Seeking a bigger arena after his career start in Europe, Petrović joined the NBA in 1989 as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. After playing mostly off the bench that year, Petrović experienced a breakthrough following a trade to the New Jersey Nets. While starting for the Nets, he became one of the league's best shooting guards and was in consideration for being the best shooter ever. Petrović's career and life was cut short after he died in a car accident at the age of 28.
Born in Šibenik, SR Croatia, SFR Yugoslavia, Dražen Petrović was the second child of Jovan "Jole", a police officer, and Biserka, a librarian. His father, of Serb ethnicity, was born in the village of Zagora, near Trebinje in Bosnia and Herzegovina. His mother was born in Bilica, near Šibenik, and was from a traditional conservative Croat family, committed to the Catholic church. The couple's first child, Aleksandar, would be the first one to tread the basketball path, providing a lead for young Petrović to follow. He is the second cousin of the Serbian basketball player Dejan Bodiroga.
At the age of thirteen, Petrović started playing in the youth selections of the local Šibenka; at the age of fifteen he had already made the first team, just as Šibenka earned a place in the national first division. With young Petrović as the star of the team, Šibenka reached the final of the Radivoj Korać Cup twice (1982 and 1983), losing to Limoges CSP both times. In 1983 the 18 year-old Petrović hit two free throws for Šibenka's victory over Bosna in the final playoff game of the Yugoslavian club championship, but the title was taken away from Šibenka the next day by the national basketball federation with irregularities in refereeing cited as the reason, and awarded to Bosna after Šibenka refused to show up for the repeat match.
After spending a year serving the mandatory time in the military, Petrović followed his brother's footsteps and moved to Cibona to form, at that time, the best backcourt duo in Europe. The very first year in Cibona he won both the Yugoslav League championship and the national cup. To top it all off, the 87–78 victory over Real Madrid, to which Petrović contributed with 36 points, brought him and Cibona their first European Cup title. The second came the following year, as Petrović scored 22 points and Cibona defeated Žalgiris of Kaunas, which starred the legendary Arvydas Sabonis. The same year brought another national cup title for Cibona, seeing Petrović score 46 against the old rival Bosna. In 1987 Petrović earned his third European trophy: a European Cup Winners Cup title against Scavolini Pesaro, whose net he filled with 28 points.
Petrović's scoring average during the four years with Cibona stood at 37.7 points in the Yugoslavian first division and 33.8 in European competitions, with personal one-time bests of 112 (40/60 FG, 10/20 3Pts, 22/22 FT) and 62 points, respectively. His scoring sheet was often known to show 40, 50, even 60 in a single game; in an 1986 European League game against Limoges, Petrović scored ten 3-pointers, including seven in a row during a first half stretch, for a final tally of 51 points and 10 assists; the same season he scored 45 points and dished out 25 assists against the reigning Italian champions Simac.
Self-admittedly, Petrović needed new challenges, which Cibona and the Yugoslavian league could not offer. Across the Atlantic, the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA had already used their third round pick on young Petrović in 1986.
However, he decided to postpone his departure to the United States and in 1988 signed with Real Madrid instead, for at that time a hefty sum of around US$ 4 million. The transfer wasn't without controversy as the Yugoslav sporting laws stipulated that players aren't allowed to professionally move abroad until reaching 28 years of age while Petrović was still only 23 when he signed with the famous Madrid club. In 2014, José Antonio Arízaga, sports agent who played a key role in Petrović's summer 1988 transfer from Cibona to Real, recalled a few details from this transaction: "I spoke to Mirko Novosel, Dražen's coach at Cibona, and he told me two things. One, every problem in Yugoslavia can be taken care of with the right amount of money, and two, if Dražen leaves, every other player under 28 will be livid and it'll be chaos. So, you can imagine all the individuals I had to bribe and all the places where I had to pay up in order to circumvent this law".
The 1988–1989 season saw Petrović wear the colors of the Spanish basketball club Real Madrid Baloncesto. Although the national championship barely escaped them, as they lost to FC Barcelona in the fifth and decisive game of the final series, Petrović helped Real to the King's Cup title over their Catalonian rivals. Petrović also led the club to victory in the European Cup Winners Cup final against Snaidero Caserta by tying his previous best scoring performance in European competitions (62 points). His first season in the ACB was also his last, but he still holds ACB single performance bests in a final series game in points made (42) and three-pointers made (8).
Motivated by the challenge and pressured by the Portland Trail Blazers, who had drafted him 60th overall back in 1986, Petrović finally stood firm in the decision to try to establish himself in the NBA. He left Spain rather abruptly at the end of the season; the Blazers assisted in buying out his contract with Real (for as much as US$ 1.5 million) and Petrović joined the Blazers for the 1989–1990 season.
The Blazers valued Petrović as a shooter, but were concerned that he might not possess the quickness to play guard nor the foot speed to play defense. They brought him onto the team primarily as an outside threat to shoot three pointers. In the Blazers' offensive scheme he was to set up behind the line, receive a passed ball and go directly up to release his shot. Petrović was an aggressive, attacking player who was used to creating his shot and shots for his teammates. Taking the ball out of his hands and making him a static shooter was foreign to him. Making matters worse, the Blazers already had a full rotation of guards, with a starting backcourt of Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, and with veteran Danny Young as a reserve. Consequently the reigning La Gazzetta dello Sport EuroscarEuropean Player of the Year saw limited playing time. He had difficulty being productive in the limited role the Blazers had for him. In his rookie year during the 1989–90 NBA season, he averaged 7.4 points in 12 minutes playing time per game. The following season veteran guard Danny Ainge was added to the team, and Petrović's playing time dropped further to 7 minutes a game. In many statements made prior to arriving in Portland, Petrović had said he saw a lack of playing time as the only possible obstacle to his success in the NBA. He was determined to be a success in basketball's highest arena. His lack of playing time during his second year in the league brought Petrović's frustration to a climax: "I have nothing to say to Adelman any more and vice versa. Eighteen months have passed by, too long. I have to leave to prove how much I am worth. Never in my life did I sit on the bench and I don’t intent to do that in Portland." At his insistence 38 games into the season (20 of which held no playing time for Petrović), a three-way trade with the Denver Nuggets sent him to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for a first-round pick in the following draft.
Dražen Petrović's Nets jersey; his number 3 was retired by the team following his death.
On January 23, 1991, Petrović became a member of the New Jersey Nets. He joined a team that had not reached the playoffs since 1986, but had rookie Derrick Coleman, the number one selection from the 1990 draft. He was immediately given a role on the floor, with 20.5 minutes per game. His scoring over the remaining 43 games increased to 12.6 points per game, one of the league's best points-per-minute ratios. The following year he and Coleman were joined by Kenny Anderson, giving the team a third talented new addition. Petrović was made a starter for the 1991–92 season, his first full season with the Nets. Petro, as the Americans had dubbed him, did not miss a single game. His determination, hard work and aggressive on court demeanor established him as a team leader. In 36.9 minutes on the floor he averaged 20.6 points. Petrovic led the Nets in field-goal shooting and free-throw shooting, and his field goal percentage of 51% placed him near the top of all NBA guards. Petrović was named team Most Valuable Player. More importantly, his success translated into success for the team. The Nets made the playoffs, recording 14 more wins than the previous year. The following season saw Petrović increase his scoring average to 22.3 ppg, 11th best in the league. For the second season in a row he shot 45% from the three-point arc. His field goal percentage of 52% was again near the top for all guards. American media honored him with a selection to the All-NBA 3rd Team. However, he did not receive an invitation to the 1993 All-Star game. Among the top 13 scorers in the NBA that season, he was the only one not invited. This came as a great disappointment to him.
Petrović's national team debut came at the age of 15, at the U-18 Balkan Championship in Turkey, where the Yugoslavian junior team won the bronze. The young man regularly played for the Yugoslavian national team in the Balkan Championships, also winning gold with the junior team and silver with the senior team. In 1982 he also brought back the silver from the European Championship for Junior Men in Greece.
The 1984 Summer Olympics were Petrović's first competition of a grand scale with the senior national team, and the bronze medal won in Los Angeles that summer became his first Olympic trophy. Third place was also earned at the World Championship in 1986, remembered for the last minute thriller in the semi-final game against the Soviet Union. From the European Championship in 1987 Petrović again returned with bronze, as Yugoslavia lost to the hosts and gold medalists Greece. The University Games, held in Zagreb in 1987, saw the Yugoslavian squad with Petrović win the gold. In the 1988 Summer Olympics Yugoslavia with Petrović earned 2nd place, as they lost once more to the Soviet powerhouse.
An excellent club season with Real Madrid was topped by Petrović's 1989 accomplishment with the national team: at the Eurobasket in Zagreb the young Yugoslavian team went all the way, defeating Greece more than comfortably in the championship game. Petrović was the tournament's second leading scorer and most valuable player. The very next year, the summer in between the two most frustrating seasons of his professional career, as he struggled for playing time with the Trail Blazers, Petrović was again making history with the national team, as Yugoslavia became world champions, beating the Soviet Union for the gold in Buenos Aires.
The 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona marked the first summer olympiad featuring the independent Croatia, and Petrović was the leader of the Croatian national basketball team at the Olympic basketball tournament. Losing only to the American Dream Team in round-robin play, a strong and inspired Croatian team emerged victorious from the semi-final against the revamped Soviet team thanks to clutch free throws executed by Petrović, and faced off against the Americans for the gold. Urged on by Petrović's competitiveness and confidence, the Croatians fared well in the first ten minutes of the game, taking a 25–23 lead on a Franjo Arapović dunk and the subsequent free throw. As the game progressed, however, the now-legendary team composed of NBA stars proved too tough for Croatia: the Americans won 117–85, sending Petrović, the game's leading scorer with 24 points, and his teammates home with silver medals.
In the period during which Petrović played for the Croatian national team (from 1992 to 1993), he appeared in 40 games and scored 1002 points. His highest point tally came against Estonia on May 31, 1993 (48 points).
In the summer of 1993, after his best NBA season and the Nets' first-round elimination by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Petrović traveled to Poland, where the Croatian national team was playing a qualification tournament for the 1993 Eurobasket. He was contemplating departure from the Nets, disappointed with tension between himself, and to his belief, envious teammates, as well as the fact that the Nets had not yet extended his contract. He told American reporters that the lack of recognition in the league had him also considering leaving the NBA completely and playing club basketball in Greece; there were at least two Greek clubs ready to offer Petrović three-year contracts worth US$7.5 million. It was rumored that Petrović verbally agreed on terms with Panathinaikos; these rumors gave rise to the story of PAO's owner, Pavlos Giannakopoulos, allegedly offering the Nets' star a signed contract with blank salary terms, which became a part of Petrović's legend. Petrović decided to skip the connection flight back to Zagreb and drive with his girlfriend back to Croatia.
Petrović died in a traffic accident at approximately 17:20 on June 7, 1993, four and a half months before his 29th birthday. On the rain-drenched Autobahn 9, he was a passenger in a car that was cut off by a semi truck at Denkendorf, near Ingolstadt, in the German state of Bavaria. According to the report of the Ingolstadt police, that afternoon a truck broke through the Autobahn median; the truck driver was trying to avoid a collision with a personal vehicle in his own lane and lost control of the truck, crashing through the median barrier and finally coming to a stop blocking all three lanes of traffic in the opposite direction (Munich). Seconds later, the VW Golf carrying a sleeping Petrović in the passenger seat crashed into the truck, killing him and leaving the driver, Klara Szalantzy, a model and female basketball player with whom Petrović was romantically involved, and Hilal Edebal, a female Turkish basketball player, with grave injuries. It was established that visibility on the road was very poor and that Petrović was not buckled with a seatbelt.
Petrović's tomb 45°50′22″N15°59′00″E / 45.83947°N 15.98328°E / 45.83947; 15.98328 at Mirogoj Cemetery had instantly become a sanctuary for his compatriots. The Cibona stadium was renamed the Dražen Petrović Basketball Hall on October 4, 1993, and the city of Zagreb dedicated a square in his name, which was later followed by Šibenik and Vukovar, while Petrinja dedicated him a street. The Nets retired his number 3 jersey on November 11, 1993. Since 1994 the MVP award at the McDonald's Championship has borne the name Drazen Petrovic Trophy, and the Croatian Olympic Committee's award for young athletes has borne his name since 2006. On April 29, 1995, a statue commemorating Petrović's significance to the world of sports was erected in front of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, thus making him only the second athlete to receive this honor. On July 9, 2001, having defeated Patrick Rafter to win the men's singles title at Wimbledon, Croatian tennis player Goran Ivanišević dedicated the win to his late friend Petrović; Ivanišević wore Petrović's Nets jersey amidst the 100,000 strong crowd celebrating his victory in Split. Petrović was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2006, the 13th anniversary of Petrović's death was marked with the opening of the Dražen Petrović Memorial Center in Zagreb, a grand temple dedicated to Petrović's person and achievements, with ten themed galleries of multimedia content outlining his entire career and a four meter high statue of Dražen in shooting position in front of it. Petrovic was enshrined in the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2007.
The 2010 documentary Once Brothers (part of the ESPN30 for 30 series) portrays the achievements of the Yugoslavia national basketball team in the late 1980s and early 1990s and how the Yugoslav Wars tore the team apart. It explores Petrović's broken friendship with Serbian/Yugoslav player Vlade Divac. In 2011 a statue of him as a little boy sitting on a bench with a ball was unveiled in Šibenik, and his old room was renovated the way it looked when he was young, as a first part of opening a Memorial Center in his hometown. During the 2012 Three Point Shootout, New Jersey Nets guard Anthony Morrow wore Petrović's jersey to honor him.
In 2015, an Australian writer named Todd Spehr released a 470-page biography on Petrovic, titled Drazen: The Remarkable Life & Legacy of the Mozart of Basketball. By gaining exclusive access to Petrovic's family, friends, teammates and coaches, it explores with great detail Petrovic's life and career, while providing a snapshot of his legacy to the game of basketball.
You know, there is a saying that we have about JFK, John F. Kennedy - "You know, Johnny, we never got to know you." And I kind of feel that way about Dražen. I felt that the whole year that I was with him went by too fast and I really never got to know him the way I would have liked to.
Dražen and I were very good friends. 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 to have a lot of respect for him.
Dražen Petrović was an extraordinary young man, and a true pioneer in the global sports of basketball. 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.
It was a thrill to play against Dražen. Every time we competed, he competed with an aggressive attitude. He wasn't nervous; he came at me as hard as I came at him. So, we've had some great battles in the past and unfortunately, they were short battles.
A museum named "The Dražen Petrović Memorial Center" was founded in his honor, and constitutes a co-operative effort led by the Dražen Petrović Foundation in conjunction with the Croatian government, the city of Zagreb and the Croatian Museum of Sports. The memorial center idea originated from Petrović's parents, Biserka and Jole Petrovic, and was supported with the contributions of Croatian architects Andrija Rusan and Niksa Bilic. All of the articles presented in the center have been collected and categorized by the Croatian Museum of Sports. The organization and operations of the center have been provided by the Dražen Petrović Foundation, which is led by Petrović's family. The Center contains his No. 3 New Jersey Nets jersey and the watch that stopped when he died in a car crash. The center features 1,000 memorabilia items and a video of his basketball highlights.
The official opening of the museum was held on June 7, 2006, while the official opening of the center to the public began at the end of December 2006. The square on which the center is operated upon has been renamed to Dražen Petrović Square in his honor. In 2013, former NBA MVP Derrick Rose visited the museum.
^ abPress Online, BODIROGE SPALE NA JEDNO SLOVO: Nekoliko kilometara od Bodiroga nalazi se selo Zagora u kojem je rođen otac proslavljenih košarkaša Dražena i Aleksandra Petrovića. Momčilo Bodiroga tvrdi da su Bodiroge i Petrovići u srodstvu i da je Dejan Bodiroga zapravo rođak pokojnom Draženu i Aci Petroviću. "Iako je Hrvatska u potpunosti 'prisvojila' ovu dvojicu košarkaša, zna se da je njihov otac po rođenju Srbin, a majka im je Hrvatica" - kaže Bodiroga.
^Dejan Bodiroga Official Site: "Legendarni košarkaš Dražen Petrović, prvo reprezentativac Jugoslavije pa zatim Hrvatske, bio je rođak Dejana Bodiroge. Naime, Dejanova baba po ocu i Draženov deda po ocu jesu rođeni brat i sestra. Dražen, čiji je rođeni brat košarkaški trener Aleksandar Petrović (takođe bio reprezentativac Jugoslavije), poginuo je u saobraćajnoj nesreći u Nemačkoj 1993. Uvršten je u Najsmitovu Kuću slavnih u Springfildu."