Yesterday’s ABA was “funk and circumstance.” Today’s NBA is “trapped” in hip hop. So where does classical music fit in? Drazen Petrovic.
Many aspects of the professional game have evolved since “the merger,” but some things have remained consistent. Regardless of style, great players flow. They make ankle breaking look smooth, draining threes like painting the net, and threading the needle assists like, well, threading a needle. Drazen Petrovic’s mastery of all three gained him the nickname, “The Mozart of Basketball.” His artistry on the court, best described by one of the OGs of music. Yeah, music. Period. This intersection of basketball and art is just one of many in Drazen Petrovic’s incredible journey. And mine.
Growing up a Nets fan in 1990s New Jersey wasn’t easy. Coverage was even harder to find than today. The Nets were never in the conversation with the media markets in New York and Philadelphia focused on their namesake teams. But in January of 1991, things began to change. As with the Jason Kidd trade a decade later, Drazen’s arrival from Portland jumpstarted the Nets. Not only did their record improve, the energy the “Croatian Sensation” brought was infectious and his work ethic was inspirational. But as his NBA fortunes were improving, those of his homeland were declining.
The fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc led to the collapse of many states who had been held together, up until that point, by phony borders. Drazen’s homeland of Yugoslavia quickly descended into civil war. Hundreds of years of grievances resurfaced and the world was forced to learn a new term: ethnic cleansing. His intersection with New Jersey coincided with one of the worst events in world history. As many as 250,000 people died as one country became first five, then six, then seven.
As an immigrant, a pioneer, trying to adjust to a new culture, environment, and game, this was a heavy load to carry. Drazen was part of the first wave of foreign players trying to establish themselves in the NBA. Making it worse was the stream of bad news from 5,000 miles away. Through it all, he persevered, succeeded, and excelled, even after losing the support of an important friend.
While Drazen was one of the first European players to gain traction in the US, there were a few others that preceeded him. One of them was his Yugoslav teammate, Vlade Divac. The fact that Drazen was Croatian and Vlade was Serbian did not make much difference while Yugoslavia was still one country. However, after the civil war started, the fight at home stilled their friendship and they stopped speaking. Unfortunately, they did not have a chance to reconcile before Drazen’s tragic death in 1992.
In his death, Drazen became a national hero, an icon. His face is everywhere on posters, statues, etc.
The Slavic cultures have many differences, starting with religion. But they also share a great deal. Regardless of government or borders, Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenians, Macedonians, and Montenegrans have mixed for millennia. In fact, Drazen’s father was of Serbian decent while his mother is Croatian. His story began with cross-cultural intersection. Call it a symphony, perhaps.
My own intersection with Drazen, the player and the human being, started during this period, as a Nets fan. At the same time I was rooting for him as a player in the early 90s, I was also heavily involved with my high school Model United Nations. As one can imagine, our debates and conferences were dominated by the headlines, the Yugoslav civil war. My interest in the region, spurred by my interest in basketball, grew.
They constructed this combined crew to #BridgeTheGap between their countries and cultures, inspiring their peers to let go of old resentments. In April of 2016, I had the opportunity to run the Belgrade Marathon and was then hosted by both Belgrade and Zagreb run crews. Luckily for me, one of the Zagreb Runners, Miran Crnosija, is the curator for the Drazen Petrovic Museum.
Knowing that I grew up watching Drazen just as they did, Miran and my Zagreb running friends gave me an incredible history of Drazen, his roots, and his effect on Yugoslav and European basketball ... and a tour.
My detailed tour of both the museum and the Drazen Petrovic Basketball Hall, home arena to his former team KK Cibona, brought home how far he had travelled in life, culture, and circumstance, to succeed on the highest stage of basketball. While many aspects of his story echo the classic immigrant narrative, his path to an intersection with the NBA was anything but typical or predictable or assured. It was a moment in time, an unexpected movement that surprises and delights.
On Drazen Petrovic Night at Barclays Center, let us truly appreciate his hard work, sacrifice, talent, and spirit. Zivjeli to the Mozart of Basketball!
- Dennis Lin