The Croatian/Yugoslavian shooting guard could have been an all-time NBA great.
As part of this weekly (hopefully) segment, we'd like to put a spotlight on an athlete who led an interesting life or career, yet is largely unknown by the average sports fan today.
For the 2019-2020 NBA season, there are 108 international players on team rosters, which makes up nearly 25% of the league. There are many great international players in the league today, such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic - the list goes on. They all owe a debt to one of the first players to blaze a trail for them...
Born in Croatia, which at the time was a republic of Yugoslavia, Petrovic was obsessed with basketball from an early age. In interviews with his family and teammates, they often remarked on how he was constantly dribbling and shooting. When he wasn’t, he was talking about basketball; even when teammates would steer the conversation towards another subject, Drazen always took it back to hoops.
From a young age, he was laser focused on becoming the best basketball player he could be and winning every game he played in. He and his brother practiced on makeshift courts, hoisting up 1,000 shots every morning before school. The hard work and dedication paid off, as he would join the Yugoslavian National Team at the age of 15!
The Yugoslavian National Team had great chemistry, an uptempo style of play, and ball movement that was incredible. This group of players dominated the sport, winning Gold in the Olympics, three World titles, and five European Championships.
In 1984, after a year of mandatory military service, Drazen joined his brother in Zagreb to play for Cibona and form the best backcourt in Europe. In their first year together, they won the Yugoslav Championship and the Yugoslav National Cup. In four seasons with the club, Petrovic averaged a blistering 37.7 PPG, and in one game scored 112 points. Talk about pouring it on. Basketball arenas were absolutely jam packed to watch his ‘artwork’ on the hardwood. He turned Cibona into a powerhouse European club, as they would go on to win two EuroLeague Championships.
In the midst of his tenure with Cibona and the Yugoslav National Team, the Portland Trailblazers selected him with the 60th pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. Due to Yugoslavian travel restrictions and sloppy club contracts, Drazen had to postpone his move to the NBA for another four years. He subsequently signed the most lucrative contract in European basketball history with Spanish club Real Madrid.
In his only season with Real Madrid, the "Sebinik Genius" tore it up, averaging 28.5 PPG with over four rebounds and four assists per game, while leading his team to a Liga ACB title, as well as a 2nd tier FIBA championship. Eager to prove himself in the NBA, he joined the T-Blaze for the 1990 season.
Petrovic’s game was often compared to that of Pistol Pete Maravich, with flashy passing, high volume scoring, and facilitating for teammates. Unfortunately, Portland was not confident Petrovic had the quickness to play guard or cover other guards in the NBA - they viewed him as a catch-and-shoot guy. This did not sit well with the slashing guard, who had to fight for minutes behind Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, and eventually Danny Ainge.
In his first NBA season, Petrovic was primarily used as a set shooter, averaging 7.4 PPG in 12 minutes per game. With even more of a decrease in playing time in his second season, he and his agent decided it was time to move on.
Petrovic requested a trade and was shipped to the New Jersey Nets, where he immediately saw more playing time. He hit in the weight room and the gym to improve his game after that first season; he was determined to prove to the world that he could succeed in the NBA. In his next season with the Nets, “Petro” really started to shine, playing almost 37 minutes per game while averaging 20.6 PPG at a scalding-hot 44.4% behind the arc and a total shooting percentage of 50.8%. His tenacity and success propelled the Nets into the playoffs, where he averaged 24.3 PPG, but lost to Cleveland three games to one.
NBA players and fans alike started to realize he was a threat. In the summer of ‘92, he led his (now independent) Croatian National Team to the Gold Medal game against the greatest basketball team ever in the USA Dream Team. After hanging tough for part of the game, the Dream Team proved to be too much and ended up defeating Croatia 117-85, with Petrovic being the game’s leading scorer with 24 points.
The following season, which sadly was his last, he increased his scoring average to 22.3 PPG, while maintaining incredible shooting percentages of 51.8% and 44.9% from deep. Again the Nets made the playoffs, where they again lost to Cleveland in the first round.
Tragedy would strike the basketball world in the summer of 1993, shortly after the Nets’ early playoffs exit. Returning home from Germany, Drazen Petrovic was a passenger in a car driven by his girlfriend that crashed into a semi-truck, killing Petrovic and injuring his girlfriend, as well as another passenger.
Petro died at age 28; he had just made All-NBA Third Team and was entering the prime of his career. Already an impactful NBA player with his game steadily improving, no one knows just how good he would have become.
What makes his death even more devastating is the disintegrated friendships he had with Vlade Divac and other Serbian players. For years, players from Yugoslavia played together and, like all teams, formed a strong bond, much like brothers do. Vlade and Drazen were often roommates and developed a good friendship, but this fell apart after the Yugoslav National Team’s FIBA 1990 win.
During the on-court celebration, a fan ran out waving a Croatian Flag. Divac, a Serbian, believed that they had won for Yugoslavia and not Serbia or Croatia. At a time of strong nationalistic pride, which was tearing apart Yugoslavia at the seams, the incident created a rift in Divac’s relationship with Drazen and other Croatian players. Petrovic thought Divac was making a political statement, but Divac claims he would’ve done the same if a fan ran out with a Serbian Flag, as he wanted him and his teammates to be united as one.
Shortly after, civil war broke and further separated the two friends who were once as close as brothers. The two went from speaking on the phone regularly to barely sharing words or acknowledging each other on the court in NBA games. Teammates of each, both in the NBA and from the former Yugoslavia, attempted to play peacemaker, but failed. With Petrovic’s untimely death, Divac was never able to repair his friendship like he did with Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja (among other players as well).
Drazen Petrovic was a pioneer for European basketball players, who paved the road for many of today’s stars. Petro likely would’ve been an NBA All-Star and offensive juggernaut for years had he not passed away so young. The fast-paced, beautiful game we see today was championed by Petrovic in the early 90s, as he was truly ahead of his time.
The "Mozart of Basketball" was posthumously inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2002 and FIBA Hall of Fame in 2007, while his #3 jersey was retired by the Nets. To learn more about Petrovic, his relationship with Vlade Divac, and the Yugoslavian National Team, watch ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Once Brothers. Bring tissues.