From the May 7, 2002 New York Times. John Kraljic
Petrovic: An Athlete of the World
By HARVEY ARATON
ARIO MIOCIC still calls Willis Reed to reminisce, to wonder what might
have been and just recently, and most therapeutically, to speculate on
what could be.
"Did you hear about Petro?" Miocic said to Reed, the New York basketball
legend, when the news came late last month that Drazen Petrovic had been
nominated to the Basketball Hall of Fame by the international committee.
Of course he had, responded Reed, himself a member of the hallowed Hall.
Miocic could count on Reed to be in Springfield, Mass., next fall if "a
guy Mario and I had a lot of love for" is among the inductees who will
surely include Magic Johnson, the ultimate point guard.
Petrovic was more of a long-distance straight shooter, by way of
Sibenik, Croatia, but had his own court vision and uncompromising
leadership skills. Years before David Stern's global expansion resulted
in a storming of the N.B.A. gates by Europeans and now even Asians with
attitude, Petrovic told his friend, Miocic, who had immigrated to New
York from Croatia in 1986:
"Mario, I never think, `Oh, good, I've opened the door to European
players and now I am going to sit on the bench and be happy. I want to
be a cornerstone of a team, a leader.' "
* * *
He had just about arrived, as a third-team all-league selection with the
Reed-built Nets, when he died in a car accident on a rain-slicked German
autobahn before the start of the 1993 N.B.A. finals. Drazen Petrovic was
28, in the morning of his adult life, beginning the prime of his career
and a national sports hero back home.
In Croatia, Miocic said yesterday by telephone from his home in Miami,
the Petrovic name is still more revered than merely respected, as
evidenced by Goran Ivanisevic's dedication of his Wimbledon title last
summer to the guy Miocic said "showed Croatia what it means to be a
great professional athlete of the world."
Basketball fans there still cheer these new Nets and imagine the aging
Petrovic running the floor with the magical and munificent Jason Kidd.
He surely was one of the game's fiercest workers, but if Petrovic were
alive today, more than playing or beholding in the wonderment of a
winning Nets team, he would be filled with pride by the power of his
leaguewide legacy, the ever-expanding collection of international impact
Dirk Nowitzki of Germany is the franchise player in Dallas. Yugoslavia's
Peja Stojakovic is a go-to guy in Sacramento. Spain's Pau Gasol is the
first rookie of the year from Europe. With financial tariffs, the
Chinese are exporting the towering Yao Ming next season, and he is the
intriguing prize of the coming N.B.A. draft.
* * *
"The coaches overseas all studied under guys like Dean Smith and Bobby
Knight," Reed said. "If they said they wanted something done their way,
it's not like their players could say, `I'll go play where I can do what
I want.' They are ahead of our kids in the offensive fundamentals and
they've seen they can be stars, and that all started with Petro."
Petrovic wasn't the first to come, but he was the one to transfer direct
from the European leagues and confound the schools of thought that
international players could be role players at best and that the white
N.B.A. star was a dying breed.
He paid his dues the way most intruders in xenophobic territory do, by
enduring those skeptical and small-minded. Opponents and even teammates
who couldn't find Croatia on the map if it were blinking sneered at his
confident swagger. John Starks of the Knicks called him a "trash-talker
with an accent" and before one tip-off made some untoward comment about
complicity in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Danny Ainge, who
played with Petrovic on his first N.B.A. team, the Portland Trail
Blazers, once told me that Petrovic had confided a belief that his
nationality had kept him out of the 1992-93 All-Star Game.
"He suffered," Miocic said. "But Drazen was very strong. He kept going,
until the end."
Even after Petrovic died, Miocic would stand in the runway leading to
the locker rooms during Nets home games with an approving nod from Reed,
now the club's senior vice president. Miocic now works in real estate in
South Florida but still relishes the days when he and Petrovic would go
out for dinner at a Croatian restaurant in Long Island City, or stop by
a church on the Manhattan side of the Lincoln Tunnel.
He doesn't forget, and all these new-age Europeans flying across his
television screen make him smile at the memories and at the prospect of
Petrovic's deserved enshrinement as his everlasting reward.
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