A 21-year-old Drazen Petrovic once scored 112 points in a professional European basketball game. At 25, he was in the NBA. 28, he was one of the NBA’s brightest stars and a pioneer for European basketball. Petrovic was on top of the world, yet it all went away in a blink of an eye.
Before going to the NBA, he played in Croatia. Even as a teenager, he was destined for greatness. In 1979, at the age of 15, he was already on KK Sibenka’s first team. He continued to play for the team through the 1982-83 season where he got his points per game average up to 24.5. However, he had to miss the next season because he joined the military. Remarkably, his skills did not diminish during his time away from the game. In 1984, he made his first Olympic national team where he averaged 18 points per game in an eventual bronze finish.
After the Olympics, he decided to join his older brother, Aleksandar, on the KK Cibona team. His stay on the team lasted four years in which he would lead the squad to a league championship victory, win Croatian player of the year all four years, and average 36.8 points per game.
Petrovic in the NBA
Petrovic’s play in Europe eventually caught the eye of the Portland Trail Blazers who drafted him with the 60th pick in the 1986 Draft. Unfortunately, due to contractual reasons and Yugoslavian laws, he was not able to play for Portland until 1989.
In his first season with the team, he failed to produce the numbers that he put up in Europe. Playing behind Clyde Drexler, he was only getting 12.6 minutes per game, averaging a mere 7.6 points. Eighteen games into the next season, he was getting even less playing time. This prompted him to request a trade in which he landed in New Jersey.
Even though he struggled as a Blazer, Drexler had some high praise for him: “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 a lot of respect for him.” With that kind of work ethic, it was only a matter of time before it would pay off.
For the rest of the 1990-91 season, Petrovic showed that he could contribute on the highest level when given the playing time. He would average a solid 12.6 points per game in 20.5 minutes.
Petrovic Becomes a Star
In the 1991-92 season, Petrovic finally felt rewarded for his unmatched work ethic. Playing all 82 games, he averaged an astounding 20.6 points while shooting 51 percent from the field and 44 percent from the arc in 37 minutes per game. His ridiculous efficiency from three would earn Petrovic the respect as one of the best shooters in the league. Although the Nets would not go very far in the playoffs, his performance helped the team end their five-year playoff drought.
That summer, in the 1992 Olympics, Drazen averaged 24.6 points per game, leading the Croatian national team to the gold medal game against America’s Dream Team. Back in 1988, Croatia, led by Petrovic, came up short in the gold medal match against the Soviet Union. Drazen and Croatia were desperate for a gold medal. Ultimately, Croatia came up short again but Petrovic was the game’s highest scorer, putting up 24 points. He even trash-talked Michael Jordan. When MJ told him, “I’ll drain one in your face.” He replied, “I’ll do it, too.”
Michael Jordan respected Petrovic. He stated that “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.”
By the end of the 1992-93 season, the shooting guard was one of the NBA’s brightest stars. For a second straight season, he led the Nets to the postseason where he finished with his first All NBA selection, making the third team. Unfortunately, that would also be the last selection he would ever receive.
On June 7, 1993, tragedy struck. After a qualification tournament in Germany, representing Croatia for the 1993 EuroBasket, he decided to drive back to Zagreb. He could have taken the team plane but he rode with his girlfriend, Klara Szalantzy, and her friend, Hilal Edebal. While driving on the highway in Denkendorf, Germany, a truck cut them off and smashed into their car. Klara and Hilal survived but Petrovic was not so lucky. Not wearing his seatbelt, he was thrown directly into the truck where he suffered fatal head trauma.
He died instantly and just like that, it was all over.
Following his brother’s death, Aleksander stated that European basketball took “three steps back.” A European star in the NBA was rare at the time, Drazen’s Drazen’s death, there was even less of a European presence in the league. Petrovic’s impact was big enough to pave the way for the European stars that came after him such as Toni Kukoc, Dirk Nowitzki, Kristaps Porzingis, Luka Doncic, and others.
Dzanan Musa, currently a forward for the Brooklyn Nets, looked up to Petrovic as a kid in Croatia. Even though Petrovic passed away before Dzanan was even born, he still had a huge impact on him. “When Dzanan was drafted, he had special fillings because Drazen played there [Nets]. He was the main person for basketball globalization outside of the USA. He was the first that came from ex Yugoslavia to the NBA,” Dzennis Musa (Dzanan Musa’s brother) said.
Despite Drazen’s short career, Reggie Miller thinks that Petrovic is “the best shooter ever” and that “he had a “faster release than Steph Curry.” Although these claims may be a stretch, Drazen could have easily made this argument more valid if he had a longer career.
We will never know what Petrovic’s career would have shaped into. Maybe he would have led the Nets to the title that they are still seeking today. Maybe he would be recognized as the best three-point shooter of all time. Perhaps he would be remembered by more basketball fans today.
Today, Drazen Petrovic’s No. 3 jersey is hanging in the rafters of the Barclays Center and his name is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, where it has been since 2002.