Kenny Atkinson played across Europe after graduating the University of Richmond back in 1990. He had moments in Italy, France, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands until he retired in 2004.
He, more than any of his players, know the legend of Drazen Petrovic, the New Jersey Net who created the European flow to the NBA.
“Ah man, I was such a huge fan,” Atkinson said of the late Petrovic, whose memory will be honored at the Nets game Monday night. “I loved how passionate (he was). When I was playing over in Europe, through the grapevine you just heard about his legendary work ethic, how insane he was in terms of going back to the gym at two in the morning, how many shots he shot.”
Atkinson never met Petrovic or played against him. Atkinson was heading to Europe as the Croatian sensation was coming to the NBA. But as a basketball junkie, Atkinson knows well the reputation he left behind. Atkinson said he had nothing but the utmost respect for the man he labeled an “ultimate competitor.”
“It’s a great story, man, it gets me excited,” said Atkinson. “I was huge fan. I’m a Europhile, too – I thought that was really cool to prove how guys from over there can, not only be good players, but really make a mark in this league.
Drazen Petrovic, who averaged over 20 points and shot nearly 45% from three at his Nets peak, was one of the first European imports to truly star on the NBA level. Other European players had come through the NCAA on their way to the NBA, but Petrovic, a 6’5” shooting guard par excellence, came straight to the states from Europe.
After a non-descript rookie season as a back-up with the Trail Blazers in 1989-90, Petrovic demanded a trade in November 1990. He was stuck behind Terry Porter, Clyde Drexler and Danny Ainge and played just 11 minutes in the Blazers’ first six games. Off he went to New Jersey in January. He rewarded the Nets by averaging 12.6 points in 20.5 minutes, all of them off the bench.
In 1991-92, the Croatian born-sharpshooter exploded, hitting for 20.6 points a game, shooting 44.4 percent from deep. Then, in 1992-93, he upped his game again, to 22.3 points and 44.9 percent. Although he didn’t make the All-Star game, which frustrated him, Petrovic became the first European to make the All-NBA team that summer. Then, suddenly, all of his and the Nets dreams were shattered. He was killed in an car accident on the German autobahn. The date: June 7, 1993.
“I remember reading about it that first day like ‘no way, this is not possible,’” Atkinson said Friday. Now, as Nets coach, he revels in the connection. “Just really euphoric about that he was a Net, he was a hell of an NBA player, and the tragedy part that obviously … passing away like that is just tragic.”
Nearly 25 full seasons later, with his number retired in the rafters at Barclays Center, he’ll be honored by the team during their Monday game with the Chicago Bulls, a game that will feature four Europeans and a total of six foreign-born players, a Petrovic legacy.