By Neil Beldock
If you want to find an NBA roster void of a European player, you will be hard-pressed to accomplish your mission.
European players liter rosters throughout the NBA. And specifically, players who hail from what was once the Eastern European Communist Bloc, which had prohibited their players from leaving their countries thus disallowing them to showcase their skills on the NBA stage.
Drazen Petrovic was one of the earliest and most significant defectors to the United States and the NBA from a Communist Eastern Bloc nation.
Said former NBA Commissioner David Stern: “Drazen Petrovic was an extraordinary young man and a true pioneer in the global sport of basketball. He paved the way for other international players to compete successfully in the NBA. His contributions to the sport of basketball were enormous”.
And Drazen Petrovic could play!!
Unfortunately, Petrovic was killed in a car accident in 1993 as he was just emerging as an NBA superstar. But his story is one that all basketball fans should learn and appreciate.
Born in Croatia, by the age of 13 Petrovic was establishing himself as a potential star basketball player.
As a 16 year-old and the star of his local team Sibinka, he led the team to the 1981-82 Yugoslavian-FIBA finals before losing in the championship game.
The following year, 1982-83, he would once again be the star of his team and replicate the accomplishments of the previous season in guiding his team to the Yugoslavia-FIBA championship game before once again coming up a game short of the title.
As an 18 year old and a developing superstar, he got his team over the top by hitting two key foul shots late in the game resulting in his Sibinka team defeating Bosnia to win the Yugoslavian Championship.
After a year of mandatory service in the Croatian army, Petrovic returned to the basketball court teaming up with his older brother on the Cibona team in Yugoslavia. He and his brother were considered the best backcourt in Yugoslavia and led the team to both the Yugoslavian League Championship and Yugoslavian National Cup Championship.
The accomplishments of that season continued as Petrovic led his team to a victory over powerhouse Real Madrid to win the very first European Championship Cup for Cibona. In that win over Real Madrid, Petrovic scored 36 points as his legend was rapidly growing. He was becoming known as the “Pistol Pete Maravich of Europe”.
The following season would see Petrovic once again lead his team to a pair of European championships. He scored 46 points in the championship game against Bosnia to win the Yugoslavian National Cup for a second consecutive year, and scored 22 points in a championship game win over the USSR Champion (Zalgiris Kaunas) who was led by the legendary European great Arvydas Sabonis.
A year later, in 1987, Petrovic would once again led Cibona to the European Cup Championship by scoring 28 points in the championship game.
Petrovic concluded a 4-year career with Cibona averaging 37.7 points per game in Yugoslavian league play and 33.8 points per game including all European games played, before signing to play with Real Madrid for the 1988-89 season.
His signing with Real Madrid was not without controversy or riches. He was paid the equivalent of $4 million to play for Real Madrid but at the same time found himself censored by the Yugoslavian government.
The Yugoslavian government had a rule which prohibited players from leaving the country to play basketball until the age of 28. Petrovic was 23 years old when he signed with Real Madrid, in all likelihood making his return to Yugoslavia an impossibility.
It should be noted that the seedlings of what would turn out to be the Yugoslavia-Croatia Civil War were already planted so Petrovic’s early defection and disregard for Yugoslavian law was probably not without knowledge or anticipation of what was to occur in the early 1990’s as Croatia sought independence from Yugoslavian rule in what would result in a horrible and bloody battle that would last from 1991-1995.
The sports agent Jose Antonio Arizaga who crafted Petrovic’s signing with Real Madrid was quoted as saying: “I spoke to Drazen’s coach at Cibona and he told me two things; One, every problem in Yugoslavia can be taken care of by the right amount of money and two, if Drazen leaves, every other player under 28 will be livid and it will be chaos”.
Through the 1980’s, as communist bloc governments began to fall, more and more players from the Eastern Bloc nations were now free to explore opportunities in America and the NBA.
In 1986, the Portland Trail Blazers would use their 3rd round pick in that years draft to claim the rights to Petrovic, although Petrovic would delay his entry into the NBA until the 1989-90 season.
Petrovic’s season for Real Madrid would prove successful. He led his team to both the Spanish Kings Cup Title and the European Winners Cup Championship, and lost in the final game of the Spanish ACB League Playoff Championship.
Following his first season with Real Madrid, facing increasing pressure from the Portland Trailblazers, and at the same time wanting to quench his own thirst to play in the NBA, Petrovic decided it was time to head to America. It would cost the Trailblazers approximately $1.5 million to buy-out the remaining years of his contract with Real Madrid.
Said a confident Petrovic about entering and playing in the NBA: “A lack of playing time is the only possible obstacle to my success playing in the NBA”.
Petrovic’s conversion and assimilation to the NBA game for the 1989-90 season was not an easy one, and not one without obstacles. His defensive skills were in need of improvement to compete with the NBA caliber guards, and his minutes were limited in a large part due to being buried behind the current Portland backcourt of Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter.
Petrovic would average just 12.7 minutes per game in his rookie season, although his numbers in just 12.7 minutes per game were nothing to sneeze at. He averaged 7.6 points, 1.5 assists, and 1.4 rebounds in what equates to one-quarter of play. He also shot 46% from 3-point range. In limited minutes, his talent did emerge and was evident. In fact, if projected over 36 minutes of play, his average would be 21.7 points, 4.3 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game; All-Star numbers.
But attitude began to become a problem.
Plain and simple, Petrovic was used to being the star of his team. He was used to playing many minutes, and was neither happy with his limited role or willing to wait his turn as the Trailblazers continually requested and pleaded with him to do. What he did do was sulk and complain.
Things would get worse in his second season with the Trailblazers. Unhappy with the attitude he displayed during his first season, Portland added another seasoned backcourt player in Danny Ainge to the team.
Adding Ainge would lead to Petrovic’s minutes decreasing to just 7.4 minutes per game and his relationship with his coach Rick Adelman completely deteriorating. Said Petrovic: “I have nothing to say to Adelman anymore and visa-versa. 18 months have passed by. I have to leave to prove how much I am worth. Never in my life did I sit on the bench and I don’t intend to do that in Portland.”
Needless to say, this statement did not sit well with the Trailblazer organization. Hence, 38 games into the 1990-91 season the Trailblazers unloaded Petrovic, trading him to the New Jersey Nets for a 1st round draft pick.
Upon arriving to the Nets, Petrovic was utilized off the bench and was solid. Playing on average 20.5 minutes per game he did not disappoint. He averaged 12.6 points, 1.5 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game and the Nets could see him as an integral part of their team going forward.
The Nets were not incorrect in their assessment. Given a starters role in the 1991-92 season, Petrovic began to emerge as a star and impact player. He displayed a hard-working and aggressive on-court demeanor which made him a fan favorite in New Jersey. And the numbers he posted were All-Star level numbers.
For the 1991-92 season, his first as an NBA starter, Petrovic averaged 20.6 points, 3.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. His shooting was outstanding as evidenced by his 45% from 3-point range (2nd in the NBA) and 51% overall shooting percentage.
Most importantly, with Petrovic as a starter and integral part of the team, the Nets won 14 more games than they had the year before and made the playoffs for the first time since the 1985-86 season. It appeared as if a star was born.
His ascension continued the following year when he averaged 22.3 points, 3.5 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game. And even his defense was on the upswing as seen through his impressive average of 1.3 steals per game.
At the conclusion of the 1992-93 season he was selected as a Third-Team All-NBA selection and he continued to be a fan favorite, only now he was becoming a coach’s favorite as well for the energy and enthusiasm with which he played the game.
Said his head coach Chuck Daley: “You couldn’t have wanted a better teammate. He was very talented, he played very hard and was able to lead by example. He was indefatigable”.
Once again, the Nets made the playoffs.
After the season Petrovic headed to Europe to play for the Croatian National Team and compete for the European Cup. Then tragedy struck.
On the evening of June 7, 1993 Petrovic was a passenger in a car being driven by his girlfriend heading from Germany to Croatia. It was a rainy night and the German Autobahn was drenched. While asleep in the car, a truck crashed through the median barrier and skidded to a stop blocking three lanes. Within seconds, the car in which Petrovic was sleeping crashed into the truck.
Drazen Petrovic was dead, killed instantly.
Said his coach Chuck Daley about the incident and Petrovic: “You know, there is a saying we have about John F. Kennedy – ‘you know Johnny, we never got to know you’ – and I kind of feel that way about Drazen.”
And this from his brother and Croatian National Basketball Team coach Aleksandar Petrovic: “It’s hard for you to imagine here in America, because you have so many great players, but we are a country of 4 million. Without him, basketball takes 3 steps back”.
The legacy of Drazen Petrovic is a significant legacy when you consider how many European players now play and excel in the NBA.
Petrovic was one of the first players, if not the absolute first player from Europe to prove that a player of European decent could be an impact player in the NBA.
He was the first-ever purely European bred player to be recognized as an All-NBA selection when he was selected Third-Team All-NBA following the 1992-93 season, his last season.
Just two years later, Detlef Schrempf would be the second purely European bred player to be selected an All-NBA player when he too was a Third Team All-NBA selection. And then, after the 2000-01 season, a third purely bred European player would once again be an All-NBA selection when Dirk Nowitzki was also selected Third-Team All-NBA.
In future years, players such as Yao Ming, Peja Stojakovic, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Goran Dragic, and Marc Gasol would be recognized as All-NBA players.
In addition there would be many other purely European/foreign bred players who would be chosen as league All-Stars, and hundreds of players throughout the NBA who learned the game playing in foreign countries.
And to a very large degree, it all started with Drazen Petrovic.
Few preceded him, many have followed since. And the NBA game itself has realized tremendous popularity throughout European and Asian countries. Success which can be traced directly to the success of Drazen Petrovic.
Drazen Petrovic was taken way too early, when his greatness on the basketball court was just beginning to emerge and be recognized.
It was however, the ability and greatness which Drazen Petrovic displayed in the NBA which gave NBA teams the confidence to look to and see Europe and other foreign countries as viable breeding grounds for NBA players.
And now, one would be hard-pressed to find a team in the NBA which doesn’t house multiple foreign players. It all started with Drazen Petrovic.
(Writers Note: If you have not seen the ESPN 30 for 30 episode “Once Brothers” which focuses upon the life and relationship of Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac as it was effected by the Croatian – Yugoslavia Civil War, I highly, highly, highly recommend it….It is as good a documentary as I have ever seen.)