On June 7th 1993, Dražen Petrović, a member of the Croatian national basketball team and one of the best Croatian athletes of all time, died in a traffic accident on the highway near the German city of Ingolstadt. As a player, he received numerous awards in Croatia and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.
Dražen Petrović played his last game on June 5th 1993 against Slovenia in the qualifiers for the European Championship in Wroclaw. Instead of returning to Croatia by plane, Petrović set off by car with his then girlfriend, Hungarian model Klara Szalantzy, behind the wheel. Unfortunately, it was his last ride.
Born in Šibenik on October 22nd 1964, Dražen fell in love with basketball at an early age. His dedication to daily training, exceptional persistence and undeniable talent, quickly made him one of the best players in the area. At the tender age of sixteen, he began playing on the senior squad of the local team, Šibenka, leading his hometown to Yugoslav League Championships in 1983. He then transferred to Zagreb side Cibona, leading them to back-to-back EuroLeague Championships (1985 and 1986). On October 5th 1985, in a Yugoslav League game against Union Olimpija from Ljubljana, Petrović scored 112 points, in a 158:77 blowout win. By 1988 he had moved to Spanish giants Real Madrid, spending two seasons with the club, before moving to the NBA and the Portland Trailblazers.
His NBA start was less than ideal, spending most of his time in Portland on the bench. However, he showed his phenomenal talent two years later in the New Jersey Nets, not only as the team's best shooter in 1992 (especially noted for his three-pointers), he was also the best European to have played in the NBA to that point. That same year Dražen led the Croatian national team to its greatest success, the silver medal at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, losing to the original Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen and others, in the final. His death came as a shock to the entire basketball community, with many coaches and fellow players paying their respects to Petrović:
"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."
Hall of Fame coach Chuck Daly
"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."
Former Portland teammate Clyde Drexler
"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."
NBA commissioner David Stern
"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."
Marking the somber anniversary today his home town of Šibenik organized a basketball tournament for under 20 national teams, with Canada, Montenegro, the Czech Republic and Croatia, playing in honor of the NBA and FIBA Hall of Fame inductee. Fellow Šibenik native and NBA and national team player, Dario Šarić, was on hand to open the tournament: "Simply put he opened the door for European players in the NBA, someone who left a mark on European basketball like few others. And today, thirty years later we gather here to pay our respects to him. It's difficult for us, and it's a shame that Croatia lost its captain and such an icon."