Dražen Petrović: the Genius of Sibenik

Dražen Petrović: the Genius of Sibenik

By Esteban Abed at Interbasquet (Argentina)

Considered the best shooter in the history of European basketball, "Petro" dazzled in his short stint in the NBA with impecable ball control and court vision like few others.  During the 1980s, the NBA began to undergo an important transition at the international level with the arrival of great players from the European continent, a migration that was accelerated by the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. While some talents entered the league with a timidly, Dražen Petrović dominated European hoops, both with the national team (Ex Yugoslavia) as well as with KK Cibona of Zagreb (Croatia) and with Real Madrid of Spain. Nicknamed "the Mozart of basketball," the 1.97-meter-tall guard was characterized by having excellent handle, which allowed him to cover forward positions and even be used as a shooting guard. A fearsome player in one-on-one situations, in addition to having truly remarkable court vision and precision passing his game magnified his legend as a basketball legend.

After being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 60th pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, Petrović didn’t join the team until 1989, after an abrupt exit from Real Madrid that caused the immediate discontent of the Madrid fans.

In his Rookie season he did not have a good season, having to back up Clyde Drexler, "Petro" averaged just 7.6 points and 12.6 minutes per game in 77 games. In his second season things got even more complicated for the Croatian - during the first half of the regular season he played  in only 18 games out of 38. The franchise traded to New Jersey in a three-team trade that sent Walter Davis to Portland.

The Nets also used him sparingly early on, but gave him plenty of playing time and his scoring average improved  to 12.6 points per game. Averaging 20.5 minutes in 43 games, he had one of the best points-per-minute ratios in the league. Dražen worked diligently on his outside shooting, often staying after games to work on his long range shooting. The Croatian's outside shot gave him the opportunity to start the next season and his ppg average jumped to 20.6 points per game. He began to gain recognition throughout the league as one of the best outside shooters in the NBA - making 123 of 277 3-point attempts that season, ranking second in the NBA with a 44.4 percentage. Petrović also led the Nets in shooting from the field (50.8) and free throws (80.8). In the 1992 offseason, Dražen returned to his homeland to lead newly independent Croatia to a silver medal at the 1992 Olympics and provide the only, albeit brief, scare to the United States' Dream Team throughout. the tournament. In the gold medal round, Croatia took a 25-23 lead against the Dream Team before falling 117-85.

His numbers in the NBA improved even more in 1992-93. In addition to leading the Nets in scoring (22.3 points per game), he set the pace for the team with a field goal percentage of 51.8 and a field goal percentage of 44.9 from three-point range. The media voted him to the All-NBA third team at the end of the season. The fans loved his enthusiasm and energy, and his coaches admired the fact that he spent the offseason time improving his game, especially his defense. After the Nets lost in the first round of the 1993 playoffs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, "Petro", unhappy with New Jersey management, told reporters that he would likely accept a two-year offer to play professional baskeball in Greece. These statements caused tension between him and his teammates, and the Nets did not renew his contract. However, it was later learned that the franchise was waiting for his return after his commitment to the Croatian national team to offer him a contract that was only going to be surpassed in numbers by the one Michael Jordan had received.

In the last tilt of the qualifying tournament in Poland, Petrović scored 30 points and instead of traveling to Munich, Germany by plane with the rest of the squad, he decided to take a detour by car to visit his girlfriend. On a rainy afternoon on June 7, 1993, one of the most tragic losses in the basketball world would take place - Dražen Petrović was killed in a car accident when a truck crossed into the path of his car in Denkendorf, Germany. 

According to reports from the Ingolstadt police, the truck driver tried to avoid a collision with another car and lost control, crossing into Petrović's lane which was being driven by his girlfriend, Klara Szalantzy. Visibility that day appeared to be very poor and Petrović was not wearing a seat belt. Dražen Petrović passed away at the pinnacle of his NBA career, causing great pain around the world. His brother declared in the New York Daily News: “It is difficult for you to imagine it here in America, because you have so many great players. But we are (for Croatia) a country of four million. Without him, basketball takes three steps back." Chuck Daly, coach of the New Jersey Nets said in a Newark Star-Ledger report: “You couldn't have wanted a better teammate.” He added, “He was so talented, he played very hard and he knew how to lead by example."

Sam Bowie, Nets center said: "Even if you were a fan of another team, you could not help but to be impressed by him." In late 1993, the Nets retired Petrović's No. 3 uniform in tribute. Another lasting legacy left behind by “the Genius of Sibenik” is the Dražen Petrović Trophy awarded to the MVP of the McDonalds Championship, the series between the NBA Champion and the European Champion. David Stern, NBA commissioner at the time, paid him a great tribute: “Dražen Petrović was an extraordinary young man and a true pioneer in the world sport of basketball. An enduring part of his athletic legacy will be that he paved the way for other international players to compete successfully in the NBA. His contributions to the sport of basketball were enormous. We are all proud to have met him.”