I tell them 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.”
This week, YES Network is broadcasting one of the top games of Petrovic’s final season, a 113-103 overtime win against the Seattle SuperSonics. On this week's edition of YES We’re Here, Ian Eagle connects with Petrovic's teammate Kenny Anderson.
Petrovic led the first wave of European stars to the NBA, a path supercharged by those 1992 Olympics and the Dream Team. His national teammates Radja and Kukoc would eventually follow him. Drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1986, Petrovic made the jump to the NBA in 1990. After a season-and-a-half with the Blazers, Petrovic was acquired by the Nets on Jan. 23, 1991 after playing sparingly for Portland over the first half of the season.
In New Jersey, Petrovic seized opportunity with a breakout season in 1991-92, giving the NBA a taste of what had made him a legend in Europe. He averaged 20.6 points while shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range, second in the league. The Nets, 26-56 the season before, won 40 games and returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 1985-86 season.
"He was just terrific," said Anderson. "He could shoot off the screen, he could shoot off the bounce, he was a legit two. But he was a great two-guard, you know, off the dribble he could beat you, you know, come off screens, he could flat out shoot the rock."
In 1992-93, Petrovic and the Nets took another step forward as Chuck Daly, coach of the Dream Team and a two-time NBA champion with the Detroit Pistons, took over as head coach.
As the 1992-93 season moved along, Petrovic was in rhythm. In early December, he earned his first Player of the Week honor after scoring 34 points against San Antonio and 29 against Miami, shooting 8-for-11 from 3-point range in the two games. On Jan. 24, Petrovic put up his NBA career-high 44 points against Houston, shooting 17-for-23 overall while making all three of his 3-point attempts. That was the start of an eight-game stretch in which Petrovic would average 26.9 points.
In the seventh game of that run, the Sonics came to the Meadowlands. With rising stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle was on its way to 55 wins and the Western Conference finals.
In the Nets’ overtime win, Petrovic played all 53 minutes while scoring 35 points with five assists and five steals. He shot 12-for-18 overall and 4-for-5 from 3-point range. For a sign of the times, note that the Nets shot 4-for-6 from 3-point range from the game. Aside from Petrovic, they launched just one 3-pointer.
Derrick Coleman had 20 points, 22 rebounds, five assists and three blocks, taking as many free throws — 11 — as field goals, making 10 from the line. Anderson had 16 points and eight assists in the win and Sam Bowie had 12 points and 10 rebounds.
With a March surge, the Nets were 39-26 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference on March 21, but Petrovic was injured the next night against Washington and missed two weeks with a knee sprain. A late slide that began while Petrovic was out left the Nets with a 43-39 record and tied for sixth in the Eastern Conference. They dropped their first-round playoff series against third-seeded Cleveland, 3-2.
In his final NBA season, Petrovic averaged 22.3 points while shooting 51.8 percent overall and 44.9 percent from 3-point range, this time third in the league. He and Coleman were both named to the All-NBA Third Team, with Coleman averaging 20.7 points and 11.2 rebounds. Anderson, a rookie the season before, averaged 16.9 points and 8.2 assists in his first season as the starting point guard.
Petrovic’s career 3-point percentage of 43.7 is fifth in NBA history and first in Nets franchise history. His 44.9 3-point percentage in 1992-93 was a Nets single-season record until it was surpassed by Joe Harris in 2018-19, but with his 44.4 mark of 1991-92 he holds two of the top four single-season 3-pont shooting percentages in Nets history.
"He taught me a little just by looking at him, he taught me how to be a pro, you know, coming early, leaving late, working on things that, you know, your shot and working on your body," said Anderson. "(He) was real quiet and I got to know him a little bit, but not like I wanted to, you know, but he was a, I’m talking about, he left (the) Portland Trail Blazers, who gave him that pro mentality, I believe, and he brought it to him with the Nets and um, he worked extremely hard, he was a good guy, he was just a great guy."
Petrovic’s No. 3 jersey was retired by the Nets in 1993, and he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.