This coming June marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the biggest tragedies in NBA history. On June 7, 1993 a Volkswagon was speeding along Germany’s Autobahn when it encountered a truck that had crashed through the guard rails and was blocking traffic. Unable to stop or avoid a crash, the car hit the truck, causing serious injuries to the driver and backseat passenger. The front-seat passenger got the worst of it, flying through the front window. Drazen Petrovic, the six-time European Player of the Year, recently named All-NBA Third Team performer, and undoubtedly greatest basketball player in Croatian history, was dead at age 28.
Petro’s story is best told in the ESPN 30 for 30, “Once Brothers,” from the perspective of his former friend and fellow Yugoslavian, Vlade Divac. One wrinkle of the Drazen Petrovic story piqued my interest as a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves: His first coach in the NBA was Rick Adelman and it appears (now, with the benefit of hindsight) that Adelman did not fully appreciate how talented his new guard was. In his rookie season with the Blazers Petro played just 12.6 minutes per game. This despite averaging an efficient 21.7 points and 4.1 assists per 36 minutes. (Basically, Petro was making the most out of a difficult situation much the way we all wish Derrick Williams would.) The Blazers were loaded that year (they made it to the NBA Finals) and it could not have been easy to find backcourt minutes on a team already boasting All-Stars Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler at the guard positions. But the next off-season they went out and acquired veteran Danny Ainge, who then cut into Petro’s minutes even further. Midway through his second NBA season, Petro demanded a trade. His wish was granted when he was dealt to the Nets.
And in New Jersey he quickly became a star. His first [partial] season there saw playing time increase up to 20.5 minutes a night. In his two full seasons after that, he eclipsed 20 points per game and helped lead the upstart Nets, along with Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman, to a pair of playoff appearances; the franchise’s first in 6 years. Back in Portland they were not exactly fretting over what Petro was doing on the East Coast. After trading him away they reached a conference finals and another NBA Finals, losing to Michael Jordan in the famous “shoulder shrug” series. But after that the Blazers faded into NBA purgatory. Rick Adelman was fired and the Blazers lost in the first round of the playoffs in 6 consecutive seasons. Had Portland kept Petro, and assuming the chain of events takes him off the Autobahn on that fateful summer afternoon of 1993, it seems reasonable to assume that they would have been better off. Trading for Ainge and giving away Petro appears to have been a mistake.
Adelman spoke about Petro’s plight to The Oregonian early in his second season with the Blazers:
I can understand somebody not being happy with not playing, but there are other guys on this team in the same situation. We’re 6-0, we have a very good team, and he’s part of our team. He’s making awfully good money to play this game. I’m sorry, I can’t do anything about that at this point. I don’t feel anybody has to defend themselves with what’s gone on. …
Let’s be realistic. Here’s a guy who averaged seven points a game last year. This is not an all-star player. We have a lot of guys playing ahead of him who are very good players. Who’s to say that won’t happen to him somewhere else, too? I think he’s getting some very bad advice.
It does not seem as if Petrovic thought much of Coach Adelman either. There is a website devoted to Drazen (www.drazenpetrovic.com) with one page focused on his struggles in Portland. The site quotes Petro as saying:
Adelman actually never complained about my work, but he never explained it to me why I wasn’t playing… he had to be aware of my qualities.
Petro was quoted again with more pointed criticism of how Adelman treated him:
I don’t know. I don’t know. I cannot alter Adelman’s opinion about me. How do I feel? Great! I am sitting on the bench, nobody asks me nothing. I score a few points on the end of the game… In fact, if I may say, I am the highest paid player in the NBA. I am making millions of dollars for 5 minutes per game…5 minutes per game if Adelman is in the mood and if the score is right.
The Petrovic site also quotes Clyde Drexler, the Trailblazers superstar who was partly responsible for Petro’s lack of minutes. Drexler had little doubt that a change of scenery would benefit Petrovic:
I am positive that Drazen will build a great NBA career in New Jersey…players like Drazen always do. He was not lucky here, but with the Nets will be different. He will show that he can play in this league and probably make an All-Star in no time.
Drexler was proven correct almost immediately as Petro’s All-NBA award made clear. In 2002 Petrovic was posthumously inducted to the Hall of Fame.
I bring this story up not just to remember a fallen great, but also because of how the episode might have affected Rick Adelman’s future coaching career. After getting it wrong with Petrovic Rick Adelman has embraced foreign basketball talent more than any other coach in NBA history. Even before coaching this Euro-dominated Wolves roster Adelman thrived in Sacramento with star players from abroad. Petro’s old buddy, Vlade Divac, as well as Hedo Turkoglu and Peja Stojakovic were key performers on some of the best teams of the early aughts. Later, in Houston, Adelman led very-good Rockets teams with Yao Ming from China, Luis Scola from Argentina, and Goran Dragic from Slovenia.
Did failing to appreciate Drazen Petrovic open Adelman’s mind to what foreign stars could accomplish on the NBA floor? Do Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved have Petrovic to thank for the early trust and commitment they received from Coach? Maybe, maybe not. I’m sure if Adelman were asked he would say no and dismiss the idea. He’s not big into narratives.