Dražen Petrović (October 22, 1964 – June 7, 1993) was a Croatian-Yugoslavian basketball player. He led the BC Cibona Zagreb team to every possible title with two European Championships, a European Cup Championship, a National Championship, and a National Cup Championship. A prolific scorer, Petrović is arguably the most celebrated basketball player to ever emerge from Europe; his basketball prowess earned him the nickname "Mozart of basketball" and "basketball Amadeus" from European journalists and fans.
Petrović played professionally in the NBA for two teams, the Portland Trailblazers and the New Jersey Nets. Petrović was the leader of a vanguard of significant numbers of talented European players who were suddenly available to the National Basketball Association as a result of the fall of communist governments in Eastern Europe. He played a leading role in making professional basketball a global sport.
Born in Šibenik, a city on the Croatian coast, in the former Yugoslavia, Dražen Petrović was the second child of Montenegrin Jovan "Jole" and Croatian Biserka Petrović. The couple's first child, Aleksandar, would be the first one to tread the basketball path, providing a lead for young Dražen to follow. Growing up he played basketball every chance he could, routinely playing in neighborhood pickup games. At night he would shoot for hours by himself from every spot on the court and would even sleep with his basketball. At the age of thirteen Dražen started playing in the youth selections of the local BC Šibenka and at age fifteen he had already made the first team, just as Šibenka earned a place in the national first division.
With young Petrović as the star of the team, Šibenka reached the final of the Radivoj Korać Cup twice (1982 and 1983), losing to CSP Limoges both times. In 1983 the 18 year-old Petrović hit two free throws in Šibenka's victory over BC Bosna Sarajevo in the final playoff game of the Yugoslavian club championship, but the title was taken away from Šibenka the next day by the national basketball federation and awarded to Bosnia shortly after, with irregularities in refereeing cited as the reason.
Petrović regularly played for the Yugoslavian national team in the Balkan Championships, winning bronze and gold with the junior team and silver with the first team. In 1982 he also brought back the silver from the European Championship for Junior Men in Greece.
Petrović's numbers caught the attention of Notre Dame University in the United States and they offered him a basketball scholarship in 1984. Petrović was only 19 years old at the time and turned down the offer.
Rise to European stardom
|Olympic medal record|
|Competitor for Yugoslavia / Croatia|
|Bronze||1984 Los Angeles||Yugoslavia|
After spending a year serving the compulsory time in the military, Petrović followed his brother's footsteps and moved to BC Cibona Zagreb to form one of the best backcourt duos in Europe. His first year in Cibona they won both the Yugoslav championship and the national cup. To top it off, the 87 to 78 victory over Real Madrid (Petrović contributed 39 points) brought him and Cibona their first European Cup title. The second came the following year, as Petrović scored 22 points and Cibona defeated BC Žalgiris Kaunas, which starred the legendary Arvydas Sabonis. The same year brought another national cup title for Cibona, with Petrović scoring 46 against the old rival Bosna. In 1987 Petrović earned his third European trophy—a European Cup Winners Cup title against BC Scavolini Pesaro, with 28 points.
Petrović also won a bronze in the 1984 Summer Olympics with the Yugoslavian national team. His team also placed third at the World Championship in 1986, remembered for the last minute thriller in the semi-final game against the Soviet Union. From the European Championship in 1987, Petrović again returned with the bronze, as Yugoslavia lost to the hosts and gold medalists, Greece. The University Games, held in Zagreb in 1987, saw the Yugoslavian squad with Petrović win the gold. In the 1988 Summer Olympics Petrović's team earned second place, as Yugoslavia lost once more to the Soviet powerhouse.
Petrović's scoring average during the four years with Cibona stood at 37.7 points in the Yugoslavian first division and 33.8 in European competitions, with personal one-time bests of 112 and 62 points, respectively. His scoring sheet often showed 40, 50, even 60 in a single game. In an 1986 European League game against Limoges, Petrović scored nine three-pointers, including seven in a row during a first half stretch, for a final tally of 45 points and 25 assists.
Seeking new challenges Petrović turned down the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA, who had already used their third round pick on him in 1986, and instead signed in 1988 with Real Madrid for a hefty sum of around four million dollars.
In his first game back in Zagreb, as a player for Real Madrid, Petrović scored 36 points in 30 minutes. He also received a standing ovation from a capacity crowd that lasted over ten minutes. Although the national championship barely escaped them, losing to Barcelona in the fifth and decisive game of the final series, Petrović helped Real to the national cup title over their Catalonian rivals. Petrović also led the club to victory in the European Cup Winners Cup final against Snaidero Caserta by tying his previous best scoring performance in European competitions (62 points). His first season in the ACB was also his last, but he still holds ACB single performance bests in a final series game in points made (42) and three-pointers made (eight).
An excellent season in the club competitions was topped by Petrović's 1989 accomplishments with the national team—at the Eurobasket in Zagreb the young Yugoslavian team went all the way, defeating Greece comfortably in the championship game. Petrović was the tournament's second leading scorer and MVP.
In his many statements prior to arriving in Portland, Petrović claimed lack of playing time would be the only possible obstacle to his success in the NBA and in his first season with the Blazers, those concerns were realized. With Portland's starting backcourt of Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter already established, the reigning European Player of the Year was reduced to playing 12 minutes per game—minutes collected largely in "garbage time"—allowing him a mere 7.4 points per game. However, he did reach the 1990 NBA finals with Portland, who eventually lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games. The beginning of the 1990-1991 season brought Petrović's frustration to a climax, as his playing time dropped to seven minutes a game. In the first half of the 1990-91 season the Trail Blazers kept Petrović on the bench in 20 of 38 games before trading him to the New Jersey Nets in a three-team deal that brought Walter Davis to Portland.
The summer between the two most frustrating seasons of his professional career Petrović was again making history with the national team, as Yugoslavia became world champions, beating the Soviet Union for the gold in Buenos Aires.
On January 23, 1991, Petrović became a member of the New Jersey Nets. Petrović was now a part of a team that featured two of the best young prospects in the league—Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman—but a team that hadn't reached the playoffs since 1986. Determined not to see a repeat of the Portland years, he immediately responded to increased playing time (20.5 minutes per game), holding a scoring average of 12.6 points per game in 43 games with the Nets. His first complete season with the Nets was truly stellar: not missing a single game, Petro, as he had been dubbed, averaged 20.6 points in 36.9 minutes on the floor, leading all NBA guards in field goal percentage (51 percent); he established himself as the team leader and was proclaimed the team's MVP. More significantly, his success translated into team success, as the Nets recorded 14 more wins than the season before and made the playoffs. For his encore, in the 1992-1993 season, Petrović increased his scoring average (22.3) and repeated the excellent three-point field goal percentage from the previous season (45 percent), again leading all guards in field goal percentage (52 percent). American media honored him with a selection to the All-NBA Third Team. Failure to receive an invitation to the 1993 All-Star game came as a great disappointment to Petrović—he was the only one among the top 15 scorers in the NBA that season who did not get invited.
The 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona marked the first summer olympiad featuring the independent Croatia, and Petrović was the leader of the Croatian national basketball team. The team was playing against the backdrop of a civil war in which the Croatians had just declared independence in June in response to president Slobodan Milosevic's pro-Serbian policies. Thousands of Croats were killed or went missing and tens of thousands were forced to abandon their homes. Petrović's leadership in those difficult circumstances took the inspired Croatian team into the finals with clutch free throws executed by Petrović in the semi-final game against the Soviet Unified Team. In the end, the now-legendary team composed of NBA stars proved too tough for Croatia, sending Petrović and his teammates home with silver medals. Leading this underdog team into the finals added significantly to Petrović's legendary status in Croatia.
After the Nets fell in the first round of the 1993 Playoffs, Petrović, unhappy with New Jersey managements slow efforts to renegotiate his contract, told reporters he would probably accept a two-year offer to play pro ball in Greece. He then left for Europe to rejoin the Croatian national team in European Cup competition.
For personal reasons, Petrović decided not to return to Croatia from Poland together with his teammates, but in a private vehicle. Dražen Petrović died as a passenger in a car involved in a traffic accident on the rain-drenched Autobahn 9 at Denkendorf, near Ingolstadt, in the German state of Bavaria, at approximately 17:20 on June 7th, 1993, four and a half months before his 29th birthday.
According to the report of the Ingolstadt police, that afternoon a truck broke through the Autobahn median—the driver was trying to avoid a collision with a private vehicle in his own lane and lost control of the truck—which crashed through the highway barrier and finally came to a stop, only to block all three lanes of traffic in the Munich direction. It was seconds later that the VW Golf carrying a sleeping Petrović in the passenger seat crashed into the truck, killing only him, and leaving the driver, Klara Szalantzy, a German model with whom Petrović was romantically involved, and the backseat passenger, a female Turkish basketball player, with grave injuries. It was established that visibility on the road was very poor and that Petrović was not wearing a seatbelt.
The loss particularly stunned European fans. “It's hard for you to imagine here in America, because you have so many great players,” his brother told the New York Daily News. “But we are a country of four million. Without him, basketball takes three steps back.”
Dražen Petrović's tomb at Mirogoj instantly become a sanctuary for his compatriots. The Cibona stadium was renamed the Dražen Petrović Basketball Hall on October 4, 1993, and the city of Zagreb dedicated a square in his name. The Nets retired his number three jersey on November 11, 1993. Since 1994, the MVP award at the McDonalds Championship (the series between the NBA Champion and the European Champion) has born the name Dražen Petrović Trophy. On April 29, 1995, a statue commemorating Petrović's significance to the world of sports was erected in front of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, thus making him only the second athlete to receive this honor.
Petrović was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. On July 9th, 2001, having defeated Patrick Rafter at Wimbledon, Croatian tennis player Goran Ivanišević dedicated the win to his late friend Petrović and wore Petrović's Nets jersey amidst the 100,000 strong crowd celebrating his victory in Split.
His amazing talent and affect he had on basketball gave birth to these comments by NBA Commissioner David Stern: “Dražen Petrović was an extraordinary young man, and a true pioneer in the global sports of basketball. I know that a lasting 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 of the fact we knew him.”
Magic Johnson, who was part of Dražen's Hall of Fame class, said, “He opened the door for all the other [European] guys that have come behind him. Dražen was definitely a Hall of Fame player because you could not stop him. He was one of the first guys that came from Europe that could get his shot off of the dribble.” Chuck Daly, who coached Dražen when he was with the Nets, said Petrović was “a phenomenal player ... who would have been probably one of the top 10 scorers in the league.”
The Dražen Petrović Memorial Center
In 2006, the 13th anniversary of Petrović's death was marked with the opening of the Dražen Petrović Memorial Center in Zagreb, a grand temple dedicated to Petrović's person and achievements, with ten themed galleries of multimedia content outlining his entire career.
The Memorial Center is a co-operative effort led by the Dražen Petrović Foundation in conjunction with the Croatian government, the City of Zagreb and the Croatian Museum of Sports. The memorial center idea originated from Petrović's parents, Biserka and Jole Petrović, and was supported with the contributions of reknowned Croatian architects Andrija Rusan and Niksa Bilic.
Accomplishments and awards
|1982||Korać Cup||Finalist||BC Šibenka|
|1983||Korać Cup||Finalist||BC Šibenka|
|1985||European Cup||Winner||BC Cibona|
|1985||Yugoslavian Championship||Winner||BC Cibona|
|1985||Yugoslavian Cup||Winner||BC Cibona|
|1986||European Cup||Winner||BC Cibona|
|1986||Yugoslavian Championship||Finalist||BC Cibona|
|1986||Yugoslavian Cup||Winner||BC Cibona|
|1987||European Cup Winners Cup||Winner||BC Cibona|
|1987||Yugoslavian Championship||Finalist||BC Cibona|
|1988||Yugoslavian Cup||Winner||BC Cibona|
|1988||Korać Cup||Finalist||BC Cibona|
|1989||Spanish Cup||Winner||Real Madrid|
|1989||Spanish Championship||Finalist||Real Madrid|
|1989||European Cup Winners Cup||Winner||Real Madrid|
|1990||NBA Playoffs||Finalist||Portland Trail Blazers|
- YUBA most points scored by an individual in a league game (112)
- ACB most points scored by an individual in a final series game (42)
- ACB most 3PT field goals made by an individual in a final series game (eight)
- NBA 1992 field goal percentage leader among guards (first)
- NBA 1993 field goal percentage leader among guards (first)
- NBA most 3PT field goals made with none missed in a three-game playoff series (tied with two)
- NBA All-Time 3PT field goal percentage leader (third)
|1980||Balkan Championship for Junior Men||Istanbul, Turkey||3rd||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1981||Balkan Championship for Cadets||Thessaloniki, Greece||1st||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1982||Balkan Championship for Junior Men||Patras, Greece||1st||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1982||European Championship for Junior Men||Dimitrovgrad and Haskovo, Bulgaria||2nd||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1983||University Games||Edmonton, Canada||2nd||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1984||Balkan Championship||Athens, Greece||2nd||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1984||Olympic Games||Los Angeles, United States||3rd||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1986||World Championship||Madrid, Spain||3rd||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1987||University Games||Zagreb, SFR Yugoslavia||1st||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1987||Eurobasket||Athens, Greece||3rd||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1988||Olympic Games||Seoul, South Korea||2nd||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1989||Eurobasket||Zagreb, SFR Yugoslavia||1st||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1990||World Championship||Buenos Aires, Argentina||1st||SFR Yugoslavia|
|1992||Olympic Games||Barcelona, Spain||2nd||Croatia|
- Balkan Championship for Junior Men 1982 Best Player
- World Championship 1986 MVP
- European Championship 1989 MVP
- Huber, Jim. Dražen Petrović@NBA Planet Inside the NBA, January 12th, 2006. Retrieved August 14, 2020.
- O'Donnell, Chuck. A Basketball Pioneer, Basketball Digest. Summer 2003.
- Shannon, Bill and Sprechman, Jordan. This Day in New York Sports. Sports Publishing LLC, 1998. ISBN 1571672540
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