“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Drazen Petrovic – An unfinished symphony
It was in the fall of 1979 when I heard the name of Drazen Petrovic for the first time. The one who uttered it, before a group of journalists at a game in Belgrade, was Zoran “Moka” Slavnic, who by then was a player-coach at Sibenka. “In Sibenik there is a kid who will be better than me or Dragan Kicanovic,” Slavnic said. “He is a natural-born talent and he also has a great work ethic. He is very ambitious and does unbelievable things. His name is Drazen Petrovic. Remember this name.”
And I did remember. Some months later, in a game on December 29, 1979, between Sibenka and OOK Belgrade, Drazen Petrovic scored his first points in the Yugoslav first division. Slavnic had left the court and substituted himself with the kid who would become a legend. With his first basket, Petrovic showed his character to everyone. He crossed the paint, found 2.01-meter big man Rajko Zizic in the way, and with a combination of courage and easiness – the virtues of the greats – Petrovic dropped a hook shot. He was 15 years, 2 months and 7 days old.
At the 1981 European Championship for Cadets in Greece, despite being part of a strong class of players – Velimir Perasovic, Stojan Vrankovic, Zoran Sretenovic, Sasa Radunovic and others – Drazen was already the undisputed leader. There was no TV at the tournament, but we could follow his records through the press: 31 points against Finland, 41 against Spain, 42 against Israel, 37 against France and 43 against Greece. He totaled 227 points, averaging 32.5. A star was born.
That was the launch of a brilliant career that, unfortunately, lasted for just 14 years. On June 7, 1993, a car accident on a German highway put an end to the life of a great basketball player. Petrovic was only 28 years old and still had many brilliant seasons ahead of him. As a matter of fact, the 1992-93 season had been his best in the NBA, as he played 70 games with the New Jersey Nets, averaging 22.3 points and securing a spot on the All-NBA team. That season he also had great numbers from beyond the arc – 75 of 167 for an accuracy of 45%. He was about to sign a new contract. The best NBA teams were pursuing him, and Panathinaikos was offering him huge amounts of money to return to Europe. Among the personal items that his parents, Biserka and Jole, and his elder brother, Aleksandar, found in his apartment was a piece of paper with the name of three NBA franchises: New Jersey, New York and Houston.
His job: winner
His talent exploded in the 1981-82 season, which he finished with a 16.3-point scoring average in the Yugoslav League. The next season, he went on to become the clear leader of Sibenka, with an average of 24.5 points. Unfortunately, that great 1982-83 season finished with a scandal in the finals between Sibenka and Bosna. The third and final game of the series was played at Sibenka, the regular season champion. In the final minutes, and after losing a 19-point advantage because of Drazen’s scoring, Bosna was only one point ahead, 82-81, and the last possession was for the hosts. With 2 seconds to go, young Petrovic got the ball, pulled up and … missed the shot. The end? No, because the referee called a foul on Sabit Hadzic, sending Drazen to the foul line. With the roar of the crowd in the stands and after a long timeout, Petrovic, as the champion that he was, hit both attempts to give himself 40 points and win the game, 83-82. The champion received his trophy and the city of Sibenik celebrated all night long.
Early the next morning, an emergency meeting of the executive body of the basketball federation concluded that, due to a “the clear mistake by the referee,” the final result was nullified and the game had to be replayed one week later on neutral ground in the city of Novi Sad. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and the Petrovic family still had not awoken from the previous long night when I told them the bad news. First, I told Biserka, and after her, Drazen. His answer was fast and sure: “I am not going to Novi Sad, and I don’t think the rest of the team will either. We are the champions and nobody will take this title away from us. “
Said and done. Sibenka never appeared in Novi Sad and Bosna was declared champion without even playing the game.
The coach of Sibenka those days, Vlado Djurovic, explained Petrovic’s winning character some years later when he told me some details about that famous final. “During the timeout before the free throws, I begged Drazen to score only the first one and miss the second so that we could play overtime. We had the feeling that there would be trouble, and we were convinced that we would win easily in the extra period. But no. Drazen didn’t want to miss a free throw on purpose.”
With Sibenka, Petrovic lost two Korac Cup finals, both against the same rival, Limoges of France. My guess is that he wanted revenge on the French team and that’s why on January 23, 1986, in a Cibona vs. Limoges game in the EuroLeague, he did everything he could. In minute 13, with a score of 43-27, things looked bad for Cibona, but then Drazen had one of his unforgettable moments. He scored 7 straight three-pointers on 7 straight possessions! Cibona ended up winning, 116-106. Drazen finished with 51 points after shooting 70% from the field, but he also had 10 assists.
Drazen’s Cibona team won the EuroLeague twice and then also won a Saporta Cup. Every home game he played drew 12,000 fans. Those were the years when my Italian colleague Enrico Campana, from La Gazzetta dello Sport, called him “Mozart” for the first time. Soon after, Drazen gave his café-bar in the Cibona arena the name “Amadeus”.
Collector of records
In 1988, after the Olympic Games in Seoul, Petrovic’s cycle in the former Yugoslavia came to an end after 197 games with Sibenka and Cibona. He had combined for 5,113 points between them, an average of 26.0 points per game. Drazen was searching for new challenges and Real Madrid of Spain became his destination. He played a great season with impressive numbers (28.2 points in 36 regular-season and 11 playoff games). But one of his best games ever came in the final of the Saporta Cup in Athens, against Snaidero Caserta of Italy. He scored 62 points to win a direct duel with Oscar Schmidt, one of the best shooters ever in world basketball. Drazen’s personal scoring record was 112 points for Cibona against Olimpija Ljubljana, even though it’s worth noting that Olimpija was sanctioned to play that game with junior players.
I was a witness to Petrovic’s debut with the Yugoslav senior national team at the 1983 EuroBasket in Limoges and Nantes, France. He was the youngest player on the team. On one side, there were legends in the sunset of their careers – Kresimir Cosic, Dragan Kicanovic or erstwhile coach, Slavnic – and on the other Drazen, the new star. His debut did not end very happily because Yugoslavia finished seventh. The following year, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Yugoslavia won the bronze medal after having lost to Spain in semis. It was his first big trophy if we ignore the “lost” league title of 1983.
At the 1986 World Cup in Spain, where Yugoslavia won the bronze medal, Petrovic was already an international star. It was the same as at the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens (bronze) or the 1988 Olympics (silver). Finally, the gold arrived at the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb, on the court where he had starred from 1984 to 1988, winning everything that could be won with Cibona. His EuroBasket scoring average was 30 points. The following year, at the 1990 World Cup in Buenos Aires, he won the gold again – and it would be his last one. Drazen had landed at the tournament as an NBA player already, after a not-so-happy debut with the Portland Trail Blazers, where coach Rick Adelman never trusted him.
After seven years with the Yugoslav national team, Petrovic had played 135 games and had scored 2,830 points. Ahead of him, with many more games played, were only Drazen Dalipagic, Dragan Kicanovic, Kresimir Cosic and Radivoj Korac. But if we add up all Petrovic’s points in all categories of the national team, Drazen is the top scorer with 3,979 points. His 47 points against the Netherlands in Spain in 1986 are still his best individual mark. He scored more than 30 points 27 times and more than 20 points 75 times. Of his 135 games with the national team, he was the top scorer on 79 occasions. He was a truly relentless scoring machine.
Starting in 1992, he played a total of 40 games for the Croatian national team and scored 1,004 points (25.1 per game). He won the silver medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, a great prize for him and his teammates.
Following the Olympics, Petrovic had his best season in the NBA. He averaged 22.3 points on 52% field goal shooting, 45% from three-point distance. In February, however, he suffered the injustice of being left out of the all-star game despite totally deserving it after a few weeks of having shot 67% on three-pointers. When he was invited to the three-point shooting contest, Drazen declined, saying: “If I am not in the all-star game this year, when will I be?”
Legacy left too early
His last game with the Croatian team was in Wroclaw, Poland, on June 6, 1993, in a qualifying tournament for EuroBasket in Germany later that summer. There he scored his last 30 points, against Slovenia. The following day, destiny led Petrovic to make a fateful decision. Instead of going back to Zagreb with his teammates, he decided to spend a couple days off in Germany with a friend, where he died in that tragic car crash.
What kind of person was Drazen Petrovic? I would say that there were two personalities inside him. On the court, he was a lion who didn’t fear anything or anyone. But in his private life he was quiet, well-mannered and kind. Basketball was his life. Maybe he took practices too far, but that made him happy. Coaches helped him with the technical work, but most of what he accomplished, he did on his own. When it was time to practice, he never seemed to get enough. Starting in his junior years in Sibenik, he maintained an unbelievable pace. He arrived at 7 in the morning, before going to school, taking several hundred free throws every day.
What kind of player was Drazen Petrovic? He was an individualist, great at going one-on-one, with a perfect shot, speed and strength, especially in his final NBA years. He played primarily as a playmaker and did so very well, even though he preferred being the shooting guard. He was the classic killer who could almost beat a team by himself. Was he also arrogant, egocentric and selfish? Maybe in some moments, but only when the game called for it and the atmosphere made him take flight. But if we take a look at his number of assists, especially with the national teams, we find another Drazen, the one who made the Toni Kukoc observation a reality: “A basket makes one player happy, but an assist makes two players happy.” Petrovic brought happiness to all basketball lovers with his game. His way of understanding life was apparently – only apparently – simple: “Today, I want to improve more than yesterday, but less than tomorrow.”
And he did so, until that tragic day of June 7, 1993.