NBA RANGE: PEERLESS DIRK A EURO IDOL

When the Berlin Wall fell in the early winter of 1989, an 11-year-old Dirk Nowitzki was sitting transfixed in front of the television with his parents, trying to take in the history in the making.

“People were hugging and cheering,” the Dallas Mavericks forward recalls. “That was a fantastic moment in the history of Germany.”

As his compatriots scrambled over the barricades to emotional applause on the other side, the doors were kicked open for good. Who knew then that the fair-haired son of Wurzburg would soon be pushing down barriers of his own, and carving open a pathway through which others might follow?

On Wednesday night, the Germany international became the highest-scoring player in the NBA’s history to be born outside the United States. That he is the best Europe has ever produced is beyond doubt. The league’s only Most Valuable Player from the Old Continent. The only one to have been the absolute fulcrum of a championship team.

Almost 27000 points and 15 seasons into his career across the Atlantic, it seems an age since he first landed as an unheralded young recruit from the tiny club, Wurzburg, having seen then-Dallas general manager Don Nelson take one of the all-time greatest gambles by swinging him a post-Draft trade for his rights.

Or perhaps, it was astonishing foresight. Back then, overseas hires – especially from western Europe – were viewed with suspicion, stereotyped as too soft, too unskilled or too ponderous.

Challenging that image was far from the top of his mind; the immediate hurdle was simply to cope with being away from home by the very first time. “I had to adjust to living by myself,” Nowitzki admits. It was a tough time for me. But I had to get through it somehow.”

Amid his initial toils, some derided Nelson for betting on red and seeing black come up. His recruit would not dispute their analysis. “I struggled a lot. There were games when I didn’t get in at all, when I didn’t play.. I was frustrated. I wasn’t very good.”

It did not help that this was a time when the gulf between American basketball, all speed and show, and the technocratic approach in Europe was at its widest.

“There were cultural differences,” he acknowledges. “The style of play was different. In Germany we had five on five, it was slower, we had the 30-second shot clock. Here, it was 24 and the speed of the game was so much quicker.

“All the international players had trouble adapting at first. It was so athletic. It took us a bit to get used to it. But once you settle down, and you feel better off the court and comfortable in your surroundings, that’s when you show you can play.”

It took six seasons before he was truly welcomed among the elite. The Mavs remained patient. Nowitzki stayed true to the regime laid down by his personal coach Holger Geschwindner, a one-time German international who had developed a rigorous training programme for this prodigy he had unearthed at the age of 15.

“In terms of talent, he’s a seven-footer who can shoot,” declares Detlef Schrempf, Germany’s original All Star whose NBA career overlapped Nowitzki. “That opens up a lot of things for you.

“Then being able to pass and being smart enough to understand the game, combined with his work ethic, it’s always talked about how hard he works in the offseason, how much he does, how he’s ready to play. That’s the only way you can survive in this league long-term. A lot of guys come in and they don’t stick around because they don’t have those trademarks.”

He is still working, even as his career inevitably is winding down. Even on vacation time, the gym is not neglected. There is more weight-lifting now, extra stretching.

“Once you get older, you put a lot of work in, not only on the court,” the two-time FIBA Europe Player of the Year confirms. “You eat healthy. I don’t drink much alcohol and during the season, I don’t drink at all. You watch what you eat. You watch how you train.”

The pursuit of a NBA championship still spurs him, three years on from the pinnacle of his career when Dallas lifted the title. With an offseason rebuild, the Mavericks are potential contenders again. There is enough talent that their ageing superstar is no longer being asked to shoulder the entire load.

There may be one more international cameo, he hints, with Germany among the hosts of next summer’s EuroBasket 2015. After carrying his flag in Beijing six years ago, he would dearly love one more crack at the Olympics.

How his body feels will dictate how he fares. It will, as it has always been, not be for the want of a desire to kick through the wall.

“I still aim to play at a high level,” he says. “I never wanted to see myself as a big time scorer. I wanted to be efficient. When counted upon, I want to come through for my team. Hopefully I can still do that for the next two years and play well.

“That’s really my only wish, to play at a high level, help the guys win a lot of gams and be relevant. That’s what motivates me.”

NBA Range appears on MVP every Friday – for more NBA action, visit NBA.com/leaguepass

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