Updated: September 27, 11:11 PM ET
'Petro' fueled Europe's passion for NBA
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com
They used to live in a northern New Jersey high-rise apartment building, Chris Dudley's doorbell forever buzzing with his Nets teammate peering back in the eyehole, eager for a workout. He had been a sweet, earnest friend to Dudley, who never understood the magnitude of the man until he was gone. He had traveled to Croatia for a state funeral, seeing the soldiers saluting, the old men and young children crying in the streets. These are his snapshots of a nation's love for its lost basketball hero, a shooting star burned out far too soon.
Finally on Friday, they'll induct him into the Basketball Hall of Fame. They'll deliver him his due. At 28 years old, he was the hint of the future, the shooter that old Nets coach Bill Fitch turned into a complete player, the All-Star that makes old Nets general manager Willis Reed say, "Drazen would've made that shot," when he witnesses an open NBA shooter miss a 3-pointer. Petrovic was once a hint of tomorrow turned into a terrible regret of yesterday. What a magnificent talent. What a waste of a promising life.
Before the crash, Reed, armed with a $15 million offer for his free agent guard, had a trip planned to Croatia. Every time he traveled there, Reed was amazed at how adored Petrovic was overseas. He was the first true star to cross into NBA stardom, the man breaking down the walls to glory. Most of Europe loved the Nets for No. 3, the way they eventually loved the Bulls for No. 23.
"Drazen was with us for a short time, two years and part of a third season, but not many people could've had the affect he did while he was here," said Reed, the Hall of Fame center who was picked to present Petrovic at the enshrinement ceremonies in Springfield, Mass. "Derrick (Coleman) wasn't the big man on the team. Petro was the guy to carry the load, the guy who gave us chances to win big games.
"The destiny of our franchise changed with his death."
Every so often, something happens and the memories of Petrovic come flooding back to people. It happened this summer in Indianapolis, when Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic delivered the World Championship. It happened a year ago, when Croat countryman Goran Ivanisevic won Wimbledon. Biserka Petrovic greeted Ivanisevic in the Split Airport, throwing herself into his arms for honoring a promise made to her late son. Out of nowhere, Ivanisevic won Wimbledon. There was so much of Petrovic's charisma within the tennis player, so much of his bravado.
"I was hugging my son's spirit," Biserka Petrovic marveled.
Hundreds of thousands of countryman packed Split Central Square to celebrate the Grand Slam championship, just like they had to mourn Petrovic's passing years ago. These were two of the greatest sportsmen ever born to these people, so it was fitting that, in Ivanisevic's most glorious moment returning home, he made sure the world never forgets his lost friend.
"My friend, he gave me his Drazen jersey and I wore it for the world to see that day," he said. "I think about him a lot, every day. I think about everything to do with Drazen. About him, about the (national) team without him, about the fact that he was the Michael Jordan of Europe."
When Petrovic died nine years ago, everything was starting to happen for him. He had scored 22.3 points a game for the Nets, and just then, he was on the cusp of obliterating the stereotypes Americans had on European players. He was turning into a complete player and a winner, and his best basketball awaited him. He had survived a civil war back home but lost his life speeding in a sports car. His old Nets teammate Jayson Williams once said he always feared Petrovic losing his life to a bomb in the offseason, just not like it happened.
Yet, a Wimbledon winner wearing No. 3 for the Nets and a generation of starry, young European players wishing forever to honor the memory of their childhood hero. They'll hang his plaque at the new Basketball Hall of Fame, and this is perfect for the memory of Drazen Petrovic -- the ripples of a man's life and legacy tumbling into today. The global game changed forever because of this shooting star streaking across the sky, burning out far too soon.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.