The electronic message board outside the Meadowlands in New Jersey read: “In Memory of Drazen Petrovic 1964-1993.”
Half a world away, at the Amadeus coffee bar in Zagreb, Croatia, flowers and candles surrounded his photo, and on a table, a special edition of the daily Vecernji List carried a giant headline: “Drazen Petrovic Killed.”
The common denominator was a basketball player.
Petrovic, a guard for the New Jersey Nets and one of the NBA’s best European exports, died Monday when a Volkswagen Golf driven by his girlfriend, 23-year-old Klara Szalantzy of Munich, slammed into a truck on a rain-slick autobahn between Nuremberg and Munich, about 15 miles north of Ingolstadt.
Police said the truck driver had been heading in the other direction, lost control when he tried to avoid a car in front of him and crashed through guardrails, coming to a stop across the lanes for oncoming traffic.
Szalantzy and another passenger, Hilal Haene, 53, of Munich, were seriously injured, according to reports.
Willis Reed, the Nets’ general manager, wept as he said it was like “losing a son.
“He left no stones unturned trying to make himself the best player he could be,” Reed said, citing frequent trips to the weight room and shooting practice. “We don’t have enough players in this game that care that much about it.”
Said Net Coach Chuck Daly, struggling with his emotions: “I never had a player, other than Dennis Rodman, who worked as hard as he did.”
Said Mariela Kvaternik, a 56-year-old Zagreb housewife who was weeping: “My whole family adored him.” She had come to the Amadeus with her daughter Mia, 17, and brought carnations.
“What can I tell you? We all lost today,” Stojko Vrankovic, once a Boston Celtic and now playing in Greece, said through his tears.
Petrovic was a hero in the former Yugoslavia, but that status was a victim of the war between the Croats and Serbs. His father was a Serb and his mother a Croat, and he competed for Croatia, leading his team to a silver medal in the 1992 Olympic Games.
“We just lost the best basketball player and the best sport ambassador Croatia ever had,” said Darko Marijanovic, Cibona manager.
For his allegiance to Croatia, Petrovic was criticized in Belgrade, where the enmity was shown in a comment by the Tanjug news agency: “Petrovic publicly slandered Yugoslavia whenever he could.”
His play against others from the NBA on the gold medal-winning Dream Team from the United States was lauded.
“I felt of all the European players, he was the one who competed the most against us,” said Daly, coach of the Dream Team. “He really fought us. He was not afraid of trying to win.”
Petrovic delighted in it, throwing up his hands after hitting a three-pointer against the team run by his New Jersey Net coach.
“NBA players are a tight-knit fraternity,” said Charles Barkley, who had played against Petrovic as a member of the Phoenix Suns and with the Dream Team. “It’s like a death in the family.”
In his last game, Petrovic, a 6-foot-5 guard, scored 30 points for the Croatian national team in a 94-90 loss to Slovenia, another Yugoslav republic, Sunday in Wroclaw, Poland. Croatia had advanced to the June 22 European championships in Germany.
He had decided to drive to Munich instead of fly back to Zagreb with the rest of the team, according to Warren LeGarie, his Venice-based agent.
Petrovic had left the United States weeks before, not knowing whether he would return or stay in Europe and play for a club team. He averaged 22.3 points a game and shot 52% for the Nets, and was miffed that they had failed to offer him a new contract before March. He was mulling a $15-million, four-year deal.
Reed said Petrovic cannot be truly replaced.
“He came from a small country, learned to play like an American and that’s very hard to do,” Reed said. “We’ll get another player, but we’ll never replace Drazen Petrovic.”