How Dirk Nowitzki changed Germany and reinforced our core values

For those of you who don’t know Jakob Eich, he writes Xs and Os breakdowns here and is one of the best basketball minds covering the NBA. He’s also German. I asked him to write about the experience of watching Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks win the title, and his account of that experience follows. –Dan

This isn’t just my story. This is Germany’s story.

As a kid, I grew up dreaming about playing in the NBA one day. I had yet to start playing competitive basketball, but the dream was already there. There was a German in the NBA named Detlef Schrempf who had alienated himself from his German fan base by never coming home. Plus, he spoke with an American accent when he spoke his native language (he use a rhotic “r” instead of the German non-rhotic one). So, he was German on paper, but his entire demeanor was thoroughly American.

People here were fascinated by the Michael Jordans, the Karl Malones and the John Stocktons – not so much by Schrempf.

After Jordan’s first retirement, TV stations didn’t even show matches on free television anymore. The basketball world in good old Germany broke down. Weekly games telecasts were replaced by one-hour summaries of games nobody really cared about and NBA Magazine, which was more commercial than actual footage.

That’s when I started paying attention. Sitting in front of my parents’ TV,  I watched whenever there was a minute of basketball on the screen. I loved watching the BBC News to see a few highlights (even though I couldn’t yet understand English, mind you).  I wasn’t the only one. A lot of my teammates did the same back then. We talked about it at practice, discussed the best players, who we want to be and who we’d try to emulate.

Without YouTube or broadband internet, the NBA was a complete myth. Heck, the U.S. itself was a myth to me.

You don’t grow up having a team in your local area. You just hear about the big guys dunking hard on 10-foot rims in America. That certainly impressed a thirteen year-old white boy who barely managed to grab rim.

Around this time, I heard of this Dirk Nowitzki guy who was starting to become a really good player overseas. But I was preoccupied admiring Tracy McGrady. T-Mac was my favorite player. He was smooth, athletic and had this sweet stroke!

Nowitzki was this big white kid (kinda like me), who couldn’t jump high (exactly like me) or do anything flashy except for putting up 20 points per game in the best league of the world with an unreal shooting percentage (unlike me). I should have identified with him, but for some reason I didn’t. I wanted Dirk to be the best European player in the NBA, and maybe if he were, I would’ve connected with him sooner. But at that time, the title belonged to Peja Stojakovic. Times change, eh?

I started learning more English and read how Dirk and Steve Nash had become close friends. I was pretty sad the day Dallas let Nash go to Phoenix. Some people said Dirk was only as good as Nash’s playmaking ability allowed him to be, so I was excited to see how Dirk would turn out the following season. He proved he could score without Nash, but his defense had to improve a lot – and of course, it eventually did.

What I admire most about Nowitzki is how he constantly got better EVERY SINGLE YEAR! For 13 straight years, he’s improved in some way – rebounding, passing, shot-making, post-game. Do you have anything in your life you’ve gotten better at doing each of the past 13 years? It takes so much determination, will, discipline and courage to do it. I’m amazed every time I think about it.

Living in the states, watching Dirk

In 2005, I moved to Michigan as part of a foreign-exchange program. The Pistons had just missed their opportunity for a second-straight title, and Detroit cruised through the regular season my first year in the states. I bought three different jerseys for my new favorite team, but my second favorite team was the Mavs, obviously. My admiration for Dirk had only increased, and I was a proud owner of a Nowitzki jersey (the green one designed by Sean Combs (aka “Puff Daddy”, “P. Diddy”, “Diddy” or “Swag”). When the Pistons somehow lost to the Miami Heat featuring Shaq, Dwyane Wade and a few other player nobody really cared about, I was devastated.

But I rooted for the Mavs in the Finals, donning my Dirk jersey every game. I was happy when they went up 2-0 and dejected they lost three in a row due to some horrible officiating and quite frankly, a few lapses of their own.

It just so happened that my flight back to Germany left during Game Six of the series. Of course, I still wore my Nowitzki jersey. Some flight attendants asked me about it and told me how much they liked Dirk. It felt good, really good. Somehow, although you are simply from the same country, you feel complimented as well. I don’t share anything personal with Dirk. I’m from a different area in Germany, and I’ve never met him. But we speak the same language, have the same nationality, emigrated to the same country and had a passion for the same sport.

When I got off the plane in Frankfurt, I immediately tried to get the score. There was no way the Mavs lost four in a row, right? Sadly enough, they did.

A perfect foe for the Heat

The next few years seemed like an everlasting quest of Dirk seeking the championship. The team always had great regular-season records, only to be eliminated early in the playoffs. I honestly didn’t think Nowitzki would make it.

I know a few die-hard Dirk fans who would get really, really, really hyped up for every season, talking about how great this or that signing was, how Marion was one of the greatest of all time and so on. I mocked the friend who was utterly convinced the Mavs would win it all this year. (In my defense, he makes that statement every year, and it’s largely based on his NBA 2K11 success with Dallas.) I thought the Lakers would three-peat or the Heat would win.

Like seemingly every other NBA fan, I don’t like the Heat. I don’t like the idea of simply putting together three great players and the others don’t matter. In my life, I’ve always been one of the others on the court, so maybe that’s why. But I was glad the Mavs were Miami’s Finals opponent, because Dallas was everything I want from a basketball team – a cohesive unit with a down-to-earth superstar and a great supporting cast.

I had moved away from my basketball friends in Kiel and lived now in Hamburg, a larger city. Soccer is the No. 1 topic in Germany by a landslide. Which team is signing which player? Who is the new manager. What is the national team doing? Does the captain have an infection? The U.S. has so many sports you can watch – baseball, basketball, football and hockey. In Germany, you have soccer and handball (yes, handball). Basketball is an absolute fringe sport.

All of a sudden dozens of friends of mine began approaching me to ask , “Do you think Nowitzki can win it? Do they have a chance? I hear Miami has, like, three really good players!” In Germany, Wade, LeBron and Bosh are just “three really good players.” Most Germans don’t know that Wade and James equals C. Ronaldo and Messi on the same squad.

I watched every game, although I wasn’t as bad as some of my friends who went to a bar at 3 a.m. to watch each game. I have League Pass, so I simply got up a little later, around 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. and watched the games before work or university.

I watched Game Six alone in my apartment. From my breakdowns, you know I like to watch games closely, and I wanted to do that for this game, too. You can’t really do that at a bar, where it’s too crowded and too noisy.  Solitude didn’t prevent the game from being an emotional rollercoaster, though.

I knew the Mavs had to win. Of course they could win Game Seven, but Game Six would be so much easier. “Keep going, keep going Dirk!”, I found myself yelling at the screen. I celebrated every miss by the Heat and became angry after every missed opportunity by the Mavs. I yelled at the TV as if they could hear me all the way across the Atlantic. It’s crazy how involved you become when it comes to sports, at least I do.

When the game was close at halftime and Nowitzki was 1-12 from the field, I thought to myself: “If Dirk shoots 50 percent from the field in the second half, the Mavs will win.” Well, Dirk started making shots. I kept waiting for a push by the Heat, for James and Wade to unleash, to attack the basket, to draw fouls. It never happened. I stood in front of the screen the entire last two minutes, clenched hands above my head.

I was texting with friends the entire second half, so I could feel their excitement as well. Afterward, they told me every single detail of their night. I wish I could have been with them to share the moment.

When the game ended, tears started welling up. I don’t exactly remember if one came out, but I know I was very close to it at the very least.

Dirk Nowitzki’s impact

Words can’t describe what Nowitzki did for this country, for the fairly small number of basketball fanatics here. How many casual fans got up as well to support him? How many people who had never watched a game of basketball before stayed up all night because they wanted to see this surreal event?

For basketball fans living in a country where the sport is the third-most-popular team sport at best, it’s nice to get some kind of attention every once a while. Over here, most people look at basketball and say, “Oh yeah, the sport which is contact-free, right?” I always get mad when I hear that, but they just don’t know better. They’ve never been knocked to the floor by a 250-pound guy, so they don’t know what it feels like. It’s not a sport like football or hockey, but compared to soccer? Maybe Dirk will help change that perception.

He’s our son who went into the Wild Wild West and succeeded. It’s a modern-day fairy-tale.  He earns $20 million, but lives in a 2-room apartment. He always works hard, yet stays so humble. He does not have a car for every day of the week, he lives like a normal guy with a normal salary. I’m not judging athletes who spend their money on expensive cars and such. I’m merely saying I like Dirk’s way of living. I do not know why other Germans like him. I can just talk for myself and for a few friends of mine. He’s old school, and I like old school.

It’s also good to have a great guy like Dirk represent your “breed.” I’m a die-hard Pistons fan, but I will buy the Dallas championship DVD (my second one, after the Pistons 2004 DVD). One day, I will show them to my children and say, “Look, I want you to play like this. This is a team!” Over here, it felt so good that the right person won with the right team. Dirk Nowitzki is a genuine nice guy who made it as a leader in a world of fake tough guys. The odds were stacked against him ever since he entered the league, and nobody thought he would lead a team to a championship. But he proved you don’t have to be a clear-cut alpha male to dominate the sport.

As long as you work hard and lead by example, you will succeed. That’s why the championship meant so much to the German fan base.

He’s one of ours, and he keeps the dream alive that anyone can make it.

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