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Friday, February 04, 2005

 

A Tribute To Drazen

When my father woke me early the morning of June 7, 1993 to give me the news, it obviously did not register with me right away. So when I fully awoke for school an hour or so later, I was relieved that I had only been having a really bad dream; Drazen Petrovic did not really die. It sure seemed a vivid dream though. Only a few minutes later, the radio would confirm that it was no dream at all – my favorite player, in the prime of a successful and trailblazing basketball career, was killed in a car accident in Germany. He had not been traded. He didn’t leave as a free agent. This was no one-year drug suspension. Drazen Petrovic was dead and gone.

When it came to the NBA, my school (smack in central NJ) was filled with Knicks fans. The Nets were pretty much always terrible, and so even in the middle of NJ, about 30 minutes from their home arena, they were a blip on the local sports landscape. My dad, my friends, teachers, almost all were Knick fans – thinking back, I can’t even remember knowing another Nets fan growing up. In fact, I would even say that the Nets were probably 5th in terms of NBA teams in my town.

The Knicks were #1 for sure, probably accounting for 80% of loyalty among basketball fans. Next up were the front-running Bulls (cough, cough, Michael Jordan) fans. My theory was always that these were the guys who would have been the Nets fans – they probably were at age 9 or 10 but then jumped on the Bulls bandwagon to support a winner. They would deny the front running claim: “I always liked the Bulls, even before Jordan” or “my favorite uncle is from Chicago”. But really, why were none of them Sacramento fans or Cavs fans? I suppose it was just coincidence. I would guess that some of this group jumped back to being Nets fans once the WK era began (With Kidd). Anyway, then came a few Celtics and Lakers fans (more frontrunners). Then there was me – the Nets fan.

Put it this way – when we would play basketball on one of those adjustable rims and practice different dunks, it is safe to say I am the only one that pretended to be Dennis Hopson. So, okay, the Nets were terrible and nobody cared about them – we have established that. In 1991, things started to change though. Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, two rising stars (and now cautionary tales of squandered talent) were aboard and the following year, Chuck Daly would be named head coach. But the man everyone was talking about was not the Hall of Fame coach or the college superstars – it was this virtual unknown in America, this Croatian with the picture perfect shooting touch and the unbridled love for the game.

If you just watched a game during the short 2 ½ years that Drazen was a Net, you had to like the guy instantly. Here was a guy running around this half empty arena, hitting shots, pumping his fist, competing to the best of his ability. When he would hit a big three and the crowd would erupt (relatively speaking – it was still the Nets), he would unleash his running fist pump which Nets announcer Bill Raftery would accompany with a “Bada Bing!”. I always thought it looked like he was starting an engine, which in many respects he was. Starting up an engine that had been dormant for years but had a lot of life in it; and we Nets fans clung to the hope that finally, this is a team we could get excited about; this is a team that people around the NBA have to take notice of.

Needless to say, we embraced the guy – diehard Nets fans can tell you there was another “Bada Bing!” in NJ long before Tony Soprano and his boys named their strip club (they probably didn’t name it after Drazen). You are talking about a franchise whose players would actually use their sneakers to express their desired to be traded. Not even very good players either. So, you combine the fact that the guy can play, loved to play, and genuinely seemed happy to be a Net and we were just giddy with excitement.

In 1993, an injury riddled Nets team lost in 5 games to the favored Cavs in the playoffs. Drazen, injured as anyone with a bad groin and wrapped hamstring, led a rousing victory in Game 4 to tie the series. Some Nets fans would tell you that for about 10 years time the 1992-1993 years were pretty much the Nets glory days. We lost the series, but for once, we had hope. For once the Nets were the “It” team, the young team to watch, and Drazen was just 28 years old. Exactly one month after that Game 4 victory, Drazen Petrovic was dead.

For someone who had such a short career, he sure had a lasting impact. He had an impact on the New Jersey Nets, who just a few years ago finally captured the same spirit and hope that existed back in the spring of 1993. He had an impact on the NBA game today, as he was a pioneer in the globalization of the NBA – stars like Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, and Peja Stojakovic had the road to NBA success paved by guys like Drazen and Vlade Divac. He had an impact on the NBA Dream Team, being the leader of the Croatian team that gave the original Dream team its only scare - and a major part of the reason that international basketball was able to catch up to America to the point that the U.S. lost this past summer.

For me though, his impact can still be seen in the corner of my old room at my mother’s house – cards, pictures, and a full page tribute from the newspaper shortly following his death still hang there. The tribute just showed his Nets jersey and the words “pucaj tricu” (“Shoot the three”). His impact could be seen in the Drazen Petrovic card I still keep in my wallet. I have gotten new wallets since, and the card always makes the jump with me. Don’t worry, I know I’m a dork. In the card, Drazen is of course exulting after hitting a shot, full of life and enthusiasm. I imagine that if Drazen were still alive, he would be one of those guys you just can’t get to leave basketball. He would be 40 now, and he would still be playing in the NBA and he would still be leading Croatia’s national basketball team. Draz was never the most athletic player, never the most talented, and you wouldn’t see him in Sportscenter “Plays of the Week” too often. The best things that Draz brought to the court are things that age doesn’t ravage like it does pure athleticism, things even kids like me could do – he had unmatched energy and enthusiasm, and he sure could “pucaj tricu”. Bada bing!

Lane Sorkin can be reached at lanesorkin@hotmail.com

Comments:
Great article. Drazen was one of my favorite players ever, I nearly teared up reading it.
 
Im a big net fan and an even bigger petro fan. I felt the same way u did when he died and its still hard to imagine that hes been gone that long. Id give anything to see him shoot the three and put his arms in the air with enthusiasim because it came from the heart and his love for the game. If he was with the nets today Kidd would average 15 assists a game and the nets would have a dynasty but thats just wishful thinking. Everytime a nets fan goes to the arena look up to the rafters see that number 3 and remember the great times u had watching him play and bring the nets back from the dead because before him the nets were garbage. Long live number 3!!!! Great article...thanxs for the memories.
 
I had the same newspaper page on my wall growing up...to this day, he is the only player I really feel sad about when thinking of his name. I was at that Game 3 and 4 games of that Cav series when the Nets looked out of it, and he just lit up the entire Arena with 3 after 3. Of course, there were only 12-13,000 fans at the game, but every single fan there was there for one reason - Drazen.

I still remember him calling Rick Mahorn "Big Ass" on a post game interview from probably the first good road trip the Nets ever had out West. And I will never forget when Drazen was lighting it up versus the Cavs during one of those playoff games, and he had the look like even he couldn't believe he was making those shots (picture him looking to the sky and putting his hands over his face as he ran back down court).

Man, I really loved watching that guy play!!! And I really do miss watching him play...there has been no one before and no since that was like him.
 
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