Dirk Nowitzki Is Saving Dallas Basketball One Shot at a Time
An oral history of the big German who rescued professional basketball in Dallas.
During the 1998 draft, the Mavericks made another move that, at the time, was unpopular, trading new draftee Pat Garrity to the Phoenix Suns for third-string point guard Steve Nash. For the Mavs, the deals would eventually pay off handsomely on the court. But Nash’s arrival paid immediate dividends off the court, providing their new European project with a built-in best friend.
NELSON: I don’t think any of us had any idea that we’d be talking about picking up two MVPs in the same transaction—two league MVPs, I mean. I don’t think that’s ever been done before.
NOWITZKI: We had the press conference together when I first got here. He had the bleached blond hair, but it was already grown out for a month or so, so it was, like, dark here, bleached there. It was a terrible look. I had the bowl cut with the earring in. I still see that picture. It makes me laugh.
STEVE NASH, Mavericks point guard, 1998-2004: We were both new to town, new to the club. We didn’t know anybody in town. I felt like I could help him sort of assimilate to new surroundings.
STEIN: Steve, you know, ran his life in the early days. They lived in the same apartment complex [near where West Village is now]; Nash took him everywhere. I mean he really kind of was his watchdog.
NOWITZKI: On the road, when I was sitting in the hotel room, getting homesick, Steve’s like, “Come on, let’s go. Let’s go eat. Let’s go to the movie. Let’s go see some of my friends. Let’s go out.” Which was great for me because I didn’t want to sit in the hotel room every road trip or at home all the time. I was, like, four doors down. I’d go over there all the time. I had his garage code.
For many, Nash and Nowitzki’s relationship was summed up by a series of beer-soaked photos—taken at Ten Food & Beverage in Snider Plaza, after they were knocked out of the playoffs in 2003—that hit the Internet.
NASH: It was a regular night. The only thing that made it different is that someone had a camera. Will they ever go away? I hope not. Classic.
NOWITZKI: It was different back then. The Mavericks, in the ’90s, had a tough decade. We’d go somewhere all the time, and people were like, “Oh, you’re tall,” but they had no idea who I was. And Steve, obviously being so small, he could just blend in.
Despite Nash’s presence on the team and his life, Nowitzki’s first season essentially was a complete wash. He was stuck on a terrible team that didn’t appear to be going anywhere, in a country he had been to a handful of times, and he didn’t fully understand his teammates, the NBA lifestyle, or his coach’s erratic substitution pattern.
To make it worse, the Dallas Morning News ran a weekly graphic comparing Nowitzki’s progress with what rookie sensation Paul Pierce, drafted immediately after Nowitzki, was doing in Boston.
GESCHWINDNER: When he was 17, at the very beginning, I gave him a book: Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon. I said, “Hey, Captain MacWhirr, there’s a typhoon coming on!” [laughs]
JASON KIDD, Mavericks point guard 1994-96, 2008-present: It’s hard for a rookie, period. But then to come from Germany or Europe, it just makes it a little bit harder, because everything is new.
LISA TYNER, Mavericks senior accountant and payroll manager: He never really lived away from home. He’d never had his own checking account or anything like that. He was trying to write things in English instead of German, so he would bring things in to make sure that he wrote the right words for the numbers. We just developed a friendship. A little while later, his mom came over. There was quite a large stack of mail in his apartment that contained some checks and things like that. She said, “I think you need some help.” And I said, “All right, we’ll help him.”
NELSON: It’s a jolt to the system. And it’s not just the difference of food, and the difference of language, and all the obvious things. When you’re thrown into an industry that you’ve got veterans, guys with families to feed, that are looking at you like a piece of meat, it can test the best athletes and the best competitors.
STEIN: I remember Nellie gave me a great story—didn’t do Dirk any favors—but Nellie said, “Yep, Dirk’s gonna be Rookie of the Year.” He didn’t exactly lower expectations on the way in.
NASH: It didn’t do him any favors. But, in some ways, maybe it made him tougher; put him in the fire right away.
CEDRIC CEBALLOS, Mavericks forward 1997-2000: His rookie year was shaky because Coach Nelson put a target on his back by saying he would be Rookie of the Year. Every team and player was gunning for him. I thought it would be better to let him sneak up on the league. Dirk also had two extra workouts a day, whether we had a game or not. Which later would pay off. So during games he was so tired he would get two fouls quickly just so he could come to the bench and rest.
STEIN: It was just a bad year all around. He didn’t really talk about it at the time, but he definitely said years later that he gave real thought to going back to Europe after the first year.
NOWITZKI: I think once I made the big step I thought, Okay, I’ll finish at least the first contract. The big decision was to come. Because I had other offers. I could have gone to Milano or I could have gone to FC Barcelona in Europe and obviously been closer to my family. So once I was here, I thought, Now you’ve made the decision. You have to at least fight through the first contract and see how it goes. I figured, if it doesn’t work out, I can always—after three years—go back and play in Europe.
NASH: I knew he was too determined, too hard a worker, too connected to the challenge of becoming an NBA player that he wouldn’t go home. But it was really hard for him. He was 19. He lived with his parents. To come all the way over to a professional league, a different culture, physically he wasn’t mature yet, or mentally—that’s difficult.
NOWITZKI: My first year, I lived in that place over there with Steve, just on rent. And I knew I was just going to be here for a couple of months, so I didn’t want to buy a car right then. So I rented a car for my first full season here. I forget what. It was maybe a Cutlass or a Hyundai. The guys would always kill me: “Get a car!” Gary Trent was always murdering me. I don’t think it even had air conditioning.
STEIN: He used to just take unbelievable amounts of abuse for his clothes. You know [Michael] Finley was kind of Jordan-esque, as far as he wore a suit and tie every single game, would never do an interview until he had his suit and tie on, and Dirk was wearing, like, flannel shirts and Topsiders, jeans. In an NBA locker room, that’s gonna get you slaughtered.
NOWITZKI: They cracked on me for a lot of things. First of all, I had trouble understanding the language a lot. I looked at them and had to say, “What?” a thousand times. They still make fun of me, because all I would say to them was, “Ya, sure, sure.” Cedric used to always kill me for my accent. He said I sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger when I spoke English.
CEBALLOS: Off the court, he was always big-eyed about everything. He smiled a lot when learning about American things and ways. Loved to watch something on TV or a movie and repeat it around us like he was cool. Not too good of a dancer, but that did not stop him from trying—daily.
Though his rookie year was rife with on- and off-court adjustments, Nowitzki found a glimmer of hope near the end—when all hope for the Mavs’ season had long since been extinguished.
NOWITZKI: The most important thing, I think, at the end of my first year, Nellie said, “Hey, we’re out of the playoffs now. We’re out of the hunt. Now, we’re going to throw you back in the starting lineup. Why don’t you just try to have some fun out there?” I’ll always remember that one game in Phoenix. I think I had, like, 28 points. That was huge for my confidence, for when I left after the first year.
STEIN: He went to summer league and that was big. The first year—and he has said this, too—he didn’t have a summer league, and he didn’t have a training camp, and that hurt him. That would have been some big adjusting-to-America time that he never got. So he went to summer league, was the best guy on that team, and then pretty much right away started making improvement.
NOWITZKI: We all know that this league is all about confidence, and once you have it, you’re a different player.