I’ve written so much about Drazen Petrovic in my two-plus years with Nets Are Scorching, that now that I’m tasked with justifying his inclusion as one of the Top 44 Nets of all-time, I’m suddenly at a loss. I’m clearly biased. Petro was undisputedly the player who made me a Nets fan and by proxy, an NBA fan. Watching him launch three-pointers with pinpoint precision, while seemingly never backing down against some of the league’s best SGs of all time was a joyful experience for me. News of his death the summer of 1993 devastated me in a way that no other sports moment has since. But do all of these reasons add legitimate justification as to why Petro was one of the “best” to wear a Nets uniform?
It seems like all we have now of Petro are stories. We don’t really have numbers and tangible moments because he was a part of this game for such a short-time and the bulk of his time spent in a role that mattered, came with an organization that mostly didn’t. The problem is, with emotions and distance, stories get distorted. Back when ESPN’s “Once Brothers” aired last Fall about the tragic relationship between Petro and fellow countrymen Vlade Divac, Ball Don’t Lie posted a review that also incorporated a bit of myth-busting. Former Net and noted malcontent Kenny Anderson was wistfully describing essentially what I just mentioned in the paragraph above- the joy of watching Petrovic go after everyone. Anderson talked about how Petro was going mano-y-mano with Michael Jordan and believed he already scored about 40 points. But naturally basketball-reference and the reviewer point out that Drazen never totaled more than 26 in a match-up against the Bulls.
Maybe in some ways, Petrovic is like the Paul Bunyan or John Henry of the basketball-world. Did these great figures of storytelling ever actually exist, and even if they did, was Bunyan as big as people said he was? Did John Henry drive more steel by hand than a steam engine? And what does it matter if facts and web sites like “people-reference.com” can easily point to disputing evidence? The fact is, at some point a section of our culture chose to believe or at least perpetuate the stories of Henry and Bunyan by passing these tales down to future generations just like at some point, a contingent of basketball fans decided that Drazen Petrovic was a player of not only great skill, but importance.
Earlier this summer, during a post about the Nets’ top SGs of all time, I engaged in a back-and-forth with a reader justifying why Petro was ranked above Vince Carter. In my mind, there wasn’t even a question, but as Devin so eloquently pointed out in his post earlier this week, Carter in many ways is the anti-Petro. He accomplished far more statistically than Petro. His teams made it further in the postseason than Petro. He had athletic gifts that Petro, who resembled more whirling dervish than ballet dancer when he drove to the rim, which may go unmatched by the vast majority of players in NBA history. Carter is still public enemy number one in Toronto for “quitting” on the organization, but even at the Nets’ lowest moments, he never turned his back on New Jersey. Right before he died, Petro was reportedly ready to take a contract in Europe because he wasn’t interested in playing second fiddle to the likes of Derrick Coleman and Anderson. Carter may get mocked for being “soft,” but Petro injured his knee during a key moment of revival for the Nets organization in the 92-93 season, leading to a miserable tailspin that saw the organization drop from surefire home court advantage in the first round, to a 6th seed and a rematch with the much stronger Cleveland Cavs.
So again, why is Petro so beloved? How is he possibly in the same conversation as Carter, Rick Barry or Buck Williams, no less ranked AHEAD of them in this list? Putting aside the methodology of the list, I would argue that Petrovic is unquestionably the franchise’s most important player. While importance is a far cry from ability, it does inevitably create influence when you’re creating an otherwise arbitrary ranking system.
I would argue that Petrovic IS the Nets in a solitary player encapsulation. A guy who couldn’t break into the rotation of a far superior team who emerged as a borderline all-star with the Nets only to shockingly die less than two years later. The other elements – his PER, his scoring average, his lack of an All-Star Game appearance, his intentions to leave the US after the 92-93 season – come across as irrelevant when you think of Petro in these terms. He is both what’s awesome and overwhelmingly depressing about being a Nets fan wrapped into one player. Someone who was never expected to amount to much, yet left us before we could actually say without question what he was actually worth to the organization.
I’ve talked to some general NBA fans who believe Petrovic would have emerged as the greatest European player to ever suit up in the NBA if he had lived. And while the most logical, rationale part of my brain screams “Hello? Dirk!” as a response, I’m not going to sit here and argue with that speculation, because nobody will ever know the answer. All we have are the tall tales like Kenny Anderson’s, which seemingly get taller as the years pass us by. Any NBA player who’s important enough to have tall tales told about him, has to be important enough to be considered one of the greatest players of all-time, regardless of the organization, right?