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Drazen Petrovic, a lifetime later

Drazen Petrovic, who died at age 28 in 1993, would have turned 50 on Wednesday. More than two decades later, his brief, brilliant NBA career feels more and more like a dream.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

The song itself is lost to time. This was before the NBA had mastered the art of pomp, and much closer to the era in which the New Jersey Nets had a volunteer group of middle-aged men playing trombones and tubas in the upper tank at Brendan Byrne Arena than the current one, in which the Brooklyn Nets embraced meticulously branded spectacle as something like the team's guiding ethos. That degree of grandiosity was not something of which the New Jersey Nets were even capable on the night of their home opener in 1993. Even basic bigness was beyond them. These were the Nets, and that was what they were and the league they played in.

And so the way that the Nets memorialized the sudden and shocking death of Drazen Petrovic -- arguably their best and inarguably their best-loved player, and already a legend of international basketball at the age of 28 -- seems, in retrospect, notably ramshackle. Coach Chuck Daly made a speech, and a suitably oversized replica of Petrovic's number 3 ascended into the rafters on wires. We were given little commemorative pins shaped like the retired jersey when we came through the turnstiles, the spoke punched through thin cardboard and then encased in a plastic sleeve. When I last saw mine, it was covered with a frost of the sort of faintly greasy dust native to the homes of empty-nested parents.

And then a man came out and sang a song called "The Go-To Guy," while a video of Petrovic highlights played on the screen suspended over center court. There is no record of this song anywhere on the Internet, as far as I can tell. I search my memory for it and can only remember a friend singing it in the cornball razzmatazz voice he used to imitate the dippy jingles from local cable ads. My friends do not remember the lyrics, beyond the chorus -- it was, as you might've gathered, a crooned "the go-to guy." There were probably verses, and other lyrics -- "I dimly remember something like 'you always hit the shot,'" was the best one of my friends could come up with when I asked -- but these are gone now.

There is no recording of that song, as far as I know. It got sung once, a long time ago, and then for a little while later by a bunch of teenage dorks who had all, at some point, wanted to be Drazen Petrovic themselves, or at least wanted to be a little bit more like him. We were goofing on the song, because that was what came naturally to us, and because the song itself was so doofy. But it was also because we weren't really sure how to handle the feelings that the event, for all its shabbiness, still kicked up.

All of those emotions added up to only the faintest echo of the total and transporting thrill that Petrovic's play gave us. It is hard, even now, to put a name on the desperate giddy awe of watching Petrovic play, the way he so relentlessly turned every offensive possession toward superheated confrontation. Because basketball is great, and because nothing ever really stops, there are players at least somewhat like Drazen Petrovic loose in the world. Steph Curry and James Harden are both at least a little bit like Drazen Petrovic, if also really nothing at all like him.

Petrovic played much angrier than Curry and much harder than Harden, and while there is a large measure of defiance in every player that makes a living by throwing a basketball through a hoop from far away, what stands out about Petrovic was how close that defiance was to the surface. When I remember Drazen Petrovic, I am remembering him screaming. Petrovic is not screaming because he is angry, although there was always something dark in his face on the court. He screams because that is the only way that the thrashing, ferocious thing in him could get out. He played with the sort of wild want that can only really communicate at that volume.

Watching Petrovic play was not something that is best commemorated by some lugubrious song about coming through when it mattered. There was a music to what Petrovic did, but if there is music for it, it is something altogether more unsettling and unsettled.

There are no words that can convey how sustaining and thrilling it was to watch -- from inside the body and spirit of the tweenage need machine I was at the time, all gnarled and self-defeating and ravenous and raging and dumb -- a virtuoso who seemed so like my un-virtuosic and unfinished self. What I mean by this is that Petrovic channeled what seemed so much like my own emotional overage -- screaming felt, then, like the only way I could make myself heard, or even hear myself think -- and turned it into this rigorous, precise thing that worked so wonderfully well. Anything less than what Petrovic gave would have not seemed like enough to me, then. Anything more is hard to imagine.

My friends and I chose the Nets -- at that time and for a long time after a stupid, unlovable and relentlessly wrongheaded franchise -- with our eyes open. We chose them, and not the successful team across the Hudson, because we needed something of our own, and because we needed something to scream at. This, maybe perversely, made every player on the Nets significant to us, a kind of avatar-saint. But Petrovic mirrored and elevated our willfulness like no one else. He made stubbornness transcendent, took common careless will and shaped it and made it beautiful in a way that we could not. We were so hungry, and he fed us.

We are less hungry now, which is as it should be. This was a long time ago, and we are grown; we do not need this basketball team so much, because our lives are larger. My memories of Petrovic have faded a bit, or at least re-edited themselves into a highlight reel that grows shorter and shorter as bits of it fall away. My friends and I, and everyone who saw Petrovic play, will be left with an image, eventually, just one still image of Drazen Petrovic to look at, and in time we will watch that fade up and out, too, then blank into white.

I can deal with forgetting the song -- I'm almost done with it, and I'll be fine when I'm finished -- but am less comfortable with losing Drazen Petrovic, who is the one basketball player, still, that I most want to keep. He would have been 50 today.

UPDATE: Well, that did not take long. Reader John Blanco had Petrovic's jersey retirement ceremony on tape, and was kind enough to put "The Go-To Guy" -- which was written and performed by Nets staffer Tim McLoone, and is a lot more charming and goofy than I remembered it being -- on YouTube. Here it is: