This week I spoke to Biserka Petrovic, the mother of the late basketball genius Drazen Petrovic, who was born on October 22, 1964 in Sibenik, Croatia and died on June 7, 1993 in Denkendorf, Germany. His mother and biggest fan, who is also the driving force behind the Drazen Petrovic Museum and Foundation, wants to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his death with a game between KK Cibona Zagreb and the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets, the two teams for which Drazen had his best performances in his short, but great career. It is an idea that deserves support. I really hope that such a game could take place next October at Zagreb Arena. Drazen deserves this effort.
Slavnic, a prophet
Drazen Petrovic. It was in the fall of 1979 when I heard his name for the first time. The one who uttered it was Zoran “Moka” Slavnic, who by then was a player-coach at Sibenka, before a group of journalists during a game in Belgrade. “In Sibenik there is a kid who will be better than Kicanovic and me. He is a natural-born talent and he also has good work ethics. He is very ambitious and does unbelievable things. His name is Drazen Petrovic. Remember this name.”
And I did remember. Some months later, specifically on December 29 of 1979, and during the game between Sibenka and OOK Belgrade, Drazen Petrovic scored his first point in the Yugoslav first division at 15 years, 2 months and 7 days old. Slavnic left the court and substituted himself with the kid who would become a legend. With his first basket he showed his character to everyone: he croseed the paint of the opponents through the middle, finding giant big man Rajko Zizic (2.10) in the way, and with a combination of courage and easiness, virtues of the greats, he scored a hook shot.
At the 1981 European championships for cadets in Greece, despite being part of a strong class of players – Perasovic, Vrankovic, Sretenovic, 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, 43 against Greece. He totalled 227 points, averaging 32.5. A star was born.
That was the start of a brilliant career that, unfortunately, only lasted for 14 years. On June 7 of 1993, a car accident on a German highway put an end to the life of a great basketball player. Petrovic was only 28 and still had many brilliant seasons ahead of him. As a matter of fact, 1992-93 was his best season in the NBA, as he played 70 games with the New Jersey Nets, averaging 22.3 points and securing a spot in the All-NBA team that year. That season he also had great numbers from the arc – 75 of 167 for a 45%. He was about to sign a new contract, he was desired by the best NBA teams and Panathinaikos was also offering him huge amounts of money to return to Europe. Among the personal things 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, in which he finished with a 16.3-point scoring average in the Yugoslav League and then went on to become the clear leader of Sibenka the following campaign with an average of 24.5 points. Unfortunately, that great 1982-83 season finished with a scandal in the final between Sibenka and Bosna, in the third and final game of the series. It was played on Sibenka’s home court, the regular season champ. In the final minutes, and after losing a 19-point advantage because of Drazen’s points, Bosna was only one point ahead, 81-82, but the last posession was for the hosts. With 2 seconds to go, young Drazen got the ball, pulled up and… missed the shot. The end? No, because referee Matijevic called a foul on Sabit Hadzic over Drazen, sending the latter to the foul line. With the roar of the crowd in the stands and after a long timeout, Petrovic, being the champion he was, increased his account to 40 points scoring both attempts and making it 83-82. The champion received his trophy and the city of Sibenik celebrated all night long.
Early next morning, in an emergency meeting of the executive organ of the basketball federation and “because of the clear mistake by referee Matijevic”, the final result was declared null and the game had to be repeated one week later in neutral ground, in the city of Novi Sad. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and the Petrovic family still had not waken up from the previous long night when I told them the bad news. First, to the mother Biserka, and later to Drazen. “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”. That was the fast reply I got from the young player.
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 Djurovich, explains this winning character of the player. Some years ago he told me some details about that famous final. “During the timeout minute before the free throws, I begged Drazen to score only the first one and miss the second so 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 of 1986, in a Cibona vs. Limoges game in the Euroleague, he did everything he could. In minute 13, and with a 27-43 score, things looked bad for Cibona, but then Drazen had one of his unforgettable performances. In seven straight plays he scored seven straight threes-pointers! 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 Cup Winners’ Cup. Every home game he played drew 12,000 fans. Those were the years when my Italian colleague Enrico Campana, from Gazzetta dello Sport, called him “Mozart” for the first time. Soon after, Drazen gave his Cafe Bar in the Cibona arena the name of “Amadeus”.
The man of the records
In 1988, after the Olympic Games in Seoul, his cycle in the former Yugoslavia came to an end after 197 games with Sibenka and Cibona. He 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 new destination. He played a great season with impressive numbers (28.2 points in 36 regular season games and 11 playoff games). But one of his best games ever arrived in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup in Athens, against Snaidero Caserta of Italy, in which he scored 62 points! He also won the direct duel with Oscar Schmidt, who was one of the best shooters ever in world basketball. Drazen’s 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 the junior players.
I was a witness to his debut with the Yugoslav 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 – Cosic, Kicanovic or Slavnic – and on the other, the new star Drazen. His debut was not very happy because Yugoslavia finished seventh. The following year, at the 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.
In the 1986 World Championships in Spain (bronze medal) he was already an international star, as in the Athens EuroBasket of 1987 (bronze) or the 1988 Olympics (silver). Finally, the gold arrived. It was at the Zagreb EuroBasket of 1989, in the court that saw him shine from 1984 to 1988 winning everything that could be won with Cibona. His scoring average was 30 points. The following year, in the Buenos Aires World Championships, he won the gold again and it would be his last. Drazen had landed to the tournament already as an NBA player 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, he 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 his points in all categories of the national team, Drazen is the best scorer with 3,979 points. His 47 points against the Netherlands in Spain in 1986 are still the 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 restless scoring machine.
Starting in 1992 he played with the national team of Croatia a total 40 games for 1,004 points (25.1 per game). He won the silver medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. It was a great prize for him and his teammates.
Following the Olympics came 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?”
His last game with the Croatian team was in Wroclaw on June 6, 1993 against Slovenia in a qualifying tournament for the EuroBasket that was to be played in Germany that same year. There he scored his last 30 points. The following day destiny led him to make a wrong decision. Instead of going back to Zagreb with his teammates, he decided to spend a couple days off in Germany with a friend, and took the car to his death.
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 silent, 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, trying 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, fast and with great strength, especially in his last NBA years. He played primarily as playmaker and did so really well, even though he preferred being the shooting guard. He was the classic killer who could almost beat a team by himself. But, was he also arrogant, egocentric and selfish? Maybe in some moments, but only when the game called for it and the atmosphere made him fly. But if we take a look at the number of assists, especially in the national teams, we find another Drazen, the one who made the Toni Kukoc saying 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.