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."
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 Dražen Petrović—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, Petrović (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 Petrović 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. Petrović 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 Petrović'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, Petrović 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, Dražen 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 Petrović, as a 19-year-old, signed, sealed and...not quite delivered. When it came time to head for South Bend, Petrović 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. Petrović 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 Petrović Rule," Dražen 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, Petrović's Cibona Zagreb team had beaten Madrid five times in seven meetings. Dražen 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 Petrović's mother, Biserka. That was all in addition to various emoluments Petrović 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 Dražen Dalipagić, who was second in the Italian league in scoring this past season at age 37, goes through two packs of Marlboro Lights a day.