What made Drazen Petrovic groundbreaking and unforgettable

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Zach Lowe, ESPN

In a quiet moment during the Slovenian national team training camp before last summer’s Eurobasket championship run, the team’s coach, Igor Kokoskov, pulled aside Luka Doncic, his star prospect, for a history lesson.

Doncic was not even born when Drazen Petrovic died in a car crash 25 years ago. The old heads of Eastern European basketball are making sure the new generation knows Petrovic beyond swashbuckling, trash-talking YouTube highlights.

“They may not care much as our generation,” says Dino Radja, who played on powerhouse Yugoslavian and Croatian national teams with Petrovic before following him to the NBA. “But whoever wants to hear, we will tell them.”

Kokoskov told Doncic about how, during Yugoslavia’s run to the 1989 EuroBasket championship in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), Petrovic would wake up before 6 a.m., drag an assistant coach into his red Porsche 911, and drive to a gym for a workout while the rest of the team slept. He would return two or three hours later, dripping in sweat, and eat breakfast with his groggy teammates.

“With all these goals you have in front of you,” Kokoskov remembers telling Doncic, “you should hear these stories. You should know what it will take.”

That is what has perhaps been forgotten about Petrovic when we reminisce about his stunning, braggadocious, and tragically short rise to All-NBA prominence (as the Nets did in holding a touching tribute for Petrovic on Monday night): the work it took to get there. It was Petrovic’s defining trait to those who knew him best, and longest. As a kid, Petrovic insisted on playing against older boys, says Neven Spahija, who grew up on the same street as Petrovic in Sibenik, Croatia, and has coached all over the world — including with the Hawks under Mike Budenholzer, and now as the head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Priča o legendi i legendarnom košu iz Šibenika

In the mid-1980s, after a national team training camp in Sarajevo, the players who lived in what is now Croatia took a six-hour, overnight bus ride home. Petrovic’s mother, Biserka, was waiting to pick him up at about 6 a.m., recalls Stojko Vrankovic, perhaps Petrovic’s closest friend on the team. Vrankovic was continuing on to Zadar. As Petrovic got off the bus, Vrankovic asked him what he would do that morning.

“I just expected he would say he was going to sleep,” Vrankovic says. Petrovic was heading to the gym, right that moment, to get a couple hundred shots up.

“From the standpoint of work ethic and getting better, I put him in [Dirk] Nowitzki’s class,” says Rick Carlisle, who was an assistant with the Nets during Petrovic’s two-plus seasons there.

The addiction to work kept Petrovic going in Portland, his first NBA stop, where he rode the bench behind Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, Danny Young and eventually Danny Ainge. He would call Vlade Divac, his Yugoslavian teammate who came to the NBA in the same season, to commiserate; Divac played in Los Angeles, in the same time zone, so they kept the same hours.

Petrovic logged just 967 minutes as a rookie, and his lack of playing time troubled teammates and fans in Yugoslavia who idolized him. He symbolized the hope that a non-center from Europe could make it in the NBA, and he was failing. The only European pro guard who had made any real impact in the NBA at that point was Sarunas Marciulionis, and he was not a star. Stereotypes persisted that international guards were too slow for the NBA; San Antonio officials remember debating that even a decade later, when they drafted Manu Ginobili.

“What he did was impossible at the time,” Spahija says. “He was the pioneer.”

“Before Drazen, [it was like the league said] you didn’t even want them over here,” says Kenny Anderson, who played with Petrovic in New Jersey. “It was like, ‘Y’all soft.'”

Petrovic was hungry to prove everyone wrong. He could have lived a comfortable life as (by far) the best player in Europe. “He told me, ‘If I don’t try the NBA, I will hurt for the rest of my life,'” says Spahija, who was close with Petrovic until his death.

Toni Kukoc, four years younger than Petrovic, monitored how Divac and Petrovic adjusted to the NBA — even if it cost him lots of sleep.

“We stayed up all night to watch Vlade and Drazen, especially when Vlade was in the [1991 NBA] Finals,” Kukoc says. “It was a little sad Drazen wasn’t playing much.”

Emilio Kovacic, a scout with the Suns who played on the Croatian national team with Petrovic in 1993, was in college in Arizona in the early 1990s, and remembers scanning newspaper box scores every day in hopes of spotting an uptick in Petrovic’s minutes.

“We didn’t have guards from Europe in the NBA,” Kovacic says. “Seeing him on the bench was a bad sign.”

Portland’s coaches didn’t trust Petrovic’s defense, and they weren’t wrong. Petrovic was stubborn, and liked to say he was such a good shooter he didn’t need to play defense. Porter and Kokoskov playfully argued about that when they were both on Detroit’s coaching staff in the mid-2000s.

“Terry used to say, ‘We had to tell that [expletive] to start playing defense!'” Kokoskov chuckles. “I told Terry he didn’t have to play defense. His offense was the best defense!”

It was still a problem when he got to New Jersey. “He didn’t give a s— about defense,” laughs Rich Dalatri, then the Nets’ strength coach. “You might as well have had a traffic cone out there. At least someone might have tripped over the cone.”

But Petrovic could shoot from anywhere, and he insisted he would thrive if the Blazers played him. He channeled his rage into work, so that he would be ready when his time came.

Ainge and Petrovic became fast friends after Sacramento traded Ainge to Portland in 1990, and they would hold shooting contests after practice. The loser bought lunch. They would launch 50 3-pointers each, all on the move, mimicking the motion of flying off picks for catch-and-shoot triples. “I might win three out of 12 times,” Ainge says. “If I didn’t make 44 or 45 out of 50, I’d have no chance.”

After one lunch (which Ainge bought) during training camp, Ainge and Petrovic retired to Petrovic’s apartment to hang out between two-a-day practices. Ainge plopped into a bean bag chair and fell asleep. He woke up to Petrovic pedaling an exercise bike at full speed. “He was just so driven,” Ainge says. “Not playing bothered him more than anyone I ever met.”

His spirit and work-all-the-time ethos intact, Petrovic was ready to explode when Portland traded him in January 1991 to New Jersey in a three-team deal for Walter Davis — who was then 36. (Ainge was, and remains, aghast at the trade. “We all knew Drazen was a great player,” he says.)

He came off the bench at first, but the Nets finally started Petrovic in the 1991-92 season, and he responded by averaging almost 21 points per game. He shot 44 percent from deep, second in the league, on 3.3 attempts per 36 minutes — a volume few guys approached in that era.

“When he missed an open 3, you couldn’t believe it,” says Willis Reed, the Nets’ GM at the time. “He was money.”

Petrovic hit 43.7 percent of his career 3s, the third-best mark in league history, behind only Steve Kerr and Hubert Davis. Every Croatian with any connection to basketball seems to know that statistic by heart.

“He was one of the first guys to shoot from 3 and 4 feet behind the line, and he was doing it running full speed off screens,” Carlisle says. “It was absolutely wild. He would be perfectly suited to play today.”

He was a good passer who could run the break, and toss slick no-looks. Some aficionados, including George Karl, who briefly coached Petrovic in Europe, compared him to Pete Maravich.

Petrovic was unguardable from midrange, flummoxing defenders with all sorts of pump-fakes and ball-fakes. Vernon Maxwell called Petrovic the toughest player he ever guarded, over even Michael Jordan.

Petrovic overflowed with charisma. He pumped his fists and screamed after 3-pointers, or raised both arms above his head. He went toe-to-toe with Jordan, pointed his index finger within a few inches of Reggie Miller‘s face after drilling a 3 over him, and goaded Maxwell into technical fouls.

“I think Vernon wanted to fight him once,” Anderson says.

Believe it or not, the NBA got a toned-down version of Petrovic. In Europe, he strutted and gloated with the exaggerated arrogance of a pro wrestling villain.

Duh Mozzarta leteo je iznad Brooklyna

“I hated his guts as a kid,” says Kovacic, who grew up in Zadar, where the local club considered itself superior to Petrovic’s Sibenik outfit — until Petrovic’s teams started winning domestic titles. “He’d make faces. He’d do his celebrations. It was awful. He’d come to our city and embarrass us.”

Warren LeGarie, Petrovic’s agent, pleaded with Petrovic to dial down the antics in the NBA. “You’re gonna have a bull’s-eye on your back anyway, so don’t make it any harder,” LeGarie remembers telling him. “He was crazy in Europe.”

Petrovic probably didn’t need the warnings. He had too much respect for the NBA, and understood how hard it was to be great there. Carlisle played with Larry Bird in Boston, and as a Nets assistant, offered several times to introduce Petrovic to Bird. Petrovic declined. “He was so reverential, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it,” Carlisle says.

Petrovic still clowned safer targets. Before one game against Boston, Petrovic suggested Carlisle — who had learned snippets of Croatian — approach Vrankovic, in his second season in Boston, with a message. Carlisle suspected Petrovic was setting him up, but went along. He found Vrankovic and said, “You are a big [expletive].” Vrankovic glared at Carlisle and stepped forward. Carlisle turned and saw Petrovic “literally rolling on the floor, laughing,” he says. (The Petrovic-led prank battles on the Yugoslavian national team were legendary, and some of the best ones — beyond pulling fire alarms and dumping cold buckets of water on each other — are not quite fit for publication, Kukoc says, laughing.)

Petrovic maintained the same maniacal work ethic even as he became a star. In the summer of 1991, he stayed in New Jersey to work with Dalatri instead of returning to Croatia, Dalatri recalls. Dalatri had to teach Petrovic to work less — to ditch the endless running and biking, and focus on basketball drills. “He was killing himself,” Dalatri says. “It was detrimental. I had to tell him, ‘You are not a marathon runner. You are not in the Tour de France.'”

His tendency toward overwork translated into injury maintenance. When one of his knees was sore, the Nets prescribed a take-home treatment in which Petrovic would plug in an ultrasound machine, apply cream to his knee, and rub an attachment with a flat, shiny surface over the painful area. He was supposed to do it for a few minutes, but Petrovic figured that going longer would accelerate recovery, according to Dalatri and Jon Spoelstra, then a consultant for the Nets. He rubbed his knee for so long, he ended up with a severe burn on his skin.

In their summer together, Dalatri focused mostly on defensive drills. Petrovic showed up every day, and did everything. He asked to leave early one Friday without telling Dalatri why, and promised to be back as usual the next Monday. Dalatri didn’t know until two weeks later, but Petrovic returned to Croatia for a little more than a day to check on family as the Yugoslavian civil war boiled.

“He probably knew I would have told him to stay for a week,” Dalatri says. “He and Jason Kidd are the best I have ever come across in terms of working.”

It all came together in the 1992-93 season, when Petrovic averaged 22.3 points per game, canned 45 percent of his 3s, and made third team All-NBA. He even improved on defense. He did it all while coping with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which frayed relationships with some Serbian teammates — including Divac.

He left the NBA that summer, triumphant, ready to lead Croatia at EuroBasket. The team gathered in Wroclaw, Poland, in late May for a qualifying tournament. A lot of the players were stars by then, and they found the local hotel to be a dump — insufficient. They groused at the first practice, and agitated to change hotels.

Petrovic had heard enough. He gathered them at midcourt and told them there would be no other hotel. They had to accept it, and practice hard.

“Nobody said a word after that,” says Kovacic, who was in his first major stint with the national team. “That is the definition of leadership. There was a special aura around him. I don’t know how to explain it. I can’t use words for it. I have never felt that way about another player.”

They had no weight room in or near the hotel, but unbeknownst to the rest of the team, Petrovic had already driven around Wroclaw to find one, Radja says.

Croatia won the tournament, and flew as a team to Frankfurt, Germany, where they would connect for their flight back to Zagreb. At the last minute, Petrovic decided to leave the team in Frankfurt to spend time nearby with his girlfriend, Klara Szalantzy. Some teammates didn’t even realize Petrovic had left until they boarded the plane and noticed him missing. They had to wait on the tarmac for more than an hour as airline staff searched for Petrovic’s luggage.

That afternoon, Szalantzy was driving Petrovic and a friend, Hilal Edebal, when their car collided with a truck that had swerved and smashed across the median. Both women suffered serious injuries. Petrovic died at the scene.

They all remember when and where they heard the news, though sometimes not much else. Kovacic was sleeping in Zagreb when a teammate, Veljko Mrsic, frantically knocked on his door, woke him, and delivered the news.

“My wife says I called her crying, but I forgot that,” Kovacic says. “A lot of stuff I blanked out. It’s too traumatic.”

Spahija had checked for Petrovic at the restaurant Petrovic owned in Zagreb a few hours earlier, expecting his friend to be there. Spahija returned home. Later that night, the phone rang. It was a staffer from the restaurant.

“I fell down,” Spahija says. “I cried all night.”

Kukoc was just waking up in a Chicago-area hospital after tonsil surgery when he noticed Petrovic’s face on television. He figured ESPN was running a news story about Petrovic’s contract situation; there were rumors Petrovic would sign in Greece after a contract dispute with the Nets. When Kukoc turned up the volume, he was gutted. At first, he hoped that given the time difference and sketchy details, the story might be wrong.

“We were supposed to play another four or five years together for the national team,” Kukoc says. Growing old together would have been a fitting capstone to a relationship that started with Petrovic as an established star, and Kukoc, four years younger, rising as the best European prospect since Arvydas Sabonis.

To diffuse any tension over alpha dog status, national team coaches had them room together in Argentina before the 1990 world championship. They stayed up late at night, Kukoc recalls, talking about how they would fit together — how Kukoc might find Petrovic spotting up, and where Kukoc liked to cut when Petrovic had the ball.

Petrovic died before Kukoc’s first season in the NBA. Kukoc still catches himself dreaming of facing Petrovic in a Bulls-Nets game. “It would have been so much fun,” Kukoc says. “Knowing Drazen, he would have loved to kick my butt, and compete with Michael and Scottie.” (Kukoc and some others close to Petrovic also don’t believe he would have left the NBA.)

Retired Eastern European basketball stars view it as their duty to carry on Petrovic’s legacy.

“Some people are going to disagree and be mad at me,” Kokoskov says, “but Drazen would have been the best [European] player in NBA history.”

That is a stretch given what Dirk Nowitzki has accomplished, but no one can argue with Petrovic’s influence as the guard who busted conventional labels. “Others have done more,” Spahija says, “but Drazen is the most important player in the history of European basketball.”

Doug Lee felt that influence vicariously. He was a journeyman backup for Petrovic’s Nets who couldn’t find playing time in the NBA. Lee and Petrovic bonded over shooting contests. After Petrovic’s death, Lee moved to Zagreb to play for the club Cibona at the request of Petrovic’s family; Petrovic’s brother, Aleksandar, coached the team, and Lee thought of playing in Zagreb — and learning what Petrovic meant there — almost as his personal tribute.

“People would approach me in the streets just to hug me and touch me, just because I had been Drazen’s friend,” Lee says.

They all think of what he might have done — how many All-Star teams and 3s he might have made, how far the Nets might have gone with Anderson, Petrovic and Derrick Coleman.

Anderson framed a Petrovic jersey, and purchased a T-shirt showing the animated versions of Petrovic and Coleman from the original NBA Jam arcade game. “I wish we had more time together,” Anderson says. “I wish I would have asked him more about what was happening in his country. I try to keep his name alive now.”

During his three seasons coaching in Atlanta, Spahija was thrilled at how often younger players and coaches would ask about Petrovic once they found out Spahija grew up with him. “It’s unbelievable,” Spahija says. “His name is still so alive.”

Younger players from the former Yugoslavia are helping, too. Goran Dragicwore Petrovic’s No. 3 for the Rockets and the Slovenian national team. “He is my idol,” Dragic says. “I started playing because of him.”

Dario Saric‘s father played with Petrovic on the Sibenik club, and would tell his son stories about Petrovic. As a kid, Saric watched old videotape of Petrovic playing. In bed at night, he would read newspaper clippings about Petrovic.

“Every player in my town — we started basketball because of him,” Saric says.

Divac helped make the acclaimed 2010 30 for 30 documentary “Once Brothers,” about the breakup of the Yugoslavian national team, in part to show younger fans how good Petrovic was. The old heads are a little worried that new generations won’t quite get it — time passes, after all — but they are confident that Petrovic was so good, and so magnetic, that his standing in the history of the sport will never change.

“I don’t think true basketball fans,” Divac says, “will ever forget Drazen.”

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