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Drazen Petrovic: On the anniversary of his death, a look at his legacy

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In his new book, “Basketball Beyond Borders: The Globalization of The NBA,’ Chris Milholen looks at the role Drazen Petrovic played in making the league international. This is an excerpt.

Indiana Pacers v New Jersey Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Twenty-seven years ago Sunday, Drazen Petrovic was tragically killed in a car accident in Denkendorf, Germany while traveling to Berlin to play for Croatia in a qualification tournament for the 1993 EuroBasket.

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Following the tournament, Petrovic decided to drive back to Croatia with his new girlfriend, Klara Szalantzy, and her friend Hilal Edebal, rather than fly with the team back to Zagreb. At the time, Petrovic was registered to board the plane and fly back with the team. When the flight attendant announced that the plane was missing one passenger, Aleksander Petrovic, Drazen’s older brother, and the assistant coach of the team, informed the attendants that one missing passenger was Drazen Petrovic and he made other arrangements. That night, it was thunderstorm and raining hard.

On the road, Szalantzy was driving a small red Volkswagen Golf car and the three were driving for hours on the Autobahn 9. While she was behind the wheel, Petrovic was sleeping in the passenger’s seat next to her.

Shortly after 5:20 p.m. central European time on June 7, 1993, a truck from the Netherlands swerved on the wet highway road, avoiding another car that cut in front of him and was heading off the road. The truck barreled its way through the median that separated the northbound and southbound lanes and was now in the middle of three southbound lanes. The truck was stopped, spread across all three lanes and the driver was waiving down oncoming cars to slow down. On the autobahn, there are very few speed limits located in certain sections of the highway. According to Edebal, Szalantzy was driving way too fast at the time.

“Going way too fast,” Edebal said. “In Germany, there are some speed limits, but in short places. But, on the autobahn, you can go as fast as a car goes.”

According to the accident report, Szalantzy was driving the small red Volkswagen Golf at 180 kilometers per hour, which translates to 112 miles per hour on a very wet autobahn.

When Szalantzy saw the truck in front of her, she lost control of the Volkswagen Golf and the car slammed into the guardrail and slid into the truck with high impact. She had enough time to reach and turned away with seconds to spare, saving her own life. Edebal, who was in the backseat, was thrown to the front seat, suffering serious injuries to her brain and breaking her arm and right hip. Despite suffering the serious injuries, she survived. For Szalantzy, she spent the week in the hospital and was released. She did not reveal her injuries.

The Volkswagen Golf was left pushed into the right side of the truck and both front doors were forcefully pushed open. When rescue workers arrived on the scene of the crash, they immediately noticed two women showing signs of life and the ambulances quickly rushed them to the nearest hospital, which was the Hospital of Eichstatt.

The remaining person, Petrovic, was still at the crash scene being attended to by rescue workers and fire rescue workers. At the time of the crash, he was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown in the direction of the truck, causing him to receive deadly head trauma.

According to the accident report, Petrovic died on impact. The rescue workers noticed that he was wearing a gold watch, which stopped at the exact time of the accident: 5:20. The rescue workers desperately attempted to revive Petrovic, but their efforts were not successful due to the severity of the head trauma he suffered from the crash. Petrovic was only 28 years old when he passed.

Hours following the fatal crash, the Croatian national team received the news of their captain being killed in a car accident. The following morning, Tuesday, June 8, the New Jersey Nets held a press conference at the Meadowlands Arena. The press conference room was ‘pin drop’ quiet. Willis Reed, the Nets general manager at the time, spoke first, reading a pre-written statement. According to viewers and media who were in attendance, he did not take his eyes off the paper more than two times. At the end of reading the pre-written statement, Reed said “To me, it’s like losing a son” to the reporters present. The Nets general manager answered several questions from the media following the statement, but he could not continue due to his emotions.

Following Reed, Chuck Daly, the Nets head coach, faced the media. Daly is known for his tough attitude and being one of the best coaches in NBA history, but he was a broken man that morning. John Brennan of The Bergen Record recalled how Daly looked and acted that morning.

“Chuck was as unflappable as anyone I ever dealt with, with basketball, with games, injuries,” Brennan remembered. “But this was devastating. He sort of had the pale look of somebody who had been hit so hard in the stomach, and the wind was knocked out of him.”

At the press conference, the Nets head coach spoke about Petrovic’s aggressive and play hard attitude when they played the 1992 “Dream Team” at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Daly addressed the conflicts the two had but how he did everything for the right reasons.

“You can’t get mad at a player like that, no way,” Daly said. “Because he did everything for the right reasons.”

Daly concluded his statements reminding the media even for a young man like Drazen Petrovic, who was coming off a career year and had a bright future ahead of him, nothing is promised.

“This reminds you of how precious life is,” Daly told reporters. “And how much we take for granted.”

Drazen Petrovic’s death stunned not just the teams he was a part of but various leagues across the world. Aleksandar Petrovic, Drazen’s older brother, described the impact his death had on the country of Croatia.

“It’s hard for you to imagine here in America, because you have so many great players, but we have a country of four million; without him, basketball takes three steps back.”

Clyde Drexler, who was a member of the 1992 “Dream Team” that played with Drazen Petrovic during his time with the Portland Trail Blazers, talked about their relationship and the respect he had for him.

“Drazen and I were very good friends,” Drexler said. “I was one of those people who welcomed him to Portland when he came from Europe. We talked about his family a lot in his restaurant, and he enjoyed his friends and he enjoyed the game of basketball. I really respect him because he worked very, very, hard. Each and every day in practice he would be the first guy to come and the last guy to leave the gym. So, anybody with that kind of dedication… you have a lot of respect for him.”

Following his death, the New Jersey Nets retired his number 3 jersey and in 2002, his number 10 was retired by Cibona, the second professional club he played for overseas. Drazen Petrovic was voted as the best European basketball player in history by the players at the 2013 FIBA EuroBasket, and he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Petrovic also received the Olympic Order in 1993, which is the highest award of the Olympic Movement regarding a sport. In 2008, Petrovic was honored as one of the 50 Greatest EuroLeague Contributors.

To this day, Petrovic was and is a huge pioneer in the NBA globalizing as a league.

Dzanan Musa, the Brooklyn Nets shooting guard/small forward, has a special connection to Petrovic. Drazen Petrovic’s mother, Biserka, offered Musa advice prior to joining the NBA and as a kid, Musa looked up to Petrovic.

“Probably people in the USA know a lot of nice stories about Drazen,” Dzennis Musa, Dzanan Musa’s brother said. “When Dzanan was drafted, he had special fillings because Drazen played there [Nets]. He was the main person for basketball globalization outside of the USA. He was the first that came from ex Jugoslavia to the NBA. Still, today people talk about his work ethic.”

“In conversations with Biserka, Petrovic’s mother, she gave advice to Dzanan. Be humble and be ready for your chance. Every beginning is tough and after one year everything will be different. You know Drazen’s story at the beginning of his journey in the USA. Still, today Dzanan has a lot of friends who played with Drazen in the past. They were Dzanan’s coaches in the past and today he has a lot of great advice from them. Drazen left something behind him and that’s the passion for basketball. When you see the Nets as an organization, you can see smart decisions from people on the inside. Special culture and family feeling. Everyone wants to be there. You couldn’t get any better.

“One of the best ways I can describe him is he is the guy that changed the landscape for European players,” Brian Lewis of the New York Post said. “It’s not like today, where everybody, every draft you see, is filled with guys whose names end in ‘ic or ‘nic. That was not the landscape at that point. I am not going to say he singlehandedly changed it but he came pretty close. He showed that European players can not only play in the NBA but thrive and be a go to player and that knocked down a few barriers or a glass ceiling. This is obviously long before a Porzingis or a Parker and it is before Dirk. He blazed the trail for those guys. He was also the first European player to be named All-NBA.”

David Stern, the NBA’s Commissioner at the time of Drazen Petrovic’s sudden death, spoke highly of him and how he paved the way for other international players.

“Drazen Petrovic was an extraordinarily young man, and a true pioneer in the global sports of basketball,” Stern said. “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.”

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To this date, Petrovic is one of the most accomplished and successful European players of all time with a decorative resume in his 10 years he played overseas in Europe.

In his NBA career, he blossomed with New Jersey. In his final season with the Nets and in the NBA, he led the Nets to another playoff appearance with a 43-39 record, playing in 70 games and starting 67 of them.

He capped off the regular season averaging career-highs in minutes (38.0), points (22.3), and assists (3.5). On top of his career-highs, Petrovic shot career-highs in both from three (.449) and from the field (.518). He was named to the All-NBA Third Team but was snubbed from the 1993 NBA All-Star Game due to heavy guard depth in the Eastern Conference.

As Lewis said, Petrovic played a large part in the Nets success and he is convinced the team would have been long-term contenders if we got the chance to see Petrovic’s career pan out.

“Drazen was a large part in completing that Nets team,” Lewis said. “You look and you say ‘alright, this team has a nice young tandem in Derrick [Coleman] and Kenny [Anderson] but when you looked for the shooting, he went a long way to becoming a perfect compliment for those guys. This was a guy that was kept on the bench in Portland, he was not going to get those opportunities with Clyde [Drexler] there, but to come over to New Jersey and averse 20 and almost 45 percent shooting from deep, he was a perfect foil for those guys. He made that team a dangerous team and one that I am convinced would have been a contender long-term if we had the chance to see Drazen’s career unfolded the way it should have.”