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For New Jersey Nets, the death of Kobe Bryant brings back memories of another lost prince

New Jersey Nets v Washington Bullets Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The news came not in a tweet from L.A., but in phone calls from Germany. Drazen Petrovic, the Nets All-NBA guard —and future Hall of Famer— had died in a car crash on the Autobahn, sending two nations, the U.S. and Croatia into mourning.

It was June 7, 1993. The season was over, no games to play, but then, like now, the feelings were the same: raw.

“Hurt, pain, grief, all of the above,” Kenny Anderson, a Petrovic teammate now coaching basketball at Fisk University in Nashville, told Fred Kerber, writing for the Post. “I was shocked with the whole Kobe situation. I guess it was the way it happened with both. One in a car, the other in a [helicopter].”

For the Nets of that era, Kobe Bryant’s death refreshed a lot of memories of the tragedy and the player, who wasn’t just supremely skilled but a great motivator. It’s been said that the next season, the Nets missed him as much in the locker room as they did on the court.

“When I heard about Kobe, it wasn’t yet confirmed, and the first thing that went through my mind was early June, 1993. It brought me back, 100 percent,” said Jayson Williams, a Petrovic teammate and now a healthcare recovery specialist in Florida. “I was devastated. I remember crying and crying.”

Just as Bryant’s teammates and friends are doing now. It’s natural, Kerber writes, quoting not a teammate but an NBA referee from Jersey.

“Trauma is inescapable,” said former NBA ref Bob Delaney, an ex-undercover New Jersey state trooper who for more than 30 years has been a leadership consultant working with the armed forces, law enforcement agencies worldwide, plus pro and collegiate leagues in dealing with post-traumatic stress.

So how does a player, a team, a league deal with the death of one of its own?, Kerber asked.

“What they’re feeling are normal reactions to an abnormal situation,” Delaney said. “What I would underline to them is their grieving is individual. It’s not a 10-step program or that within a week or 10 days everything is going to be fine.”

Everyone deals with it in their own way.

In fact, that Nets team was star-crossed. In addition to the loss of Petrovic, Dwayne Schintzius, and the Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly all died young. Williams was charged with killing his limo driver and served prison time. Anderson is recovering from a stroke.

The loss of course was greater in Croatia, his homeland where he is still revered at a museum in Zagreb. After the death, Willis Reed, Chris Dudley and Chris Morris attended the funeral along with tens of thousands of others. Reed tears up every time he talks about finding out and getting the word out to his farflung teammates.

“When I heard about Kobe, I was thinking of all the athletes we lost,” said John Mertz, the former Nets director of public relations who made the calls to Petrovic’s teammates.

Now, to a lesser degree of course, the hurt has returned.

“When two great basketball players lose their lives in car [and helicopter] accidents, it’s just crazy,” Anderson said. “I don’t know what to say.”