Drazen Petrovic's requiem
Legacy of the player once known as Mozart lives on in NBA 20 years after his death
It was in the first week of June 1993 that Drazen Petrovic, a world away in Poland, where he was competing for Croatia at a qualifying tournament for the European championships, called his friend and attorney Nick Goyak in Portland, Ore., to deliver the news. The two chatted most days, even after Petrovic had left Portland for New Jersey and a fresh start, and it was on this occasion that Petrovic shared with Goyak his delight at his ultimate accomplishment, being named to the All-NBA third team.
"He said, 'Nick, I have just been named to the top 15. This really means something to me,'" Goyak remembered. "The last thing he said to me was how proud he was of that."
The honor was the product of four seasons of both physical and mental obstacles, of a battle to earn respect and change perceptions. He had arrived from the European leagues as a curiosity, a flashy player once dubbed Mozart for his burgeoning greatness. American writers often touted him not for his mastery of the fundamentals but as a performer, as a second coming of Pete Maravich, as if it was the most sufficient way to articulate his style and impression.
But Mozart wouldn't cut it in the NBA. Petrovic realized early on that his game needed to change, that he couldn't force himself upon the league and that he would instead need to adapt to it. His body changed, his game changed, his desperation to make it increased. An opportunity with the Trail Blazers, with whom he had spent his first season, was limited, but he took advantage of his next one with the Nets, and within two years he was, effectively, the NBA's third-best shooting guard. On a stage that wasn't set for a European player, he became an original, and the first from his continent to be named to an All-NBA team.
For Goyak, there was no mistaking the excitement in Petrovic's voice. He was an immensely proud young man, Petrovic, one devoted to the game he played and the country that raised him. To have received this honor was to refute the perception that lingered when he entered the league that the NBA was not a place for a European to have success, that stylistically and physically they simply were not compatible. Petrovic had sought to change that, to make people notice him, respect him, expect a certain level of greatness from him.
This was validation. At just 28 years old and in just his NBA fourth season, he had reached another plateau.
The two friends said goodbye on that day, and Goyak left with a warm feeling that his young friend, already considerably accomplished, would use this award to elevate himself further within the game.
Two days later, Petrovic's life ended.
Bucky Buckwalter, the vice president of basketball operations for the Trail Blazers, had long been fascinated with the possibilities of the European players, even at a time when they were not considered NBA prospects, and George Fisher, an American who had been coaching in France, confirmed much of his suspicions.
"I think initially NBA coaches were a little hesitant, because international players had a reputation of being a little temperamental," Fisher said. "They weren't physical. The coaches I knew back then, they would talk about that."
Buckwalter would discuss with his former colleague the elite players in Europe, and invariably their conversations would center on two players: Petrovic and Arvydas Sabonis. Petrovic and Sabonis had something of a rivalry in that period, their games carrying with it a pre-packaged heat. "Playing Sabonis was two games for Drazen -- one to win, second to see who the best is in Europe," remembered Zeljko Pavlicevic, Petrovic's coach during the 1985-86 season for Cibona, a professional team in Zagreb, Croatia. "That was important to him." The two players would exchange verbal barbs both in-game and through the media, all while taking turns winning Europe's coveted individual awards and playing for the European Cup title (Petrovic's Cibona beat Sabonis' Zalgiris in 1986).
Buckwalter would take every opportunity he could to get to Europe and see them play, and it was a beautiful combination of flair and fundamentals that first attracted him to Petrovic. "I was convinced that he had the talent to play in the NBA," Buckwalter said. "You look at Drazen and how good he was, and his form was absolutely perfect from day one when I looked at it. I said if you were making a shooting tape, you would use him as your illustrator, as it was absolutely perfect."
With the blessing of Blazers owner Larry Weinberg, Buckwalter had the green light to take both Sabonis and Petrovic in the 1986 NBA draft, even if neither he nor any other league executive had the slightest idea of how to pry a player out of Europe and put him in an NBA uniform.
It took three years before Petrovic came over for the 1989-90 season, at the age of 25, having done everything in Europe that he had promised. He hired Warren LeGarie as his agent, as educated as there was in that period about the European game and its function. LeGarie had represented the first western European in league history (Spaniard Fernando Martin), and was versed in the challenges of representing players essentially untried against NBA players.
"[Management] wanted someone unique and someone who could be a difference-maker. The problem was the coaches," LeGarie said about the difficulty in representing Europeans to that point. "They always felt it was a marketing tool instead of really a competitive tool. A lot of the coaches were fearful that they wouldn't be able to communicate, especially in high emotional, tense moments, they wouldn't be getting their thoughts across, their game plans, and that was always in the back of American coaches' minds."
It wasn't communication that troubled Petrovic in Portland but instead that of opportunity, and timing, as he was stranded below All-Star guard Clyde Drexler in the Blazers' rotation. But the situation did not deter his self-belief. "He [would] always tell me, I can do it, I can do it, I can play, the coach is stupid for not using me," said Dino Radja, a former teammate of Petrovic's on first the Yugoslavian and then Croatian national team who later played four seasons with the Boston Celtics.
It wasn't until midway through his second season that Petrovic saw that opportunity, as he was traded to New Jersey early in the 1990-91 season, a deal largely pushed for by both him and LeGarie. He was a young man desperate to prove himself. For Petrovic, conquering Europe was not enough, for he lived his life in a certain order of work and progression. In Petrovic's world, self-satisfaction was a trap, stagnation intolerable.
New Jersey was a blessing. He had Buckwalter as an ally in Portland, and in New Jersey that man was Willis Reed, the team's general manager. Reed had not seen an unproven guard but instead a player who, with time and patience, could become very good. Petrovic was reminded of the difficulty he had in Portland when he arrived, but was enamored with the prospect of becoming a star guard in the league.
He was not only here to play basketball and pick up a check, he was here to break ground, and to become the first European player to have real big NBA success." -- former Nets assistant Rick Carlisle
"Drazen, he had a unique sense of history, and he had studied the NBA game," said Rick Carlisle, then an assistant coach with the Nets. "He knew the history of the NBA, and he also knew that he was breaking ground for future European players. He was not only here to play basketball and pick up a check, he was here to break ground, and to become the first European player to have real big NBA success."
With the prospect of being New Jersey's starting shooting guard the next season, Petrovic spent the summer of 1991 locked in the gym with Rich Dalatri, the Nets' conditioning coach, tailoring his body and game to the rigors of the league. "He wanted to be the best," Dalatri said. "He wanted to be the best he could possibly be. He wanted to prove to everybody that he could play, that was a big part, 'Prove that I could play in the NBA.' And then, it didn't matter, after, not long after that season started he kind of got away from that and just wanted to get better for himself. He wanted to see how good he could be."
Petrovic averaged 20.6 points per game on 50 shooting from the field in '91-92, finishing second in the league's Most Improved Player award voting and scoring 40 points in his Nets postseason debut.
"Before those days the NBA was something nobody believed Europeans could make it over there," Radja said. "He made it [and] everybody started believing that we can do this."
Petrovic was one of the leading players at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and then returned for the 1992-93 season a better, more developed and well-rounded player, one determined to be more than a shooter. He averaged 22.3 points per game (ninth in the league) and once again led the Nets to the playoffs. And yet his future was in doubt. It was reported that not being selected for that year's All-Star Game had troubled him, with Petrovic confiding to a former teammate that his overlooking had been a result of an issue outside of basketball, perhaps xenophobic in nature. He was going to be a free agent that summer and was left unhappy with the Nets' slow movements in negotiations, a sign to him that perhaps he was not as coveted as he felt he should have been. Offers to lure him back to Europe only led to more speculation. After the Nets were eliminated by Cleveland in the first round, Petrovic vowed to reporters that he was finished in the NBA.
As it stood, it was not only his ability but his unique bravado, his assuredness, that separated Petrovic from his European contemporaries. It was an approach that was generally not seen from the Europeans already in the league, players that were happy to accept a reduced role. But his outloook gave hope to future generations of players who had once viewed their NBA prospects with uncertainty. Petrovic had tasted life as a role player and scoffed at it.
"Drazen was the first guy to carry himself like a star," said Harvey Araton of the New York Times. "It was his body language on the floor. He was the earliest reflection of what was happening, and what the American-born stars were going to have to face in the future."
And then one day he was gone. It was an eerie set of circumstances that claimed Petrovic's life: a last-second decision to be the passenger of a car driven by his young friend, one going far too quickly on a German highway that was far too wet. His death devastated a great many people, from his family onwards. The accident compelled Chuck Daly to resign as coach of the Nets, but his respect for Reed kept him there (if only for one more season). The Nets themselves, a team of tantalizing potential, self-destructed and fell away. The Croatian national team, silver medalists at Barcelona, faded as the '90s played out and as a generation passed. Petrovic had left behind a career that was at once fulfilling and yet, to those who adored him, a promise cruelly taken.
Historically, he proved to be groundbreaking. The season after his death, Croats Radja and Toni Kukoc were named to the All-Rookie second team. Detlef Schrempf, a German forward, would play in three All-Star Games in the decade and, like Petrovic, would make an All-NBA third team, an honor that wasn't repeated until another German, Dirk Nowitzki, did so in 2001. The next season saw the first All-Star Game featuring multiple Europeans (Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic).
It was at that time Drazen Petrovic was elected for the Basketball Hall of Fame, which was based in large part on his international contribution to a sport that had globalized exponentially in the years after he passed. It was a trend that he had sensed might happen, but was not fortunate enough to see. According to those close to him, however, Petrovic lived just long enough to be validated.