Dallas was a basketball wasteland in the 1990s, one failed promise after another. For almost every season that decade, the Mavericks were the worst team in the NBA. As a reward for rescuing a franchise, Dirk Nowitzki, then, should have more entitlement, not less.
But that is how it is, and how it has been. And so Nowitzki—though he is probably the biggest sports icon this city has known for the past 10 years, and certainly the most successful—has been taken for granted. Maybe not as a player, but as a person.
Partly this is because Dirk Nowitzki rarely shares his personal life with those outside of the Dallas Mavericks organization. The public is invited to witness only the quiet, coolly efficient German machine on the court, a Mercedes C-class in shorts. They get to watch the awkward greyhound—sleek yet stumbling—that tugs on the bottom of his No. 41 jersey after knocking down yet another shot from a seemingly impossible angle. They see the sneers, the fist pumps, the hair (a topic of conversation whether shaggy or shaved), the high-arcing, high-release three-pointers, the occasional ridiculous snapshot. Others see only what isn’t there: a more typical 7-footer—in the mold of San Antonio Spurs big man Tim Duncan, maybe—and the theoretical championship rings that would result. Everyone sees the face of the franchise for the past decade, but only in profile.
What they don’t see is the man (or, in sports parlance, The Man) who—since arriving in Dallas for the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season—has changed everything, except himself. He’s not as shy as he once was, and he speaks English better, but the core of the personality he came over with from Germany remains intact, despite all the awards and the millions of dollars he’s earned since. He still seems like the Maverick it would be the most fun to have a beer with and the one most likely to take you up on the offer. He still behaves like just one of the guys—which would be enough if that meant the team and not the entire organization.
So it’s time to take a moment to reflect, to try to meet the person and the player. What follows is an oral history of the Decade of Dirk.
A PHENOM IS DISCOVERED
The son of a German national women’s basketball team member (Helga) and a competitive-level handball player (Jörg-Werner), Dirk Nowitzki was probably destined for some level of athletic achievement.
But that pedigree might have kept him overseas. His path to the NBA and Dallas began when he was 16 years old, playing for his local club team, DJK Würzburg. After a game in one of the villages around Würzburg, Nowitzki met Holger Geschwindner. A former member of the German national basketball team, Geschwindner was struck by a “tall, skinny kid running around on the court,” raw and unpolished, but loaded with potential.
HOLGER GESCHWINDNER, Nowitzki’s longtime coach and mentor: He did a lot of things right, what a good basketball player is able to do, but he had no technical skills. No shooting. No dribbling. But you could see the guy had a sense for the game. We shared the same locker room, so I said, “Hey, who is teaching you the tools?” And he said, “Nobody.” So I said, “If you want, we can do it.”
Three weeks later, we played a game in Würzburg. He and his parents and sister were there. After the game, Helga came over and said, “Hey, Dirk told us you offered to practice with him. Can we do that?” So we started the next day.
After about three weeks, I told Dirk, “If you want to be the best player in Germany, we can stop practicing right now. If you want to be with the best guys in the world, we have to practice every day. It’s a major decision. But you have to make it.” Next day he called and said let’s try.
Their program was unorthodox in basketball terms, more like a private school education, with Geschwindner encouraging Nowitzki to learn an instrument (he chose saxophone and later switched to guitar) and read literature. This nontraditional methodology helped them overcome what they lacked in traditional resources.
Since Nowitzki was playing for a second-division youth team in Germany, no one was paying much attention to the rapidly growing (and improving) teenager. That changed in 1997, when Charles Barkley, then finishing his career with the Houston Rockets, led a team of NBA players through Europe for a series of exhibition games as part of the Nike Hoop Heroes Tour. The team included Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen, a poster of whom hung on Nowitzki’s bedroom wall.
CHARLES BARKLEY, NBA Hall of Fame forward; NBA on TNT studio analyst: Dirk put up a smooth 50 points. He was too big for Scottie Pippen, and I forget, we had another really good defender—I can’t remember who it was at the time—and he just whooped their ass. I walked up to him after the game and I said, “My man, who are you?” And he was telling me he was like 18, 19 years old, and I said, “Well, whatever money it’ll cost you to go to Auburn, I’ll pay your way for you to go there.”
Auburn never followed up on Barkley’s offer. But Cal offered Dirk a scholarship, as did Kentucky. Any hope of him accepting one of those disappeared when Nowitzki was chosen to play with the world select team at the Nike Hoop Summit in San Antonio. Playing against future NBA starters Rashard Lewis and Al Harrington, he scored 33 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
GESCHWINDNER: He still has the record, as far as I know. We came home after only one game because his club team was in the playoffs. We got in trouble for that. But the first NBA team showed interest. European club teams made him offers.
After the Hoop Summit performance, Geschwindner encouraged Nowitzki to submit his name for the 1998 NBA draft. On draft night, he went to the Milwaukee Bucks with the No. 9 overall pick. They immediately traded his rights to Dallas for future overweight journeyman Robert “Tractor” Traylor, a deal that will be on roll calls of worst NBA trades as long as there are such lists.
Fans were skeptical, especially since proven college players were available. Meanwhile, the Mavericks’ brain trust—coach Don Nelson and his son Donnie—weren’t even sure if Nowitzki would come to Dallas.
DONNIE NELSON, Mavericks general manager and president of basketball operations: It would certainly have been a lot easier for him to stay close to home—you know, play there for a couple of years and then decide to come over later. I mean, that would probably have been the kind of logical development steps. But he had a passion to play in the NBA; he wanted to compete against the best. After we drafted him, we kind of set off on a little recruiting trip.
GESCHWINDNER: Two hours after the draft, the phone rang, and Don Nelson said, “We are coming to Germany.” He came and stayed at my house. I lived in an old castle in those days. They stayed for three days and convinced us, at minimum, we have to come to Dallas. That was the year when there was a lockout, so we only had three days. That was pretty much the situation when he had to make the decision: sitting on Don Nelson’s pool all night long and saying, “To do or not?”
DIRK NOWITZKI: Nellie had a party, a barbecue at his house. They just said, “Hey, there’s really no pressure. Why don’t you just come and get better? We’re not going to be really a playoff team, and you can develop your first couple of years.” After talking to the players and talking to Nellie, I said, “Okay, I’ll try it.”
But he didn’t come over right away. A labor dispute led NBA owners to declare a lockout of their players while they hashed out a new agreement. The season eventually started, but it was a shortened 50-game schedule instead of the usual 82.
MARC STEIN, Mavericks/NBA beat writer, Dallas Morning News, 1997-2002; senior NBA writer, ESPN.com: The NBA lockout was great for me because I was actually in England on one of my soccer trips, and, if you remember, Dirk decided to keep playing for his German team during the lockout. I actually went to Germany and spent a week down there, watched him play in two games, and really, except for Donnie Nelson, I think I was just about the only person in town who had actually seen him play, besides that game he played in San Antonio in that Hoop Summit.
NOWITZKI: I didn’t sign my contract yet, so I was able to go back and play with my home team and stay in shape and live at home for a couple more months. And one day—in January, I remember the day—like CNN or whatever said, “Season saved.” And I was like, “Shit. It’s actually going to happen.” I was a little scared, because it was a big step.