On January 23rd, 1991, a blockbuster three-team trade happened that would be remembered as the day Dražen Petrović landed in New Jersey. In a recent interview for Basketball Network,Sam Smith, the author of the basketball best-seller The Jordan Rules, also reflects on the interesting side effects and connotations of the blockbuster three-team trade made on January 23, 1991.
Alongside Dražen going to the Nets, the Denver Nuggets traded power forward Terry Mills to the Nets, while the Nuggets traded shooting guard Walter Davis and a 1992 2nd round draft pick to the Blazers. To round up the deal, the Nets traded power forward Greg Anderson and a 1992 1st round draft pick to the Nuggets.
“I knew I was going to get traded to either Portland or Chicago. I was open to either team because both teams were contenders. Dražen did get playing time in New Jersey and showed the whole world that he could play if given the opportunity.”
Walter Davis, 'Drazen - The Years of the Dragon'
Seeing that one of the players he admired from his childhood days in North Carolina could enforce the 'firepower' of the Western Conference contender and potential rival, Michael Jordan was openly disappointed in the Bulls' lack of activity regarding bringing Davis on board.
“Same old stuff; it's disappointing. He certainly could have helped us.”
Now, almost thirty years after the historic deal, while reflecting on the chance of the hypothetical arrival of Dražen Petrović to Chicago instead of New Jersey, and the potential benefits of such a deal for the Bulls, Sam Smith openly identifies the 'invisible forces' that might have been involved, and thus eventually affected the rocky NBA path of many European players since Petrović's era.
“Petrović was not highly regarded then. The NBA, especially some players, had a bias against European players then. Some was believed to be racial since the European players were predominantly white.
Some NBA players believed managements wanted to push European players on the NBA to get more white players. I don't believe at all that was true. Though there was a long--mostly accurate in the 50s and 60s--alleged search for a "Great White Hope."
Though fans obviously embraced success given the popularity of Michael Jordan on through LeBron James. Teams I know would take anyone who looked anyway for a chance to win. But people being people, there always are conspiracy theorists.
The general consensus for whatever reason--and some still exists today--became European players were not tough enough, soft. Which, of course, was ridiculous since so many even went through actual wars growing up to survive. And were much tougher than most Americans.”
Sam Smith, Basketball Network
With everything we know about the treatment of African-Americans in US society, it's understandable players suspected race could be a part of the reason why European players were in fashion. But the "softness" point is common and prevalent to this day. For a long time, European players didn't get a lot of chances with coaches and teams. If they did, they were considered shooters, which implied they were soft and can't take the physicality of the NBA.
Part of it is because the European game is more system-oriented and less athletic, which leads many to believe it means it is less physical. The other part is that most people think every European player grew up in a middle-class suburb and played basketball ball between Latin and piano lessons. The truth is different - they often come from circumstances as difficult as their American colleagues.