In the basketball salons of Europe, nothing stokes conversation quite like a mention of the Baby Star. Bring up his name, and every sort of opinion spills forth. "He is like a spoiled child," says Didier Le Corre, a preeminent French basketball journalist, between drags on a Gauloise. "He loves to ridicule his opponents and play provocateur. He is the most detested player in Europe."
This is an article from the Sept. 26, 1988 issue
Across the proverbial table from Le Corre sits Enrico Campana of Milan's La Gazzetta dello Sport, a man so unsparing in his judgments that he's known in Italian hoop circles as il Serpente, the Serpent. Yet his eyes crease sympathetically as he takes up the subject of the Baby Star. "He is terribly misunderstood," says Campana. "Away from the game he is a sympathetic person. He is a basketball Mozart."
Perhaps Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö°—the Baby Star, the Dalmatian Sensation, the 6'5" guard who will lead the funkier-than-thou Yugoslav national team in Seoul—has contrived this range of opinions as artfully as he orchestrates a basketball game, setting it up so he can gallivant down the middle and...well, what will he do? Let go one of his automatic pull-up jumpers, the product of a key-to-the-gym childhood and hours of solitary practice? Or drop the ball blindly off to one of the endless array of Balkan dervishes who play alongside him, all of them big and agile and blessed with down-filled hands? Decisions, decisions. Like the Yugoslav team itself, Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° (rhymes with "rich") is spectacularly unpredictable.
He has a panache that suggests one avant guard, Ernie DiGregorio, and a knack in the forecourt that recalls another, Phil Ford—only Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° is bigger than either of them. His mouth is always open, as if in amazement at what the rest of him can do. Passes are his specialty: ambidextrous behind-the-back numbers, touch jobs in transition, blind wraparounds, no-look shovels. "He can create a play with a pass or finish it with a basket," says Dan Peterson, an American who broadcasts Italian basketball. Adds NBA director of scouting Marty Blake, "He's a true shooter who handles the ball, like Jim Paxson and Otis Birdsong. And he has that Lawrence Welk move down, the one they have over in Europe when they go to the hoop—a-one and a-two and a-three step."
The most meaningful step, the step that may take him into the NBA some day, is that first one. Not so much for its quickness as its greediness. Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° was born with such wide hips—"He has uncommon amplitude when he walks, like a duck," says Ivan Fattorini, the Yugoslav team doctor—that his first step seems to begin somewhere to the left or right of his torso. After that, it's a simple matter of taking a dribble or two, squaring his shoulders, leaping and leaning, and dropping in that soft jumper. The only person on his team not unreservedly applauding all this is Doc Fattorini, who worries that Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö°'s perennially open mouth, the result of a childhood tonsillectomy that wasn't done quite right, will get shut by a bop on the top of his head in traffic, lopping his tongue off.
By the time that happens, Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° may have played long enough to have rounded out two normal basketball careers. At 19 he was named the best player on the national team by Sportske Novosti, the Yugoslav basketball bible. By 22 he had been voted the top player in Europe by Campana's Gazzetta. But then, Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en was just 20 when he had a 112-point game in the Yugoslav league, the professional club circuit that has been his main source of income since 1982. (Translated from the Serbo-Croatian: He was 40 for 60 from the field, including 10 three-pointers, and had 22 free throws, but that was against a club forced to use nothing but juniors because of a problem involving invalid players' licenses.)
None of this precocity was lost on Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, who actually had Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö°, as a 19-year-old, signed, sealed and...not quite delivered. When it came time to head for South Bend, Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° decided that he couldn't leave home. Nor has he gone unpursued by the NBA, whose Portland Trail Blazers drafted him in the third round in 1986—though if the Blazers want him now, they'll have to make some upward adjustments on the $75,000 a year they offered at the time. Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° recently signed a four-year, tax-free contract worth at least $1.1 million with Real Madrid, Spain's top club team, to begin after the Olympics.
Other Yugoslav players have gone west to make piles of hard currency, but most have had to wait until they were 30. Now, under a new directive from the Yugoslav Basketball Federation (YBF), if a player has put in either eight seasons of club ball or 120 games for the national team in amateur competition, he is eligible to leave the country at any time. "It is called the Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° Rule," Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en says proudly. "In my home I have a contract with Portland. I say to the [Yugoslav) basketball federation, if you do not give me permission to play for Real Madrid, I go to the NBA and then cannot play for the national team. [Although it's expected to change the rule in April, the Federation International de Basketball Amateur still considers millionaire Euro-hoopsters to be amateurs, and thus eligible for international and Olympic play So president of the [Yugoslav] federation says O.K."
Real Madrid didn't have much more choice in the matter than did the Yugoslav federation. In the European club playoffs over the past three years, Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö°'s Cibona Zagreb team had beaten Madrid five times in seven meetings. Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en averaged 40 points over the seven games, including 49 in Madrid during a 108-91 rout in 1986.
To bag its nemesis, Real Madrid sent a transfer fee of some $225,000 to Cibona, another $80,000 or so to the YBF, and several bouquets of flowers to Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö°'s mother, Biserka. That was all in addition to various emoluments Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° himself will receive beyond his salary: a luxury car, either a Porsche 959 or a BMW; an apartment in Madrid; numerous endorsement deals, including a shoe contract with Reebok; an exclusive interview arrangement with the Spanish magazine Estrellas de Basket; and a patch-on-his-uniform deal with Winston. Plugging tobacco may seem to be an odd sideline for a basketball player, but Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en Dalipagi‚àÜí‚àö°, who was second in the Italian league in scoring this past season at age 37, goes through two packs of Marlboro Lights a day.
Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° doesn't smoke. While a law student at the University of Zagreb, he was a more than capable pupil. Indeed, he enjoys an Every Babushka's Son status in his homeland, where he's a sort of national epoxy, binding together Yugoslavia's sundry native peoples, six republics and three religions. During his finest season with Cibona Zagreb, 1985-86, he received hundreds of fan letters a day. "That year Cibona was special and Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en was young and everybody was saying, 'Good boy, good student, good player,' " says Zoran Kova‚àÜí‚àö√üevi‚àÜí‚àö°, a reporter with Sprint, a Zagreb-based sports weekly. "People wanted to see their children do everything just as Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en did, in university and everyday life."
As annoying as such near-perfection might seem, it hardly explains why Petrovic is so widely reviled. A succession of on-court episodes does. As the final seconds ticked down in Cibona's 1985 European Cup semifinal win at Real Madrid, Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en and his older brother Aleksandar, for three seasons his back-court mate, stood near midcourt, tongues derisively out, passing the ball between them while laughing at the crowd. He spat at a referee during one game at the 1986 world championships in Madrid, and he joined his brother in retreating downcourt after big baskets, arms out and dipping from side to side like airplanes.
The '86 worlds turned out to be brazen Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en's comeuppance. When Yugoslavia took a nine-point lead against the Soviets with less than a minute to play in the semifinals, Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en and Aleksandar simply stopped playing. They waved their hands wildly at the Spanish fans, who had long since wearied of the Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö°s during the fortnight. As the Soviets sank one three-pointer, then another and finally another to tie the game—they would go on to win in overtime—something even more spectacular happened: A Western European crowd discovered villains loathsome enough to get them to root for the Soviets.
Many European players, coaches and observers say Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en has matured considerably since then. "They must have talked to Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° and given him a role on the team," said Jens Kujawa, the former Illinois center and a member of the West German team, while watching the Yugoslavs at the European Olympic qualifying tournament in Rotterdam in July. "It used to be Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° and everyone else. Now he lets the game come to him. He still gets his 20 or 25, but his teammates aren't just standing around."
Perhaps his brother's departure—Aleksandar, now 29, left Cibona last season for Scavolini Pesaro of the Italian league, and he is no longer on the Yugoslav national team—has caused Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° to moderate his enfant-terrible act. But the rebel is still in him: After Yugoslavia looked ragged in Rotterdam against Great Britain, Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° said, "We take a lead of 10 points, then we play for the fast break, for the fans." And he's not exactly contrite about the international incidents he has nearly touched off. "For me it is all part of playing the game."
Given Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö°'s petulant outbursts in Spain, it's astonishing that Real has asked its supporters to suddenly embrace him. When the deal was announced, there was much speculation about how Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° would get along with Juan Itturiaga, the Real Madrid veteran with whom he once got into a celebrated fight. At least there was a lot of speculation until Real Madrid's president announced, soon thereafter, that Itturiaga wouldn't be back next season. Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° grins when this is brought up. Will his Real Madrid teammates accept him? "I do not know," says Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö°. "We have to see this situation. I go in as a diplomat."
Study Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö°'s career and you'll detect signs of the stormy futility that beset another Balkan-blooded hot dog, the late Pete Maravich. Journalists who have followed the Yugoslav can tick off his prodigious scoring feats, yet they grope to remember a late shot that won a game. In six seasons on the national team, he has won only one international gold of any note, at the World University Games—a competition in which only accredited students may play—in Zagreb last summer. And with Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° anchoring its backcourt, mighty Cibona has lost just six games in the past three regular seasons but has failed every year in the playoffs.
The second of those flameouts, in 1987, ended with a home court loss to Red Star of Belgrade on a layup that the brothers Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° felt had done Lawrence Welk one better. When a whistle wasn't forthcoming, Aleksandar paid the referees an unauthorized post-game dressing-room visit, and Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en was moved to empty a bottle of mineral water over the head of some courtside apparatchik. For this display of fraternal funning, Aleksandar was suspended for eight games, Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en for three. "He's introverted off the court, but extroverted on," says Jos Kuipers, the former Fresno State forward and a Dutch national team member. "It's as if basketball is his means of expression."
Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° is aware of the weaknesses in his game. Sometimes he looses the law student within him on the referees, and his game suffers accordingly. "I am captain," he says, shrugging. "I must talk with referee." He also recognizes his susceptibility to the Yugoslav national affliction: an indifference to defense. Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° has that problem figured out. "If I have many assists on offense, the other players help me," he says. "I give three or four to [7-foot Celtic-signee Stojan] Vrankovi‚àÜí‚àö° for dunks, and after that he blocks shot if my man goes inside."
Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° gleaned this and other insights into the game while growing up in ‚Äö√¢√†‚Äö√Ñ‚Ä†ibenik, an industrial port city of some 80,000 people on the Adriatic Sea. ‚Äö√¢√†‚Äö√Ñ‚Ä†ibenik is studded with palm trees, but otherwise it could be most any Indiana hoops spawning ground, a New Castle or Muncie or Richmond. Young Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en toted Aleksandar's gym bag to practice and soon enough began modeling his flamboyant game after NBA players he watched on regular telecasts over Italy's Canale 5, easily picked up in ‚Äö√¢√†‚Äö√Ñ‚Ä†ibenik. The Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° family apartment was a short walk from Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en's school, so he finagled a key to the gym and—well, the only point at which the story doesn't follow the Hoosier model is that Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en's father, Jole, was the chief of police, not the local high school coach.
Two months after his 15th birthday Dra‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬∂en became the youngest player ever to score in a Yugoslav league game. Then, at 20, after spurning South Bend, he left ‚Äö√¢√†‚Äö√Ñ‚Ä†ibenik's local club team to join Cibona. "He definitely made the right decision not to go to Notre Dame," says Miroslav Pecarski, the Marist College forward who's also on the Yugoslav team. "He played 70 or 80 games a year and practiced twice a day. He got much more experience. I think he plays like David Rivers now, but better."
Could Trail Blazer vice-president Bucky Buckwalter be blamed for sidling up to Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° in July in Rotterdam, before the Yugoslavs played Britain? It's unclear whether Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° has an authentic escape clause in his Real Madrid contract, or whether the Baby Star believes he can simply stop accepting pesetas and thus be free to start accepting the Trail Blazers' dollars after next season. What is clear is that Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° wants to try the NBA. "He wants the challenge," says Pecarski. "You have to take everything you can in life. If you're the best in Europe, why stay at that level?"
"Today Bucky Buckwalter tell me for Portland I do playmaker," Petrovi‚àÜí‚àö° says, shortly after blowing the Brits away. "You see this game today? I have 15 assists."
Tiens, says the Frenchman, how cloying and self-centered! Basta, says the Italian, what a brilliant sense of showmanship! When the coffee klatsch returns from Seoul, millions of Spaniards will be sitting in the middle, not knowing which side to take.