Since this holiday is set aside in memory of those gone before us it seems a good time to remember one of the cult legends in Trailblazer history now gone to his rest, Drazen Petrovic. Most of you will probably know Drazen's story already but it won't hurt to remember it, especially since some of the more recent fans among us may not have heard much more than the name.
Drazen was a 6'5" guard from Croatia. He was a superstar in Europe before Europe had superstars. His following was massive, rivaled only by that of Arvydas Sabonis. But Drazen was more approachable than the Lithuanian Lug because of his smaller size and his style on the court. He could score in any number of ways but his trademark was one of the purest jumpers the game has ever seen. Drazen wasn't the classical physical specimen. He was in shape, obviously an athlete, but he really looked and carried himself more like a YMCA gym rat than a world-renown superstar. But when he gave a little jiggle then popped open for a silky, perfect three pointer there was no doubt who and what he was.
The Blazers drafted Petrovic in the third round in 1986. This was the same draft in which they selected Arvydas Sabonis. (Sabonis was actually our second pick in the first round that year. Walter "Butter Knife" Berry was the first.) Like Sabonis, Petrovic took a while getting over here. His first season with the Blazers was 1989-90. He became an instant fan favorite, half for his already-established legend and half because he was just so darn cute. Almost immediately Portland fans began to chant for Drazen to be put in games, at times haranguing coach Rick Adelman mercilessly. On several occasions the entire arena would be chanting, "Dra-zen! Dra-zen!" as the young man sat on the end of the bench. Finally the coach, upset for himself and (as he said) somewhat embarrassed for Drazen took up a public campaign to quell the chanting.
Despite the overwhelming public support Petrovic averaged only 12.6 minutes per game in his inaugural season. Some of this was due to obvious flaws in his game. He was not a great individual defender and frequently got lost while executing the team defense...often scrambling to follow whoever had the ball regardless of position. His athleticism was not up to NBA standards and he had virtually no game above the rim. His layups were frequently blocked and he got caught by defenders when he had clear paths on the break. Also contributing to his short stints on the court was a general skepticism towards European players at the time. The ground had barely been broken and the predominant opinion around the league was that a European superstar was probably equivalent to a 9th or 10th man in the NBA. (Hard to believe given the large European presence in today's league.) But the biggest bar to playing time was the guard rotation ahead of Drazen, which pretty much started and ended with Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler.
Despite the lack of playing time and the flaws in his game, Drazen showed immediately that he could shoot and score the ball. I had the chance to watch him play in person and his shot was everything advertised and more. 45% is a great shooting average for a guard nowadays. 45% is the lowest Drazen ever shot for a season. His career average ended up at just under 51% which is absolutely unheard of for a perimeter player who had trouble finishing inside. He also shot 44% from the three-point line. Many players today claim that unless they get major minutes they can't get into rhythm. Drazen rolled out of bed every morning in rhythm and never turned off.
After his frustrating rookie season Drazen's road got harder over the summer of 1990 with the Blazers' acquisition of Danny Ainge. Heretofore Adelman favorite Danny Young had been the primary guard off the bench. Since he played point guard Drazen got to pick up almost all of Drexler's scraps at the shooting guard position. Ainge, however, played both positions and the handwriting was on the wall for Drazen. Drazen and Danny reportedly debated about team roles with the veteran Ainge claiming it was better to get a few minutes on a winning team and young Drazen saying it was better to get more minutes even if it was on a losing team. Petrovic averaged only 7.4 minutes in 18 games early in the 1990-91 season and he had reached his breaking point. He lobbied for, and got, a trade. The three-way deal sent Drazen to New Jersey and netted Portland veteran Phoenix star Walter Davis. Davis played in 32 games for the Blazers that season, averaging 6.1 points. That was the extent of his tenure with the team.
Drazen, meanwhile, got over 20 minutes with his new team, averaging 12.6 points...almost triple his average in Portland that year. The next season the Nets made him part of the starting lineup and gave him 37 minutes a game. He responded by scoring 20.6 points on 51% shooting. The season after ('92-'93) he averaged 22.3 points on 52% shooting, 45% from the three-point arc.
During the summer of 1993 Drazen returned to Europe to play for his national team. He was killed in an automobile accident on the German autobahn on June 7th, 1993. He was a passenger, and reportedly asleep at the time of the wreck. I can still remember where I was when I heard the news...driving my old, beat-up Toyota Corolla, pulling into a gas station to fuel up. I parked the car in a side spot and sat there numb for a while. Despite his struggles Drazen had always seemed so happy, almost carefree, when he was out there on the court. He had this combination of pluckiness and skill that made you admire and root for him. There's no doubt he would have continued to score at a rampant pace in the league for a long time had he been able to play.
Drazen Petrovic was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. To me, though, he'll always be the kid with the sweet shot trying to make it in the NBA.
Here's a link to Drazen's NBA statistics.
And here's one to Drazen's Wiki Page which includes a more detailed story of his life and links to several tribute sites.