You don’t need to know who Dražen Petrović was. What you need to know is that they called him the Mozart of Basketball, and that he died on a rainy Monday on the Autobahn. What you need to know about Mozart is that he composed the music for his own funeral. What you need to know about basketball is that it happens very fast.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with Mozart, even if your tastes run closer to reggaetón or silence, even if you’ve already forgotten the above anecdote about Mozart composing the music for his own funeral, fear not: the syntax of the nickname does all the work. “The (Blank) of Basketball.” From this setup alone, no matter who or what fills in the blank, one can infer that the subject herein is immortality, is greatness. No one, no matter how mediocre or near-great, takes their nickname from some historical mediocrity or near-great. There is no Salieri of Basketball, though basketball, like all disciplines, has its steady, necessary stream of Salieris.
Just below the immortals (Mozart, Dražen Petrović) are the mortals (Salieri, benchwarmers) who sometimes exist in such close proximity that the distinction is barely discernible. They often work equally hard and, in the short time in which they, the mortals, are alive, occupy the topmost percentile of living practitioners of their craft. In other words, as long as the competition consists of the living and not the dead, most mortals are really damn good. In other words, these mortals (Salieri, benchwarmers) could compose circles around you on the church organ, could break your ankles with a crossover. And still, somehow, end up forgotten.
The Mozart of Basketball, as we’ve established, crashed on a rainy Monday on the Autobahn. Let’s say the Salieri of Basketball chokes on a fishbone. Who writes his requiem? Has he, the Salieri of Basketball, pre-composed his funeral’s organ music, with clairvoyant foresight of his own asphyxiation? Or does the task fall to me, distant, belated, underachieving elegist of Dražen Petrović?
I’ve had too many friends die this year to kill off anyone, even a fictional character, even in the hypothetical. So let’s resurrect the Salieri of Basketball, let’s dislodge the fishbone from his throat. Let’s applaud the waitress who paid attention during her certification sessions and who, without panic, executes a textbook Heimlich maneuver, expelling the fishbone from the Salieri of Basketball’s throat with such bow-and-arrowlike force that it shatters a wineglass in its exit path. Now, we might have to slow down the playback of the near-asphyxiation to hear this detail, but listen for the bell tone that, for a split second before the wineglass shatters, might be mistaken for a mallet striking a xylophone.
A tone which Mozart, with his perfect pitch, is able to identify as the F below middle C, the same tone produced by a standard car horn, the same tone that sounds amid the screeching tires, exhaust, and fog of a rainy Monday on the Autobahn.
A joke format popular the year I write this: girls with a time machine vs. boys with a time machine. One variation on the theme: girls go back in time and say hi to their great-great grandmother, boys go back in time and tell Dražen Petrović to take the train.
Dražen Petrović is in the passenger seat, fast asleep. A Hungarian basketball player named Klara Szalantzy is at the wheel. A Turkish basketball player named Hilal Edebal is in the backseat. The Hungarian is a part-time runway model. The Turk, MVP of her league, will soon lose her memory. Both women, riding with Mozart, probably deserve their own honorifics: Aphrodite, Lethe. The Hungarian escapes with a scar on her forehead and a vow of silence on the subject of the crash. She still gets death threats in the mail, even decades later, living in another country. The Turk escapes with broken hipbones, a ghost in her skull.
Certain nights when I’m alone—say, sleepless, brain aching after a friend’s funeral—and need to drown some demons out, I’ll put on a sports documentary. I wore out several videotapes of basketball highlights as a kid—tomahawk dunks and swatted shots and Magic Johnson trick assists—until the tape was warped and warbled, until the pitch and image dipped in and out of decipherability. On one worn-out videotape: Dražen Petrović hitting a daggerlike three at the buzzer, pumping his fist. Then the sound and image melt.
One night, I watched a documentary about basketball in the former Yugoslavia. Or about former Yugoslavs playing ball in America, it’s hard to remember. What was clear was Sarajevo’s long nightmare of mortars and Kalashnikovs. What was clear was that every single one of those former Yugoslav ballplayers probably lost more friends any given week of Sarajevo’s extended nightmare than I had lost in the worst year of my life. What was clear was the digital restoration of that same Dražen Petrović buzzer beater I used to watch over and over on the videotape’s warbled chaos.
For certain deaths (and certain survivals) there are no statistics. How many obscure players of streetball, of pickup hoops, of rec league or high school or provincial college ball, how many of these sub-Salieris of Basketball, so minor and distant no one remembers that they, at one point in their lives, even played ball, survived the war to see what became of Mozart and his former Yugoslavia?
I belong to this obscure subcaste of sub-Salieris. For a while I was all right at basketball, and for a while I survived—long enough, at least, to write this down. Moments before I knelt and prayed in front of an urn containing my friend Andrew’s ashes, before I shook his father’s (my ex-coach’s) hand, I passed a display case with a photo of our under-10 hoops team. In the photo, the whole squad was gathered around a trophy, all of us holding up index fingers representing the number one, which, for a brief time, our squad of nobodies—in some provincial youth basketball league, in a lifetime I barely remember—was.
In the Yugoslav basketball documentary, Dražen Petrović is giving an interview, his last, from a park bench at one of my writing spots. This coincidence—which in my vulnerable, post-funeral state seemed to be some kind of cosmic sign—can be logically explained. In his last days, Dražen Petrović played for the Nets, who back then were based in Newark, New Jersey. The site of the interview is the Jersey City waterfront in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty (the symbolism is almost too easy, but I can never resist it: Lady Liberty stands with her back turned to my godforsaken state). The waterfront was probably the closest semi-picturesque location to the Nets’ practice facility. And so the sportscaster poses one final set of questions to Dražen Petrović here, in the shadow of the monolith.
I write this sentence in the shadow of the same monolith—and the shadow of two fallen towers, which would have been out-of-frame, but still standing, during Dražen Petrović’s last interview—either 1) because this backdrop is the nexus of beauty and terror or 2) because it’s the closest public park to where I live. Pure chance and circumstance brought me here. By “here” I mean the Statue of Liberty’s shadow, the state of New Jersey. By “here” I mean—for a short time—earth.
A logical problem: two brass bands—one a second-line band from New Orleans, the other a Romani wedding band from the former Yugoslavia—are playing marching arrangements of the same Mozart sonata. Both are traveling with the velocity of a basketball leaving the hand of a shooting guard nicknamed “Sniper.” Both bands’ tuba players have the lung capacities of killer whales. If the paths of both bands are unchanging, how long before the bayou sonata and the Balkan sonata collide head-on? It’s raining. It’s Monday. Mozart, riding shotgun in a Mercedes Benz, goes screaming down an infinite Autobahn.