Dirk Nowitzki: A success story built on perseverance, loyalty and class
The NBA draft offers teams in the league a chance to bring in players who can deliver success to a franchise and become superstars and Hall of Famers in the process. Thousands of players have been drafted in the NBA over several decades, but only a select few have joined this elite category. In 1998, the Dallas Mavericks found theirs in German Dirk Nowitzki.
After being selected ninth overall, Nowitzki was picked by the Milwaukee Bucks but joined the Mavericks via a trade. Legendary NBA coach Don Nelson - the winningest coach in NBA history - was determined to bring him to Dallas and, after a three-team trade with the Bucks and the Phoenix Suns, he got his man.
Nowitzki became the fourth German player to enter the league, following in the footsteps of Uwe Blab, Christian Welp, and All-Star swingman Detlef Schrempf. After four years plying his trade at German outfit and hometown team DJK Würzburg, the seven-foot forward was ready to grace the NBA hardwood.
Nowitzki was a raw talent coming straight from Europe, he turned down many college offers to head directly to the NBA. Before the big man was drafted, he worked out for the Boston Celtics, who were coached by Rick Pitino at the time, and after a 45-minute session, Pitino immediately compared him to Larry Bird and promised to draft him with the number ten pick, but of course he didn't get that far.
His shooting ability for a seven-footer was the main characteristic that made Nowitzki stand out from the outset. In the late '90s, big men were still expected to exclusively do their work in the low-post and be a dominant presence on the block. Dirk, however, was determined to do more and change the power-forward position; Don Nelson was only too willing to oblige.
He saw a player with a big frame who could shoot and pass the ball and didn't want to use him as a traditional big. Nowitzki was also not very keen and not physically built for contact in the post. He struggled in his rookie season of 1998-99 being overpowered by more athletic players and was criticised for his poor defence. Nelson almost lost his job for choosing to bring in Nowitzki, but he never had any doubt in the selection.
"What we liked best about him was his pure shot. That's something that generally you have or you don't have. His form was so good, and so pure, that we had to take a chance on him."
Anybody who knew or were aware of Nowitzki shouldn't have been surprised by his slow start in the NBA as his journey into basketball was also a slow one. Dirk only took up the sport at the age of 13, which is much later than the majority of his peers. He was, though, destined to become a sportsman because of his roots.
Dirk's father Joerg played for West Germany in handball, while his mother Helen was a star player on Germany's women's national basketball team. His only sibling, older sister Silke, also became a professional basketball player. Because his mother and sister played basketball, Nowitzki had the opinion that it was a female sport and instead as a kid opted to play football (soccer), tennis and handball.
It wasn't until he turned 13 that he began playing basketball and he grew to love the sport. As a youngster playing in pick-up games at the local gym, Nowitzki was spotted by Holger Geschwindner, a member of the 1972 West German Olympic team. Geschwindner decided to tutor and mentor a the teenager and saw it as an opportunity to unearth one of the country's most talented basketball players.
Speaking to Jackie MacMullan of Sports Illustrated, Geschwindner said: "One day in 1994, I watched this boy who instinctively was doing all the right things without knowing the game. I was fascinated."
Geschwindner became almost a second father to Dirk and continued working with him throughout his teenage years and that never stopped, even when he entered the NBA. It was in March 1998, a few months before he was eventually drafted, that Nowitzki caught the attention of scouts in America, both in college and the NBA.
He represented an International Junior Select Team for under-19-year-olds at the Nike Hoop Summit, against a collection of American high school stars in an exhibition game in San Antonio, Texas. He led his team to a surprise victory and ended the game with 33 points, with a dunk over Charles Barkley one of his highlight moments which made people stand up and take notice. This was the birth of one of the game's greatest players.
BEST OF EUROPE
Nowitzki wasn't the first European player to enter the league, nor the last, but he can certainly lay claim to being the best. His achievements in 18 years as a member of the Dallas Mavericks put him head and shoulders above any other European player who's ever graced an NBA court.
In his early years, he was a difficult matchup for his opponents in his natural small forward position with his size and unorthodox style. His one-legged fadeaway jump shot has become a signature of his and one of the most famous and effective shots in NBA history. After overcoming his initial struggles as a rookie, he got better and better and dominated the league in the 2000s, becoming an All-Star for the first time in 2002. He would, of course, go on to become a perennial selection.
Coming from Germany, Nowitzki was an influence for many European hopefuls and proved it was possible for a foreign player to make it among the elite in America. He may have had his doubts at first - he wanted to spend a few extra years in Europe when he was drafted but was convinced by Don Nelson to make the move - the decision more than paid off for him and he is now looked on as an ambassador for players from across the Atlantic making the jump to the NBA which happens more frequently now, because of players like Dirk.
There were numerous Europeans before and after him, but he can revel in the knowledge that he has gone down as the best of them all because, simply put, no other European player has had the same impact. Throughout his career, he has been almost unguardable because of his unique shooting ability from almost anywhere on the court.
Former players like Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Peja Stojakovic, Drazen Petrovic, compatriot Schrempf and active players such as Marc and Pau Gasol and Tony Parker are all among the top ten best European players to feature in the NBA, and to top that list is a testament to his greatness. He was also chosen as the "European Basketball Player of the Year" for five consecutive years from 2002 to 2006.
At the start of the 2015-16 season, the NBA confirmed that 100 international players featured on rosters for the second straight campaign, with all 30 teams including at least one. The association is truly a global league and Nowitzki is one of the many reasons for that. Were it not for Tim Duncan - who was born in the Virgin Islands - and Hakeem Olajuwon, Dirk would be regarded as the best international player of all time.
He currently ranks in sixth place among the NBA's all-time leading scorers with 29,491 points. He overtook Olajuwon as the highest-scoring foreign-born player in NBA history. He only trails Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabar on the list.
Earlier this year, ESPN ranked the top 100 players in NBA history and ranked Dirk as the 17th. The German was also listed as the third best power forward the game has ever seen, behind only Duncan and Karl Malone.
Here is how he was described by some of the ESPN writers:
"As tough and competitive as they come, Dirk shattered the stereotype of the soft European big man," Robert Peterson.
“All he’s done is revolutionise the power forward position as Europe’s greatest-ever import and the sweetest-shooting big man we’ve ever seen,” ESPN’s Marc Stein.
"Undoubtedly the best European player in NBA history - and there haven't been that many better players born in America either," Kevin Pelton.
These opinions prove that Nowitzki was not only the best European player but also one of the best players ever, period. He will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame when he eventually retires and will be remembered as the greatest ever Dallas Maverick.
DALLAS MAVERICKS LEGACY
When Nowitzki joined the Mavericks in '98, the franchise hadn't made the playoffs since 1990. He was one of the men responsible for changing the fortunes of the team and was more than happy to take on the task. Nowitzki's improvement was consistent after his previously mentioned rookie year issues.
In the 2000-01 campaign, he became the first Mavs player to be voted into an All-NBA team and, alongside point guard Steve Nash and shooting guard Michael Finley, they were dubbed the "big three" in Texas. After finishing the regular season with a 53-29 record, they led the team to a first postseason appearance in 11 years.
By 2005-06, however, both Finley and Nash had departed - the latter rejoining the Phoenix Suns as a free agent - and Dirk, the sole member of the "big three", became the franchise player and took on the responsibility tremendously.
The big man had one of the best seasons of his career in that year and confirmed his superstar status in the league by averaging 27.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists in the playoffs. In a decisive game five against the Suns in the Western Conference Finals, Dirk posted 50 points in a victory which saw them go on and win the series in six, leading to a Finals appearance.
"Dirk is playing at a higher level than any forward since [Larry] Bird," said ESPN columnist Bill Simmons.
Despite his form, the German failed to win his and the franchise's first championship as they blew a 2-0 lead to lose in six games to a Dwyane Wade-inspired Miami Heat. It was a demoralising defeat for the Mavericks after being in command of the series, but anybody who thought that would affect Nowitzki too much in the following campaign was mistaken.
The power forward continued to get better and 2007 turned into a significant year for him as he was finally recognised as the league's best player, winning the MVP trophy. It's the only time he would be named as the MVP but he guided the Mavericks to a franchise-best 67 wins and a top seed in the west. Individually he shot a career-high 50.2 percent from the field and became only the fourth player in history to join the 50-40-90 club - shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
Even though he and Dallas enjoyed a remarkable year, they fell short again in the playoffs, losing to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round - the first time ever an eight seed beat a number one seed in a best-of-seven series. The Larry O'Brien trophy eluded them in the following three years too which led experts to question whether Dirk had what it took to win it all and deliver for the team when it mattered.
Critics of the German labelled him as "Dirk No-ring-ski" and his career was in danger of going the same route as past greats like Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Allen Iverson among the best players to have never won a championship. Nowitzki was looked at as a disappointment and an underachiever who choked under pressure and couldn't come through for his franchise and meet expectations. He had to endure a period of negativity for the five years that ensued after they lost in the finals to the Heat. Then everything changed in 2011.
After sweeping the two-time defending champions L.A. Lakers in Phil Jackson's final year as coach and defeating an Oklahoma City Thunder team containing All-NBA duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the Western Conference Finals, the Dallas Mavericks were handed a shot at redemption; a Finals rematch with the Heat. But this was a different Miami team who had bought the talents of LeBron James and Chris Bosh to South Beach to create a "big three" of their own with Dwyane Wade.
It was a battle of the superstars without a ring to their name in Nowitzki and LeBron - who had joined Miami for this very moment. But it was the German, who was 32 at the time, who stepped up and finally seized the moment while the King shrunk under pressure. After losing game one in Miami, Dirk led the Mavs to overturn a 15-point fourth quarter deficit to take game two. Dallas lost the third encounter at home but were not to be denied their destiny as they closed out the series in six games and secured their first NBA championship in franchise history with revenge over the Heat.
Nowitzki was named as the finals MVP and joined a list of 10 other players to have been an NBA champion, NBA Finals MVP, an NBA regular season MVP, and a ten-time All-Star. In the 2011 playoffs, Nowitzki averaged an amazing 27.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 21 games and finally proved his doubters wrong. Unlike LeBron and many others, Dirk resisted the temptation to join another organisation and team up with other All-Stars in pursuit of a ring. Instead, he was determined to make it happen in Dallas and his perseverance deservedly paid off.
Nowitzki has a special relationship with the city of Dallas and the entire organisation and quite frankly, you couldn't see him playing anywhere else at any point in his career. Internet billionaire Mark Cuban purchased the Mavericks in 2000 for $280 million and according to Forbes' list of most valuable NBA franchises in 2016, the Mavs are now valued at $1.4 billion. Together Cuban and Nowitzki, both on and off the court, have turned Dallas into one of the best franchises in American sports.
Cuban is one of the most successful owners in the league, but he attributes that to being fortunate enough to have Nowitzki on his team. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014, Cuban outlined just what makes his superstar player so special.
"Talent without effort is wasted talent. And while effort is the one thing you can control in your life, applying that effort intelligently is next on the list. What helped make Dirk special is not just how hard he worked, but how smart he worked," Cuban said.
"He didn't just put in the hours, he had a plan for those hours and he knew just what he wanted to accomplish with them. That allowed him to not only become the great shooter that he is but also to become a student of the game and to add something new to his game almost every year."
The duo have a unique player-owner relationship that is rarely seen in the league and that trust between them over the last 16 years has helped the Mavericks become a successful organisation and, after just completing his 18th year, the journey is not over yet for one of the game's best ever big men.
Nowitzki just ended the 2015-16 campaign as the Mavs' leading scorer at the age of 37, becoming the oldest player in the league to do so, despite a gruelling 82-game schedule. They may have been ousted in the first-round of the playoffs by the Thunder, but just getting the team there was a terrific achievement on Dirk's part, the 15th time in the last 16 seasons he has done it. He averaged a team-high 18.3 points and pulled down 6.5 rebounds in 75 appearances while connecting on 44.8 percent shooting and 36.8 percent from three.
After seeing the 37-year-old Nowitzki take on a heavier workload while increasing his minutes to 31.5 per game this year, his head coach Rick Carlisle reflected on his superstar’s ability to put the team on his broad shoulders and how he is still left in awe of the veteran, even though he has now coached him for nine years.
“Remarkable. You know, I saw very little drop-off this year, and he was phenomenal in the playoffs. Again, I just think we’re seeing one of the truly unusual athletes in sports history, proving that it can be done with great longevity, with a great love and respect for the game and a great commitment to excellence. You know, I marvel at his career and everything he does on a day-to-day basis every day,” Carlisle said
Just days after the team's elimination from the postseason, the 2007 MVP decided to opt out of his current deal in Dallas but has no plans to retire and will re-sign with the team. He remains as committed as ever to the organisation and admits that ever since he finally won the elusive championship, his mind was always made up that he would retire in Dallas.
"Ever since I won a championship here and we did that, I want to finish my career here. I always said that," said Nowitzki. "The only scenario where I'll try to go somewhere is if we're rebuilding, if we really say, 'This is the end of the line. We tried every which way and we can't go any further and we're starting basically with five rookies.'"
The power forward is a prime example of how you can prolong a career as an athlete by looking after your body and keeping yourself in pristine condition. After seeing Kobe Bryant end his illustrious career this year after 20 seasons in the league, he hasn't ruled out getting to 20 himself and playing on for another two years.
"My goal was when I signed this three-year deal to fulfill that contract. And so if I play next year through, by that point I'll be 39. To be honest, 20 years [in the NBA] would sound really, really great. And next year would obviously be my 19th year, so maybe after this next year I could sign on one more. But I'll just have to wait and see, I think, at this point."
Last summer, the 13-time All-Star took a $14m pay cut to allow Mark Cuban to rebuild the team and bring in a number of pieces to make them competitive. One of the players they were able to add was Wesley Matthews from the Portland Trail Blazers, who was a valuable addition to the roster, and after just one season in Dallas, he immediately acknowledged the greatness of Nowitzki.
“It’s pretty remarkable what he does night in and night out,” he said, “especially if you were to see him walking into film sessions after games. … And then he goes out and goes for 32 and 11, and you’re like, ‘You couldn’t walk this morning.’ That’s just a testament to him and the time that he puts into this game, himself and his body. You know, it’s one of the last dinosaurs left, and it’s still remarkable.”
This dinosaur is not ready to be extinct just yet.