The tragic death of Drazen Petrovic
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from 'Drazen: The remarkable life and legacy of the Mozart of Basketball,' written by Todd Spehr. Drazen Petrovic, who was one of the first European players to star in the NBA, was a legend in his home country of Croatia and quickly captivated U.S. basketball fans with his flashy, entertaining play. The passage below details Petrovic's tragic death in 1993 and brings new details to light. You can order 'Drazen,' which comes out Monday, here.
There was a call placed to the Nets’ offices one day late in the 1993 regular season, a young woman with broken English calling about Drazen Petrovic. She was a big fan, the girl told the secretary in Willis Reed’s office, and almost demanded a meeting. The girl boldly asked for Petrovic’s phone number but the secretary refused. “We don’t give out the personal phone numbers of any of our players or employees,” the girl was told. It left her no other option but to leave her own number to be forwarded to Petrovic, to call if he chose. Petrovic was told of the inquiry and given the number, and with that he called his friend Mario Miocic to ask about how to handle the situation. It was not uncommon for Petrovic to ask Miocic for practical advice, for Miocic was four years older and something of a protective figure in his life. “Some girl is calling for me,” Petrovic told him. “I don’t know if she’s Croatian or German?”
“Who is it?” Miocic answered. Her name, Petrovic told him, was Klara Szalantzy.
A day later Petrovic called Miocic in the early afternoon, as he usually did on game days, asking if he would be at the game that night. He brought up the topic of Szalantzy. Petrovic had called the number that was given to him, and it was answered in a hotel in New York, where Szalantzy and a friend were staying. She seemed friendly, Petrovic said, and he offered Szalantzy and her friend tickets to that evening’s game in New Jersey. When Miocic arrived at the Meadowlands Arena that night he was in and around his usual quarters; the Nets provided him a pass that allowed access to the locker room and the corridors. When he found Petrovic, who was out on the floor shooting, the two discussed the women, with Petrovic being very curious about them. He told Miocic where the girls would be sitting, and that perhaps it would be a good idea for Miocic to introduce himself first, and check their legitimacy and their intent.
After the game, Petrovic and Miocic joined Szalantzy and her friend for dinner at the Houlihan’s restaurant, which was close to the arena and frequented by Nets’ players after home games. Miocic sat there that evening and wondered about the situation. He was wary of outsiders who were seeking a sudden entrance into the world of his close friend, the star athlete. He was aware of the type of young women that often sought the company of athletes or celebrities, and carefully tried to decipher exactly the intentions of the young girls. Petrovic was characteristically very comfortable with his fans, often accommodating them not only with an autograph but also a photo and a conversation, but even then there was a limitation to his interaction and involvement. It was, thought Miocic, unusual of Petrovic that he was so quickly enamored with Szalantzy.
Szalantzy was a beautiful young woman, just twenty-three. At the time she had a promising, two-sided career both as an international basketball player and model. She and her friend had traveled to New York, and in two days were headed back to Europe for an extended period of time. But in the end, two days turned in to a week. With her friend since departing, Szalantzy spent most of her time with Petrovic, the two exploring the sights of the big city.
By the time Szalantzy left, she and Petrovic had established a mutual attraction for each other and were on friendly terms. “It was very short [the trip],” Miocic remembered. “It was not a relationship.” They remained in contact after Szalantzy departed for Europe. Petrovic, with his season winding up in New Jersey, called her often, at one time sending his young friend flowers for a special occasion. He mentioned to Miocic that he planned on visiting Szalantzy in Germany sometime in the summer. That trip would be to further explore the possibility of a relationship, meet her friends and family, and find out what sort of person she was. (Petrovic’s attorney Nick Goyak remembers once such instance after the season finished where Petrovic, at home in Zagreb, missed a flight to Germany because his mother, Biserka, did not wake him in time. It was, Petrovic told Goyak while chuckling, a little devious on the part of his mother, who was wary of the queue of women who sought her famous son.)
On Monday, June 7, with Petrovic touching down in Frankfurt from Wroclaw, the two had arranged to once again meet. Szalantzy, as promised, waited in her car at the Frankfurt airport, where she planned to drive Petrovic to Munich. Once there, the two would spend the next night at a hotel. Alongside Szalantzy for the trip was Hilal Edebal, a friend, herself a very good basketball player and who too had dabbled in modeling. The girls were brought together by basketball, first introduced while teammates for a traveling team in Munich. Szalantzy, Hungarian, was the team’s point guard. Edebal, born in Germany but an accomplished basketball player in Turkey and later in the American college system, was the center. Edebal had been a member of the Turkish national team and was at one point named the Most Valuable Player of the Turkish league while playing for Galatasaray.
In the early afternoon Petrovic climbed in to the tiny, red Volkswagen Golf, taking a seat in the passenger side as Szalantzy drove.
Back at the departure gate the Croatian national team boarded their flight for Zagreb. Take-off was held up as the airline checked and double-checked on their flight numbers; one traveler was missing yet all of the baggage had been checked through. Petrovic was the missing traveler. Aleksandar Petrovic, traveling with the team as its assistant coach, stepped forward and informed airline staff that his brother had made alternate travel arrangements. With that, they took off on the flight for Zagreb, a trip of a little less than two hours. There was a short way into the trip a slight hitch, with strong turbulence as the plane made its way over Munich, Germany, the passengers encouraged to fasten their seatbelts until its force had been endured. It was a fine early summer day in Munich, a high of twenty-six degrees Celsius (seventy-nine Fahrenheit), but a late-afternoon thunderstorm closed in on the city and its immediate neighboring towns. The downpour of rain left the autobahn slick and difficult with the darkening sky in the background.
The Golf driven by Szalantzy had by then been on the road for some time. From Frankfurt they traveled along autobahn three, east to Nuremburg, before heading south along autobahn nine towards Munich. The car made a stop at some juncture during the trip, and once recommencing Petrovic, weary from having little sleep the night before, decided to nap.
Shortly before 5:20 p.m. central European time, a truck driver from the Netherlands was traveling north some fifteen miles out of Ingolstadt on the autobahn when he was forced to swerve and avoid a car that had, with the sudden downpour of rain, aquaplaned and moved towards his lane. The driver swerved his truck off the road and broke through the median barrier that separated the northbound and southbound traffic. The driver was shaken but quickly regained his senses when he suddenly realized that his truck was now in the middle of the three southbound lanes, covering all three. He got out of the truck and from the side of the road began waving his hands with hope of gaining the attention of drivers who were heading towards Munich. He was trying to prevent a collision. Szalantzy’s Golf approached the truck at a high rate of speed. “Going way too fast,” Edebal said. “In Germany there are some speed limits, but in short places. But on the autobahn you can go as fast as a car goes.” According to the accident report, Edebal said her friend was driving at 180 kilometres per hour (112 miles per hour). On the wet road, it left the car in a very vulnerable position.
Szalantzy saw the truck and clutched the steering wheel hard with both hands, hitting the brakes as the car slid left into the guardrail and back on to the road, the front right side of the vehicle—the passenger side, Petrovic’s side—slamming into the truck. It was later presumed he was asleep when the impact occurred and did not see the collision coming.
Szalantzy lost control of the vehicle when she saw the truck. When the Golf hit the guardrail before reaching the truck, it turned her away from the brunt of the force, and saved her life. The force left her injured enough, according to a report later published, to spend a week in hospital before being released (though the extent is unknown, as Szalantzy does not reveal publicly any information of the accident nor its aftereffects). Edebal was in the backseat, with the impact throwing her to the front seat, causing serious injuries to her brain, a broken arm and right hip. She survived, but barely. Soon there was a fire crew at the site. Amidst some 300 litres of diesel that had spilled out of a dent in the truck sat a crumpled Golf. The car’s bonnet was pushed straight into the front right-hand side of the truck’s cab, each of its front doors peeled forward. Rescue workers were able to see that the two women in the accident had signs of life, and quickly ambulances whisked them away. Edebal, her condition far more serious, was flown to the Hospital of Eichstatt; Szalantzy to the Ingolstadt clinic. “Three people in a vehicle, and three very different results,” Edebal said.
At the crash site remained a young man amidst the damage and the raindrops, the help working desperately to revive him before concluding that their efforts were in vain. In not wearing a seatbelt, the force threw Petrovic straight in the direction of the truck, the impact causing significant head trauma. His life was taken instantly.
At the time he was wearing a gold watch on his left arm, which stopped precisely when his life did—the short hand on the five, the long hand on the twenty.
Drazen Petrovic, just twenty-eight years old, was dead.
The morning after, some members of the Croatian national team gathered at Amadeus, Petrovic’s café in Zagreb, a stone’s throw from a basketball arena that soon would carry his name. Aleksandar Petrovic was there, as was Stojko Vrankovic, their eyes bleary and bloodshot from a sleepless night of shock and heartbreak. Veljko Mrsic was one of the team’s younger members, and he sat there amongst his sullen teammates, the room filled with an eerie quiet. “Even now, talking about this, I start to cry,” Mrisc said about the morning after, being around his devastated brothers. “When I remember that we were in his bar, I just get really upset.”
People shuffled past outside on the street, word still circulating of the shocking news that their hero was dead. On Wednesday, the headline on the cover of a local publication Sportske novosti said simply, “Impossible!”
The Nets held a press conference the following morning, Tuesday June 8, at the Meadowlands Arena. The room was quiet. “Like a wake,” wrote John Brennan. Willis Reed spoke first. He got through a pre-written statement, his head leaving the paper but once or twice, his voice trailing off on occasion as he held back tears. “To me, it’s like losing a son,” he told the handful of reporters there. Reed fielded several questions; his answers became less and less detailed before finally his voice broke, deciding he could no longer continue.
Chuck Daly then stood forward, and Brennan noticed he looked like a man who had had the life taken out of him. “Chuck was as unflappable as anyone I ever dealt with, with basketball, with games, injuries,” Brennan remembered. “But this was devastating. He sort of had the pale look of somebody who had been hit so hard in the stomach, and the wind knocked out of him.” Daly spoke about how impressed he was that Petrovic challenged his American team the prior summer in Barcelona, fearless and ambitious. He addressed the occasional conflicts they had, but concluded that a coach could ultimately overlook those matters due to the passion, commitment and intent Petrovic played with. “You can't get mad at a player like that, no way,” Daly said. “Because he did everything for the right reasons.”
Daly then reminded everyone that for even a young man with a bright future, such as Petrovic, nothing was promised.
“This reminds you of how precious life is,” Daly told the reporters. “And how much we take for granted.”
'Drazen' is written by Australian author Todd Spehr, who much like Petrovic, left his homeland to pursue a basketball career in the United States. After a successful collegiate playing career, Spehr returned to coach his alma mater and cover professional basketball as a writer. Spehr graduated from Central Christian College in Kansas in 2006. His writing appears in both international and U.S. basketball publications and prominent websites, including ESPN and SLAM. He currently resides in Australia with his wife, Yolanda. Drazen is his first book.