Drazen Petrovic: Remembering the Star That Didn't Get to Shine

John Nizinski@@jniz73Analyst IIIJanuary 17, 2012

When you talk about some of the greatest NBA players of all time, one name that usually isn't mentioned is Drazen Petrovic. This is not because of his lack of talent, effort or will to win, but because of a tragedy.

Petrovic was born on October 22, 1964, in Sibenik, Croatia. His initial interest in basketball came from his eagerness be just like his older brother.

It started as an act of idolization but turned into Petrovic's passion, as he would play in pickup games at a local court on a regular basis and spent time alone improving his game. He had a dedication and determination to develop his skills that made him admired and more importantly respected.

Clyde Drexler reminisced on Petrovic by saying,  "Drazen and I were very good friends. I was one of those people who welcomed him to Portland when he came from Europe. We talked about his family a lot in his restaurant, and he enjoyed his friends and he enjoyed the game of basketball. I really respect him because he worked very, very hard.

Each and every day in practice he would be the first guy to come and the last guy to leave the gym. So anybody with that kind of dedication...you have to have a lot of respect for him."

Nobody put more pressure on him or had higher expectations for him than Petrovic himself.

"I'll remember Drazen as a cheerful guy who was always smiling," New Jersey Nets coach Chuck Daly said.  His genuine smile acted as a disguise or a mask for his serious manner in basketball.

His desire to be the best basketball player he could be turned into him being a leader and artist. Petrovic was given the nickname "The Croatian Mozart" because of the art form that made basketball.

He began breaking through and becoming a star in Europe, when he played on Croatian teams KK Sibenka and KK Cibona.

At the age of 15, Petrovic already had made Sibenka's first team, and made the league finals (Radivoj Korac Cup) twice. They lost both games, but not without controversy.

Petrovic's team actually had won the championship game, but was stripped of the victory because of irregularities in refereeing. Petrovic's foul shots should have been the game winners but the National Basketball Federation wanted a rematch of the championship game and Sibenka refused to show up.

After a year in the military, he joined his older brother, Aleksandar, on the KK Cibona team. The first year in Cibona he won both the Yugoslav championship and the national cup.

In 1985, Petrovic had a performance that seems to be some sort of mythical story or tall tale. In a game against Slovenian team KK Union Olimpija, Petrovic scored 112 points.

Petrovic averaged 37.7 points in his four seasons with Cibona and was Croatian player of the year all four years.

 "Drazen was one of the greatest players ever," Slovenian NBA player Rasho Nesterovic said. "Back home, 90 percent of kids tried to be like him. His hard work inspired a lot of kids."

Petrovic was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 1986 as the 60th pick. He would eventual take his talents to the United States for the 1989-90 NBA season.

Petrovic immediately experienced a lack of playing time in Portland because he was stuck behind players like Drexler. In his time with the Blazers, he averaged 11.5 minutes per game and just under seven points per game.

Eighteen games into the 1990-91 season, Petrovic requested a trade out of Portland because of his lack of playing time. The Trailblazers met his wishes and, in a three-team deal, sent him to the New Jersey Nets.

Petrovic joined the Nets in the middle of the 1990-91 season and received immediate playing time he was more satisfied with. He joined a team that missed the postseason for a few years, but had some solid talent with players like Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson.

"Petro" started to truly get recognized by NBA fans and the league his next season. He received 36.9 minutes per game of playing time and responded by averaging 26.6 points per game.

The "Basketball Amadeus" became a leader on the team in his first full season and was easily the most valuable player behind his impressive 51 percent field goal percentage and appearance in all 82 games.

Petrovic was popular for his incredible three-point shooting ability. In the 1991-92 season, he was an impressive 44.4 percent three-point shooter.

In what would sadly be his final NBA season, Petrovic increased his field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage and his points per game during throughout the 1992-93 season. He ended the season 11th in the league in points per game and third in three-point field goal percentage by shooting 45 percent behind the arc.

He did not, however, make the All-Star game, which made Petrovic seemingly feel as if he was getting a lack of recognition and even considered leaving the NBA.

In the 1992 Olympic Games, Petrovic led the Croatian national team all the way to the gold medal game against the USA's "Dream Team." Croatia failed to beat the Dream Team, but being in the game was a feat all in itself.

Petrovic outscored all other players on the court that night. He even had some words with Michael Jordan after MJ told Petrovic, "I'll drain one in your face." Petro replied, "I'll do it, too."

Like Jordan, Petrovic wasn't afraid to do a little chatting on the court. And also like Jordan, he was able to back it up. That's a reason why Jordan loved and hated playing against him.

After receiving the Drazen Petrovic Trophy, Jordan described his experience as Petrovic's opponent. "It was a thrill to play against Drazen. Every time we competed, he competed with an aggressive attitude. He wasn't nervous. He came at me as hard as I came at him. So, we've had some great battles in the past and unfortunately, they were short battles."

On June 7, 1993, a tragedy struck that would take the life of an NBA player on the verge of becoming a star and top player in the league. On that day, on a highway in Ingolstadt, Germany, Drazen Petrovic was killed in a car accident.

Following a meeting with the Croatian national team, which had a qualification tournament for the 1993 Eurobasket approaching, Petrovic chose to drive back to Croatia with his girlfriend instead of taking a plane. While on the Autobahn 9, a semi-trailer truck driver lost control and cut off the car Petrovic was a passenger in.

At the age of 28, Petrovic passed away. The incident on that day took the life of a player who was entering his prime in a sport that he had worked so hard to master. Petrovic was becoming one of the best scorers in the entire NBA.

There is a legitimate belief that he would have continued to improve and become one of the most popular players in the league.

Petrovic was the first international player to come to the United States and make a meaningful impact in the NBA, serving as a trailblazer and innovator for all future international players.

"Drazen Petrovic was an extraordinary young man, and a true pioneer in the global sports of basketball," NBA commissioner David Stern said of  Petrovic's importance to the NBA. "I know that 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."

The tragedy of Petrovic's death left people around the world speechless and wondering what could have come if his life was not cut short. Petrovic could have gone on to be one of the league leaders or even the leading scorer in the league for years to come. Petrovic may have gotten the Nets that NBA title that they are still searching for today.

His legacy left was massive as he was both an international hero and an NBA rising star. Petrovic's No. 3 jersey is retired by the Nets organization.

At only 28 years old, Petrovic was able to accomplish so much.  Unfortunately we will never know how much more Petrovic could have accomplished and how much brighter his star could have shined.

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