Moke Hamilton, SNYNets.com
MIAMI — The Nets are now in Brooklyn, but the team's legacy and history predate the construction of Barclays Center.
Julius Erving and Jason Kidd are both a part of that legacy, and so is Drazen Petrovic.
June 7, 2013 marks the 20-year anniversary of the untimely death of Petrovic and any Nets fan that remembers the days of Kenny Anderson, Mookie Blaylock and Derrick Coleman certainly remembers his untimely passing.
In NBA circles, Petrovic is widely considered to be one of the catalysts for the contemporary explosion of European professionals into the NBA. In many ways, he helped to prove, more than 20 years ago, that European guards had a place in the world's best professional basketball league.
And just one day after Tony Parker—arguably the greatest European guard to play in the NBA—made one of the more memorable shots in recent history in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Petrovic was remembered by those who saw him play.
"The guy was one of the best ball players to come out of the European circuit, one of the toughest competitors, talented, truly, he's missed in this basketball world," said Heat reserve Juwan Howard.
Howard, at 40 years old, is the NBA's oldest active player. On a team full of younger studs, he is one of the few who actually remember watching Petrovic play and compete.
"I recall a time when I saw him playing against Chicago when I was a young kid and I saw him go against guys like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen," Howard recalled.
"The guy didn't back down and not only that, he was almost playing on the same level as them. I was just impressed with him as a player not only by his toughness, but also by his skill set. He's done a lot for a lot of those kids growing up in Europe. They wanted to be the next Drazen Petrovic."
Petrovic opened the eyes of many international basketball fans around the world. After being drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 1986, he would not make his NBA debut until 1989, but when he did, he struggled to find consistent playing time.
A trade in January 1991 saw Petrovic make his way to the Nets, and in the following year, playing for head coach Bill Fitch, Petrovic became a starter and proved that he belonged in the NBA. In 1991-92, in 36.9 minutes per game, he became a household name across the league, averaging 20.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists while helping the Nets turn in a 40-42 record and earning a playoff berth.
The following season, under head coach Chuck Daly, Petrovic led the team in scoring with 22.9 points, but his untimely death followed shortly thereafter.
Petrovic's final NBA game was on May 9, 1993. He scored 11 points in a Game 5 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers and less than one month later, a career that had seen a rapid ascent to the top of many NBA scouting reports came to an abrupt end on June 3.
Petrovic, who had been an international basketball star long before his NBA tenure began, was a passenger in a car with two companions. The trio was traveling from Poland—where Petrovic's Croatian national team had been competing in a FIBA tournament—back to Croatia.
At the age of 28, he died. Abruptly, a career that had so much promise, and more importantly, a life that should have had so much more time, ended.
He was posthumously enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in June 2002 and has left behind a legacy that will always be remembered. Today, he is known as one of the most decorated international basketball players in history, and the first European guard to garner the attention of the world.
So, even 20 years later, in Miami, he was thought of.
"I know of Drazen and just being a fan of [Michael Jordan] and how he always gave M.J. fits on the floor," Heat guard Ray Allen said. "He was one of the best two-guards in the league at the time."
"I do remember when he passed away I remember the whole situation and how sad it was," he recalled.
"He was one of the best shooters that the league has even seen," said Shane Battier. "It's sad that his time was too short."
But in that short time, Petrovic helped to change the stigma associated with international basketball players—especially guards.
"I know he was the first European to surprise people here in the United States," said the San Antonio Spurs French-born Boris Diaw.
"[Vlade] Divac was there and [Arvydas] Sabonis was there and the NBA was still pretty exclusive to the best players in Europe, but Petrovic belonged," he added.
And in the 20 years since his death, the NBA has seen a steady influx of international players. The San Antonio Spurs—a team whose three star players were all born outside of the continental United States—embody that better than any other team.
"It's been amazing to see how many international players now are playing in the NBA compared to when I first stepped in the league in 1994," Howard said. "It shows that NBA basketball has expanded globally."
And in recalling Petrovic and his legacy, Ray Allen agreed. "He was a life cut short, early, but he had a huge impact on the league when he was there and he did open the door for a lot of international players to come into the game. When you look around and see everybody who's in the game, he deserves a lot of credit for that."
And their teammate, Battier, is grateful.
"This is truly a global game and it's great to see that this league is made up of the best players in the world, regardless of country or race or what have you. That's why this is the greatest league in the world, it's truly international and truly global."
For the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, business gets back on track. Game 2 of the NBA Finals is set to tip off on Sunday at 8:00pm ET.
But for one afternoon, members of each team paused and remembered Petrovic, a player whose life and NBA career were cut short, but one whose contributions have been and will be continually felt for generations to come.