Drazen Petrovic was the advent of one of the most far-reaching changes in the makeup of the NBA — the international influence. During the 1980s, significant numbers of talented European players arrived in the league, a migration greatly accelerated by the fall of communist governments in Eastern Europe.
But no arrival from the former Soviet bloc was more eagerly anticipated than that of Petrovic.
The Croatian native led the national team of the former Yugoslavia to gold medals at the European and World Championships and a silver medal at the 1988 Olympics before developing into one of the NBA’s top shooting guards with the New Jersey Nets. However, tragedy cut his career short when he died in an automobile accident in Germany at 28.
His success elicited tributes like this, from NBA Commissioner David Stern: “Drazen Petrovic was an extraordinary young man, and a true pioneer in the global sport of basketball. A lasting part of his athletic legacy will be that he paved the way for other international players to compete successfully in the NBA. His contributions to the sport of basketball were enormous. We are all proud of the fact we knew him.”
In four short seasons in the NBA, he was a blazing comet of tireless enthusiasm who made an everlasting mark. Petrovic had shooting skills to match his energy, averaging 21.4 points over his two seasons with the Nets. 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,” Nets teammate Sam Bowie told the Newark Star-Ledger. “You had to be impressed by him.”
His NBA credentials along with his tremendous international accomplishments propelled him to enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. The Hall of Fame was probably not in the mind of the son of a police chief while growing up in Sibenik, Croatia, a small port city on the Adriatic Sea. Yet, he and his brother Aleksander practiced every morning before school, teaching themselves basketball on makeshift courts. All those things began to pay off when he joined the Yugoslavian national team as a talented 15 year old.
He put up decent enough numbers that Notre Dame tried to lure a 19-year-old Petrovic to the United States in 1984. Two years later, the Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the third round of the 1986 NBA Draft. But Yugoslavia’s travel restrictions and, later, complicated contractual ties kept him away from America until the decade’s end. For the next several years, he dominated the European scene while playing for Real Madrid in Spain.
Ultimately he was offered an NBA contract by Portland and earned the right to play after a legal battle resulting in him buying his way out of his Spanish deal (reportedly for as much as $1.5 million), setting off a storm of outrage in Madrid.
Petrovic’s U.S. debut in the 1989-90 season proved unspectacular. His defensive skills were raw by NBA standards, and the Blazers still had All-Star Clyde Drexler at shooting guard. 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 scoring average to 12.6 points. 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 3-point range. He hit on 123 of 277 3-point attempts that season, ranking second in the NBA at 44.4%. Petrovic also led the Nets in field-goal shooting (50.8) and free-throw shooting (80.8)
In the 1992 offseason Petrovic returned to his homeland to lead the newly independent Croatia to a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics and provide the only scare — albeit brief — to the United States Dream Team during the entire tournament. In the gold medal round, Croatia took a 25-23 lead against the Dream Team before falling 117-85 as Petrovic scored 19 points.
His NBA numbers got even better in 1992-93. Besides leading the Nets in scoring (22.3 ppg), he set the team by shooting 51.8% from the field and 44.9% on 3-pointers. 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 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.”
After the Nets fell in the first round of the 1993 playoffs, Petrovic, unhappy with New Jersey management, 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 old.
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 back.”
Late in 1993, the Nets retired Petrovic’s uniform No. 3 in tribute. Another lasting legacy Petrovic leaves was the Drazen Petrovic Trophy which was awarded to the MVP of the McDonald’s Championship, a series between the NBA Champion and the European Champion which ran until 1999.