Drazen was special

(Column first appeared in Newsday, June 19, 1993)


Equating a loss in basketball with the loss of a life is ignorant and inappropriate. Drazen Petrovic died in a car accident in Germany Monday, and right now, anybody in his right mind couldn’t care less who the Nets’ shooting guard is going to be next season.

There will be time for that. Now is the time to dwell on the triumphs of Petrovic, one of the world’s true basketball pioneers. This was a man who refused to fail. He came to the United States after achieving international stardom, first for the Yugoslavian national team and then in Spain as the premier international player in the world.

His accomplishments and skills earned him an immediate seven-figure salary with the Blazers, but he averaged less than 15 minutes as a 25-year-old rookie in 1989-90. Considering his previous success, that was difficult for him to accept.

Other Europeans refused to accept lesser roles. They had been stars overseas, but when they discovered they were no better than journeymen in the NBA, they quickly returned to the Italian or Spanish leagues. Not Petro. He returned to the practice court.

Petrovic was the classic gym rat. Much of his greatness came from repetition. Sonics coach George Karl coached at Real Madrid the year after Petrovic left. When Karl arrived, he heard stories of Petro’s determined work ethic – 500 jumpers before practice, 500 after practice, 500 three-point shots at another practice, 200 free throws at another.

He became a machine. Petrovic once was asked about his best practice session. He said he once wanted to see how many shots it would take him to make 100 from behind the international three-point line of 20 feet, 6 inches. It took 104.

That work ethic enabled him to almost achieve in the U.S. what he achieved in Europe. Petro was upset when he did not make the All-Star team in February, but he still accomplished something no other international player without a U.S. college background has accomplished.

This year, he made the All-NBA third team.

He was going to get better. Much better.

Dedication is only part of the character that will be missed. Petro wasn’t always the most conversational person, but he always was cooperative. Even talking to him about a subject he did not like – for instance, his failed relationship with former Yugoslavia teammate Vlade Divac – would not cause him to be rude. He would not walk out on such an interview. He might answer in two- or three-word sentences, but he would answer.

Mostly, Petrovic smiled and loved to talk basketball. He was serious, but if you stayed around him long enough, he would let down his guard and reveal his sense of humor.

In the Barcelona Olympics last summer, after the Croatian team defeated the Unified Team to advance to the gold-medal game, Petro said it was the biggest win of his career. When asked why, he said a Croatian government official had boarded the team bus before the game and told the team the Croatian government really couldn’t afford to send the team to the Olympics, but it had anyway. And because that financial commitment had been made, the team had no choice but to win the game and advance to the gold-medal game.

“He didn’t say what would happen if we didn’t win the game,” Petrovic said, smiling, “and I didn’t ask.”

Petrovic was a man of principle. When tensions were mounting between republics in the former Yugoslavia, Petrovic refused to play for Yugoslavia at the European championships. He waited until Croatia declared its independence and then played for his new country.

He was strong-willed, sometimes hot-headed, driven and fun to watch. As NBA commissioner David Stern said, “He really added a lot to our league by virtue of his enthusiasm and personality. And I think we judge him in terms of the international scope of the game, truly demonstrating that this was a global sport, bringing us all together. He’ll be sorely missed.”

If someone had asked Petrovic how he would like to be remembered, he probably would have said as a proud Croatian, a great basketball player and a hard worker.

And that’s how he will be remembered by those who were close to him, and who loved him. Those of us who were not so close but who dealt with him professionally can add a simple and hopefully lasting tribute.

Drazen Petrovic: A good guy.

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