Commentary

THE LEGACY OF DRAZEN PETROVIC LIVES ON IN A GENERATION OF EURO BALLERS

Updated: July 10, 2012, 2:37 PM ET
By STEPHEN RODRICK

You meet icons in the strangest places. On a drab March evening in Croatia, an equally drab bandbox is half-filled for a Euroleague game between Cibona Zagreb and Spain's Tau Ceramica. The arena could pass for a CBA barn, except for the bulletproof Plexiglas that shields the visiting team from epithets and more physical means of assault. Just before the tip, a familiar-looking basketball junkie settles into his seat. You do a double take; yep, it's Rudy T. During a break, you sidle up to the former Rockets coach, revered in these parts for his Croatian roots, and ask him the obvious question: what the hell are you doing here?

"This is just one of the stops," says Tomjanovich, who's since moved on to the Lakers. "Basketball is so global, you have to look everywhere." He rubs his jet-lagged eyes. "A lot of that has to do with the guy who this place is named after."

In America, the name Drazen Petrovic is just a brief blur of agate type and end-of-the-hour highlights, an elusive memory of shots shredding nets in the Meadowlands. But cross the Atlantic, and that changes. In Europe, and especially here in Zagreb, home to the Drazen Petrovic Basketball Center, the man is a legend-equal parts Jordan, James Dean and Columbus. MJ, because many consider Petro the best European player ever, a relentless competitor who led tiny war-ravaged Croatia to silver at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Dean, because Petrovic died young, in a car crash, the autobahn subbing for the Grapevine. And Columbus? No player did more to open America to Old World ballers than the kid from Sibenik.

Before Petro, only big men and indentured college servants made the crossing. There'd never been a European backcourt star filling it every night. (His 43.7% accuracy from three-point range ranks third in NBA history.) Now look around. Last season, 73 foreigners suited up across the league, with guys named Peja, Dirk and Hedo proving that Euro ball is no longer a pejorative term.

Next month in Athens, the world's best players will gather for the Olympics. Or at least the best players from everywhere except America, where representing their country has become too big a burden for some. Those elsewhere know better, and a lot of that has to do with the ghost of Drazen Petrovic. From Spain's Pau Gasol to China's Yao Ming to Argentina's Manu Ginobili, foreign stars will try to evoke Barcelona. Not the Dream Team vision of MJ and Magic covering their Reebok sweats with a U.S. flag, but the image of Petrovic putting his new nation on the map. Because they know, as Petro did before them, that sometimes a game is more than a game.

"Drazen got it started for us," says Spurs swingman Hedo Turkoglu, a native of Turkey (which failed to qualify for Athens). "It was his heart. He brought a lot of energy to the court when people didn't know European players could be like that."

Like Turkoglu, Kings forward Peja Stojakovic never saw Petrovic in person, but he's heard the stories from teammate and Serb countryman Vlade Divac, who played with Petro on the Yugoslavian national squad and entered the NBA with him in 1989. "I've asked Vlade about Drazen," says Peja.

"Every time he stepped on the court he wanted to be the best. He could never score enough. He was never satisfied." Stojakovic could be describing his own game, of course, but it took Petrovic to show NBA talent scouts that Europeans weren't just a bunch of chain-smoking head cases. "Every foreign player from Yao to Peja owes a debt to Drazen," says Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who tutored the 6'5" Petrovic as an assistant with the Nets. "He knew he could change how we viewed Europeans. He talked about it constantly."

As the action continues in Zagreb, Tomjanovich makes his way down to the court-level seats, where he hugs a regal woman dressed in designer black. It's Biserka Petrovic, Drazen's mother. Around her right wrist is a gold charm bracelet with an engraving of her youngest son. "This was made for me by an Israeli jeweler," she says. "He told me he legally changed his last name to Petrovic, and that he comes to Zagreb every year on the anniversary of Drazen's death."

Biserka has made it her life's work to ensure that her son is not forgotten. She and Drazen's father, Jole, live in his old apartment, surrounded by Olympic medals, watercolor portraits and holy relics. A decade after Drazen's death, no one sleeps in his bed. Biserka attends Cibona games to feel closer to him. Tonight, there's another reason. "I came to see Arvydas Macijauskas play," she says of Tau's Lithuanian star. "Everyone says he is the next Drazen." She smiles and fingers her bracelet. "Every year, people say, 'He's the next Drazen.' And every year, he's good. But he is not Drazen." She's right. There will never be another Drazen Petrovic.

BACK IN the day, the backboard on Preradovic Street consisted of two empty oil barrels tied together and an undersized rim jerry-built with discarded pipe from a nearby aluminum factory. Today there's a regulation basket, and every year, on the anniversary of Petrovic's death, kids lay a wreath and shoot some hoops. A small plaque hangs on the adjacent garage: "During your lifetime, you reached the eternity and you will stay there forever. Sibenik remembers Our Kid."

Our Kid is what Sibenik folk called their Drazen. He was born in 1964, the second son of a librarian and a police officer. But as with any messiah, the mythology begins in the womb. The way Biserka tells it, while pregnant she'd walk down to the spring at the mouth of a nearby river and drink the brackish water. The way everyone else tells it, that water gave Drazen his magical powers.

The idea that a Sibenik boy would become a U.S. star was beyond fantasy. "We picked up fuzzy pictures of NBA games from Italian television," remembers Neven Spahija, Drazen's best friend and now the coach of the Croatian national team. "Walking on the moon seemed easier than playing in the NBA."

Still, the groundwork existed. Yugoslavia was a federation of republics, including Croatia, merged into a nation of citizens who'd historically taken turns massacring each other. All that united them was their leader, Josip Broz Tito, a dictator who kept the country independent from the Soviets, and their love of sports, particularly basketball.

Blessed with preternaturally tall young men, the country had been a European hoops power since the 1960s, winning gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The smallest towns had organized youth clubs. (Sibenik is a city of about 80,000.) Drazen's brother, Aleksandar, was five years older and a gifted player in his own right. So Drazen did what little brothers do: tagged along to chase down rebounds. By age 10, he already had Adrian Dantley's hips and the dexterity of a mini-Magic, but something was noticeably missing from his game. "You shoot like Fred Flintstone," teased Aleksandar. "Your shots break stones."

With his mother's help, Drazen scored a key to the school gym. He would arrive at 6 a.m., set up chairs for dribbling drills and then take 500 shots before class. Counting regular practice and another shooting session after homework, the kid spent seven hours a day in that gym. "Coaches said, 'You practice too much, why don't you do something else?'" Spahija recalls. "Drazen always said, 'I love this. This is my life, like breathing.'"

By 18, Petrovic had polished himself into a star. Games between his Sibenka squad (Sibenik's team) and Aleksandar's Cibona Zagreb were bruising and sometimes bloody affairs. A soft-spoken mama's boy off the court, Drazen trash-talked end-to-end on it. He taunted his brother, announcing which move he was going to make and then driving past him. Though Cibona, the league's premier team, won most of the games, Drazen usually bested Aleksandar. When Biserka asked him to back off a little, Drazen replied, "If you can't take it, don't come to the games."

His gifts started to attract a bigger audience. Digger Phelps noticed the wiry kid with the mini- 'fro at a clinic in Croatia, and begged him to come to Notre Dame, but Petrovic signed with Cibona for the 1984-85 season. In his first game against Sibenka, he scorched his old squad for 56 points. He later poured in 112 against Olimpia Ljubljana (now Slovenia's Union Olimpija). Within two years, Petro was the best player in Yugoslavia. But even when offers began pouring in from Greece and Spain, he stuck with Cibona as he continued to work toward a law degree at Zagreb University. "I can't sleep in two beds, can't drive two cars," he reasoned. "What does it matter?"

TWO HOURS southeast of Sibenik sits the ancient city of Split, second home to the Roman Emperor Diocletian and-just as important to locals-the birthplace of Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja. While Kukoc labors in Milwaukee, Radja has returned to his roots. Last year, at the age of 36, he led his hometown team to the Croatian A1 league title. Now he's president of the club. Although his own NBA career was cut short by injuries (he was waived by Boston in 1997), there is still much to feel good about. "I don't know if I'd have had the courage if Drazen hadn't gone first," Radja says. "He kept telling me and Toni, 'You must come.' " By the time Petrovic left Cibona in 1988 for Real Madrid, he'd won two European league championships, averaging 36.8 points a game. That summer, along with Radja, Kukoc and Divac, he led the Yugoslavians to silver in Seoul. In his one-year stint in Spain, "Senor 40" won over fans with his big games, and won another European title. Only one more challenge awaited. "I have nothing more to accomplish here," Drazen told his mother. "If I want to be the best, I must go play with the best." Not that it would be easy. He landed in Portland as a backup to Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. For two years he languished on the bench, a victim of circumstance, his own matador defense and Rick Adelman's obstinance (this was before the coach had embraced Euro ball with the Kings). "He'd call and say he was being paid a million dollars for the best seat in the house," Radja says. "He was hurting. But he had too much pride to come home."

In January 1991, Petrovic was traded to the Nets. In the locker room, he cried like a baby when he heard the news. Drexler told him the Blazers were making a big mistake. He was right. Nourished by the soft hand of Nets GM Willis Reed and the seasoned mentoring of Chuck Daly, Petrovic blossomed. By that fall he was a starter who would go on to average 20.6 points a game. Everywhere Drazen went on the road, Croat expatriates shouted his name.

But the joy Petrovic felt on court was matched by sorrow back home. After a half-century of uneasy federation, Yugoslavia was falling apart. In June 1991, the Croatians declared independence in response to president Slobodan Milosevic's pro-Serbian policies, touching off civil war. Milosevic laid waste to Croatian cities. Thousands of Croats were killed or went missing; tens of thousands were forced to abandon their homes. (The Croats weren't blameless: Stojakovic's family, Serbs living in Croatia, were also chased from their homes.) Petrovic's relationship with Divac disintegrated under the strain. The two didn't even make eye contact when the Nets and Lakers met. That November, Drazen and close friend Stojko Vrankovic, a Celtic, joined fellow Croats in an antiwar demonstration outside the United Nations.

Against that ominous backdrop, the newly born Croatian national team began training for the Barcelona Games. "Drazen talked, we all talked, about the pride and pressure we felt representing our new country," Radja says. "Nobody had heard of Croatia. This was our introduction to the world." The Croats struggled through the opening rounds; even Petrovic seemed to buckle. "It's not only a basketball game," he told The New York Times. "It's civil war."

Then came the semifinals against the Unified Team, the former Soviet Union. The Croatians, looking disorganized at times, shot poorly throughout and trailed by six with 1:13 to play. But as the crowd began to file out, magic struck. Radja hit two foul shots, then Kukoc nailed a quick trey. Down by one with nine seconds to go, Petrovic was mauled by four defenders. Two shots. "I felt like I held all of Croatia in my hands," he later told his mother. "I couldn't miss for the country."

He hit both, giving his team a 75-74 lead. But the Soviets still had one final possession. Once more, Petrovic rose to the occasion. The player who'd been so maligned for his defense smothered shooter Aleksandr Volkov, who launched an airball from 13 feet. Petrovic ran into the stands, grabbed a Croatian flag and began to weep. "We were all crying," Radja says. "You have no idea what this meant to our country, with bombs falling. We were dead, and then we came back from the dead."

Two days later, the Croats met the Dream Team. Drazen's pregame speech is legendary, on both an inspirational and comic level. "He said, 'They are just men-we can beat them,' " Radja recalls. And did Dino believe his friend? "C'mon," he says with a laugh. "It was the real Dream Team." The U.S. won by 32, but Petro scored a game-high 24. He and his teammates returned home as heroes.

Back in the NBA that fall, teams tightened the screws, to no avail. "Drazen could come off a screen at a 45* angle, do a 180 and release his shot quicker than anyone I ever saw," Carlisle says. Petrovic was named to the All-NBA third team, and the Nets made the playoffs for the second straight year. Though they lost to Cleveland in the first round, everyone knew it was only the beginning. "We had such a good spirit on that team," says former Net Derrick Coleman. "The sky was the limit."

Petrovic headed home for the European championships. On June 6, he scored 30 in a loss to Slovenia during a qualifier in Poland. The next morning, the Croats-having already clinched a berth-boarded a plane for Zagreb, with a change in Frankfurt. As they taxied to the gate in Germany, Drazen startled his teammates by announcing that if his German girlfriend made it there on time, he'd drive to Munich with her. "He had never done that before," Vrankovic says. "He would always fly to Zagreb and then go to Sibenik."

Drazen's girlfriend, Klara Szalantzy, arrived just before the flight for Zagreb was to depart. In the air above Munich, the pilot announced they'd be hitting some turbulence. "I remember there were black clouds below and blue sky above," Radja says. "I looked at my watch and it was 5 o'clock. That was right when the accident happened."

On the rain-slicked autobahn, an 18-wheeler jackknifed into oncoming traffic. With limited visibility, Klara didn't see the truck until the last second. She slammed on the brakes. Drazen, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, smashed through the windshield. He was killed instantly. (Klara and a third passenger survived.)

Biserka Petrovic, staying in Drazen's apartment, heard the news around 10 p.m. She ran toward the balcony to jump. Jole tackled her and held her as she broke down in tears. "When I heard, I was in bed," Radja says, his voice disappearing in a whisper. "For a long time, I couldn't stand up."

There were things left unsaid that now could never be said. "The last year before he died, we just didn't communicate anymore," Divac says. "I never had a chance to straighten things up like I did with Toni. I remember the day, the place, the time when I heard the news. I was in Hawaii with family, watching TV, and they showed a picture of Drazen and said he was killed. I couldn't move."

For days, Willis Reed couldn't mention Petrovic's name without breaking down. He led an NBA delegation to the funeral in Zagreb, where an estimated half-million people stood outside the church. Across the world, a moment of silence was held before Game 1 of the Bulls-Suns NBA Final. In death, Drazen Petrovic finally received his due.

There are those who believe he is still here, a spirit watching over his country. Goran Ivanisevic is one of them. Three years ago, the Croat tennis star entered Wimbledon with low hopes, but he put a poster of his friend Drazen on the wall of his London kitchen for good luck. Every morning before a match, he walked past the poster and said, "Drazen, I'm going to win today with your help." After Goran took home the trophy, 150,000 people greeted him in Split. It was Croatia's largest public gathering since the death of Our Kid. Ivanisevic showed up in a Drazen Petrovic jersey.

IT'S A Saturday afternoon in a musty Zagreb gym. As some kids shoot hoops, one player towers above the rest. He has the unruly hair, wide hips and- much to the chagrin of his grandmother-sharp tongue of his uncle. Only 12, Marko Petrovic also possesses Uncle Drazen's ugly Fred Flintstone shot. Though he dominates with his dribble and swagger, he can't yet finish the job.

A lot has changed since Drazen Petrovic was buried in Zagreb's Mirogoj Cemetery, his country's most hallowed ground. Croatia failed to qualify for the Athens Games, and the team from Sibenik has seen better days. But the fans have not forgotten their hero. Later tonight, in a nearly empty Zagreb arena, the Sibenik faithful will spontaneously chant, "Drazen Petrovic, Drazen Petrovic, we will always love you."

In America, players still spread the word. Divac may not have put things right before his friend's death, but he'll tell anyone who'll listen about Petrovic. "The last six years I've played with Peja, and those two guys remind me a lot of each other," Vlade says. "I didn't know anyone who loved basketball as much as Drazen."

Ask Coleman about his old teammate, and his face lights up. "I loved him-his passion was contagious," he says. "Drazen was like Jackie Robinson for European players. If they don't know about him, they should ask me."

Back inside the Zagreb gym, Marko Petrovic finally hits a jumper. The game ends and his intensity fades. For now he's just another giggling kid. His grandmother smiles and gives him love. Could he be the next Drazen? Who knows. But if he is, making it in the NBA isn't a moonwalk away. It's just an eight-hour flight.

His uncle made sure of that.