Discovering Drazen Petrovic

I’m going to do something that is almost unheard of among sports fans. I’m going to confess a lack of knowledge about an athlete whose career apex occurred while I was watching the sport. Sure, I know about Petrovic’s contribution to the game and about his relationship with his former Yugoslavian teammates before and after the country was torn apart by, civil war, but I’m largely ignorant to his game.

In the pre-League Pass early-90s, the Nets weren’t exactly a network television fixture. If you weren’t a Nets season ticket holder, your opportunities to see Petrovic play were probably limited to one or two nationally televised games and a handful of Nets/Bulls matchups on WGN. The only things the average American hoops fan could tell you about Petrovic’s game, is that he was the best of the early NBA euros; which is to say that  he was a great shooter and terrible defender who probably liked to smoke cigarettes at halftime. That’s why these youtube compilations are such a revelation. In the words of a good friend, “Petrovic is a total showman and a jackass”.

Notice the sheer number of under-the-leg passes. WHO DOES THAT? It’s a sort of anachronistic vaudevillian showboating that owes more to the Harlem Globetrotters than any actual brand of contemporary American basketball…more Meadowlark Lemon than Hot Sauce.  Halfway through watching the first video, one of the stranger moments of my life began to make sense.

It was the summer of 1994, at an outdoor court near Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The details of the afternoon are somewhat fuzzy, but somehow, I found myself playing pick-up ball on a court that appeared to be roughly the size of a football field. Granted, it was many years ago, and I may or may not have been in the midst of a coffee shop crawl that afternoon, but I distinctly remember court being abnormally long. I’m also fairly certain that it wasn’t fenced in. I suspect that two basketball hoops had simply been placed at opposite ends of a concrete slab with no intention that the intervening space would ever serve as a court. Nonetheless, run’ we did.

As remarkable as the court itself, was the style of play. It was an uptempo style that featured a lot of penetrate-and-pitch, with very little low-post play. This may sound unremarkable now, as this style of basketball dominates playgrounds and open gyms nationwide, but this style of play was much less common.  And then there was the showboating. It was practically Maravichian in nature. Lots of between-the-legs passes, and drives to the lane that featured players wrapping the balls around their bodies before attempting the layup. It was jarring enough for me to go home and proudly proclaim to anyone who would listen that European’s only exposure to American basketball was highlight videos and globetrotters tours. It’s obvious now, having watched these videos, that they weren’t trying to imitate American basketball at all. They were paying homage to one of the greatest European players who ever lived.

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