Most NBA activists have historically been African-American players fighting for racial equality in the United States. But in 1991, Ronald Reagan's words became true — Mr. Gorbachev tore down the wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall started a wave of democratization in Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, one country didn't transform peacefully.
War in Croatia
In late June 1991, the longtime bitter political crisis in Yugoslavia reached its climax and threatened to escalate to war. Therefore, the federal republics of Slovenia and Croatia executed their constitutional right and declared independence. The first war since WWII in Europe was about to start.
Nets shooting guard Dražen Petrović and his close friend, Celtics center Stojko Vranković, who did not participate in the 1991 Eurobasket on behalf of the Yugoslavian national team, were following the progress of the violent events back home via TV on a daily basis. Phone calls were the only way to find out if everyone they knew and cared about were safe. Seeing and eventually hearing of relatives and friends dying or getting severely wounded in the conflicts, both Petrović and Vranković were not satisfied with how the U.S. media presented the situation in Croatia.
It was generally described as a civil war in Yugoslavia, when in fact, it was a fight for the independence of sovereign nations - a right expressed in a peaceful referendum and elections. Dražen and Stojko had to act, so they took an active part in the hour-long demonstrations in front of the UN building on East River.
Petrović and Vranković had a long history of being together in various times and situations – from the very beginning of the 1980s, they were teammates and roommates on the various Yugoslavian national team selections. Dražen was Stojko's best man.
Despite his constant daily work with the strength and conditioning guru Rich Dalatri, Dražen used every free moment to inform himself about the events in his war-torn Croatia through a small satellite radio.
“When will this shameful, brutal aggression stop at once? I’ve already said everything here, many times, Stojko and I will go again into action. Recently, I gave an interview to the New York Times, explained the position of Croatia and the Croats, and told the story about killing innocent people, about people whose homes are destroyed. Americans know far more today than they knew yesterday, the truth has even reached these territories.”
Dražen Petrović, via Sportske Novosti
The protest in front of the UN headquarters, with the intention of showing the world how difficult the situation in Croatia was, was initiated by a group of unemployed women. However, since political protests in front of the UN building are strictly forbidden, a member of the Croatian community managed to get them accreditation for the social protest.
After that, many Croats from New York, who deeply cared about what was happening in their homeland, gathered there. According to some sources, around 5,000 people kept an all-day honor guard in front of the UN building. It was a protest against the war imposed on their homeland. They wrote patriotic and anti-war messages on clearly visible banners, holding them during the procession – Croatia in the UN, Support Croatian independence.
Using the spotlight
The arrival of NBA players attracted the most attention. The whole protest lasted for one hour, and Petrović and Vranković raised their voices along with people from the NY Croatian community and the Croatian delegation of martial art sports which was visiting the U.S. at the time.
When the media found out about the protest, they had immediately sent their crews to the site. Standing in front of them, Petrović and Vranković expressed support for the event with a joint statement:
“We all, including the ones who are dying on the front and us far away from our country, want the same. A ceasefire and peace for our Croatia. While people die every day, it’s obvious that there’s no room for real joys of life like sport.”
Dražen Petrović and Stojko Vranković
Representing their homeland like real ambassadors, not just on the basketball court, both Petrović and Vranković explained to U.S. mainstream media what was really happening back home.
Dražen had a breakthrough season with the 1991-92 New Jersey Nets. Officially named the team’s MVP for the season started all 82 games for the rejuvenated squad which had reached the play-off for the first time since 1986 while averaging 20.6 points per game on 50.8 % shooting from the field.
On April 7th, 1992, a week after the 1991-92 NBA regular season conclusion, Croatia was officially recognized by the United States.