"There's a kid in Sibenik who will be better than any of us. He's a born talent who in addition has the willingness to work, is very ambitious and does amazing things. He's called Drazen Petrovic. Remember that name."
Zoran "Moka" Slavnic, 1979
Another highlight of the 2008-09 Euroleague regular season's opening week comes tonight when, before Cibona plays Maccabi Tel Aviv at home in Zagreb, the hosts pay homage to a world basketball icon in the arena named after him. The late Drazen Petrovic was much more than a basketball legend. He was, as an Italian journalist nicknamed him early in his career, "The Mozart of Basketball". He was also a symbol of Croatian pride who was also adored by fans worldwide. An incredible shooter with unlimited range and shot-creating ability, Petrovic routinely scored 40 points or more in European Cup games in the 1980s. His passing skills, leadership and singular determination added to his reputation, just as his passion and work ethic turned him into one of the sport's best guards ever. A career-long breaker of barriers, Petrovic led unheralded Cibona to consecutive European club titles in 1985 and 1986, then became the first European without NCAA training to become an all-NBA choice. His early passing 15 years ago in a car accident denied Petrovic a full chance to conquer two continents, but on the day after what would have been his 44th birthday, Petrovic's legend lives on, in Croatia and far beyond.
Born in the Croatian town of Sibenik in October 22, 1964, Petrovic followed his brother Aleksandar, who also became a well-known player and long-time coach, into basketball. After endless hours playing with Aca all over the city, Drazen joined Basketball Club Sibenka at age 13. He instantly shocked the coaches with his ballhandling, basketball IQ and outstanding shooting and passing skills. By 15, Drazen debuted with Sibenka's pro team. His lifelong friend and future head coach, Neven Spahija, witnessed Drazen's outstanding work ethic. He tells of Drazen stepping on court at 7 in the morning to take 500 shots, arriving first to and leaving last from every practice. He dominated so many junior competitions with 50-points-plus showings that by 16 he was considered the former Yugoslavia's best young player.
Coached by another legend, Zoran "Moka" Slavnic, Petrovic was immediately a team leader at age 17, averaging 16.3 points in the 1981-82 Yugoslav League and propelling tiny Sibenka to the Korac Cup final. Still practicing tirelessly, Petrovic took huge steps higher each year. At 18, although Sibenka lost in the Korac Cup final again, he averaged 24.5 points as the team won the Yugoslav League against all odds, coming back from 19 points behind to win the final on his last-second free throws. The next morning, however, Yugoslav basketball authorities disallowed his game-winning free throws and ordered a rematch, but Sibenka refused to play and identical trophies and medals were given to the other team.
After helping Yugoslavia win a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics, Petrovic turned down bigger offers to play alongside his brother Aca at Cibona. In his first Euroleague game, against Real Madrid in Zagreb, he scored 44 points in a 99-90 win. Neither did he show mercy against Sibenka, scoring 56 points against his hometown team. Cibona and Real Madrid would also meet in the Euroleague final, where Drazen dropped 36 points, 26 in the second half, of an 87-78 win. With the continental crown came another Yugoslav one. And though brother Aca left Cibona before the 1985-86 season, Drazen did even better in 1986, dropping 44 points against Maccabi, 47 against Milano, 40 against Zalgiris, and a whopping 48 plus 20 assists on the road against Real Madrid. Perhaps his biggest Euroleague game, however, came with Cibona down 16 points after 13 minutes against Limoges. Drazen nailed 7 consecutive three-point shots on his way to 51 points, 10 assists and a 116-106 Cibona win. In that season's continental final, he scored a modest 22 points, but Cibona topped Zalgiris 94-82 for back-to-back trophies.
Soon, he started collecting different trophies, the 1987 Cup Winners' Cup, after he scored 28 points in the final against Scavolini Pesaro. In the 1988 Korac Cup, Cibona faced Real Madrid in the two-game final with the public knowledge that Petrovic was going to the Spanish powerhouse the next season.Petrovic had 47 points against his future team, but Cibona lost by a narrow margin. In his four seasons with Cibona, Petrovic scored 5,600 points in Yugoslav League and continetal play. Moreover, his working methods - morning practices, shooting marathons, constant improvement - influenced the generation of players to follow, who themselves have lifted European basketball to new heights.
Although Petrovic arrived in Madrid with a long contract, he remained only one season, but that was enough to enhance his legend. With Cibona, Petrovic had a 5-0 record against Real Madrid. But now in a Madrid uniform, he had to face Cibona in the 1989 Saporta Cup semifinals. His free throws gave Madrid a 91-92 first-leg win in Zagreb and he scored 47 points in the second leg to advance to the title game. The final against Snaidero Caserta is widely regarded as one of best games ever in European club competition. Madrid won 117-113 in overtime and Petrovic had 62 points on 12-for-14 two-pointers, 8-for-16 triples and 14-for-15 free throws. Sadly enough, it would be the last game in European club competition for both Drazen and his Madrid teammate, Fernando Martin, whose subsequent death in a car accident foreshadowed that of Petrovic.. The had been rivals, teammates and NBA newcomers with the same team, Portland, and both passed away in identically tragic circumstances.
Once in the NBA, Petrovic had to play behind club icon Clyde Drexler and averaged 7.6 points in his rookie year. Having triumphed in Europe, Petrovic suffered from lack of opportunity during his 18 months with the Blazers, but he dedicated himself to strength work in order to play NBA-style defense. By the time he was traded to New Jersey in January 1991, Petrovic had led Yugoslavia to win the gold medal at the 1990 World Championships, scoring 31 points in the semifinals against the United States. He was ready to explode in the NBA, too. As soon as he got to New Jersey, Petrovic became a superstar. In the 1991-92 season, Drazen averaged 20.6 points, shocking the non-believers with his unlimited range and outstanding shooting skills, scoring 44 points in one game. That summer, he led newly-independent Croatia to the Olympic games final against the U.S. Dream Team to earn a silver medal. In his last season in the NBA, Petrovic boosted his scoring average to 22.3 points and reached the all-NBA third team.
Back in Europe that summer for the 1993 continental championship, Petrovic was due to fly from Frankfurt to Zagreb, but opted instead to drive home by car with a friend. Petrovic died in a car crash on June 7, 1993 in southern Germany. He was 28. Even when 15 years full of accolades have followed - he belongs to every hall of fame in basketball - those who had the honour to see him play still rank him among the sport's all-time greates. More than merely a one-of-a-kind superstar, Drazen Petrovic set a standard of excellence that continues to resonate through European and world basketball.