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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.

16 Comments

  • Jul 14, 20113:57 pm
    by Patrick Hayes

    Reply

    Great read Jakob.

  • Jul 14, 20114:19 pm
    by CHRIS

    Reply

    hey jakob nice work:) I felt exactly the same way though having less numbers in mind:) still it was and amazing season, series and game 6. loved it! keep going!!

  • [...] A really nice piece reflecting on the place of basketball in Germany’s sports hierarchy – and how Dirk Nowitzki changed that this season, at least for a [...]

  • Jul 14, 20115:19 pm
    by Jacob

    Reply

    Thank you Jakob for writing your perspective. I’m the same way in that the Pistons will always be my #1 team but I live in the Dallas area and also root for Dirk and the Mavs. I was ecstatic when they won it all this year. Good write-up and can’t wait to read your analysis for the Pistons next year!

  • Jul 14, 20116:34 pm
    by BandWagonerPaysTheDues

    Reply

    This.  I completely feel you.  You have the heart of a Detroiter, which is to say that you understand the hope that springs from a world of pain.  When that hope turns into victory, the pleasure cannot be compared to something which has been purchased.  One needs to struggle and suffer to know true joy. Huge respect to Dirk and the Mavs.  Even bigger respect to those that strive to get better at their job each year and don’t get paid millions.  

    Great post, and for that I say thank you.

  • Jul 14, 201111:26 pm
    by EMan

    Reply

    I remembered when I lived in Regensburg and followed Piston games on ESPN gamecast at 2 am. I was a mess at work the next day. This was during the Rick Carlisle (world champion coach that no one in the Detroit forums liked) and Larry Brown (world champion coach that annoyed me) era.

    I root for Dallas just because of Dirk. Their championship was karma. Thanks for the great post.

  • Jul 15, 20114:55 am
    by hermievalecia

    Reply

    thanks for the great post, sir……   well, what else can I say, i feel exactly the same way, eversince i saw DIRK NOWITZKI  play in 2006 finals.  i braced myself for the2011  playoffs, and to my surprise they swept the lakers, demolished the thunders, and finally, BEAT THE HEAT   (this heart-attack-inducing finals)  is the  best nba finals ever).   After dallas won game 2 with the big german in beast mode, i made a prediction they will win it in game 6, although game 7 is a very tempting possibility.    In my mind i saw an epic scenario, the mighty german will be the last one standing because  good guys finished last.   Although in the real scenario I saw him walking towards the locker room a few minutes before the final buzzer.  I told myself, what? you dont want to get your trophy?   In the succeeding articles, he said  he could feel the tears coming , but  too private to show it.    what’s not to like about dirk nowitzki?   he’s humble in victory, gracious in defeat.    TAKE DAT WIT CHU, DIRK!

  • Jul 15, 20115:36 am
    by WR

    Reply

    Thanks for the great read. Well done. The only thing I would disagree is that Peja was once considered a better player than Dirk. It was close, that’s true. But at least for me, things were always clear.
    Cheers from Germany,
    WR

  • Jul 15, 20117:01 pm
    by Pete

    Reply

    I’m from Munich, Germany and I approve this message.
    What impresses me most about Dirk is that there really is no chance to make the NBA from Germany. Coaching and scouting is just not good enough. I used to dream about playing in the NBA, too, before I realized at 14 that I wasn’t even the best player in the lowest youth league in my region, which was one of probably a hundred comparable regions in Germany alone. So I guess Dirk has been living my dream and that of some others over here and he has done it in a way that we can all be really proud of.  

    P.S.: I used to videotape one-minute game recaps from CNN and watch those over and over again during the nineties. That seems ridiculous now.

    • Jul 16, 20115:32 am
      by Jakob Eich

      Reply

      I’m so feeling you Pete! Dirk’s been great for us!

  • [...] Jakob Eich writing from a German’s perspective on how Dirk Nowitzki changed Germany and reinforced core values (Via PistonPowered). [...]

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    Jul 16, 20116:14 am
    by Friday’s Bullets « jscotcastillon

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    [...] Jakob Eich writing from a German’s perspective on how Dirk Nowitzki changed Germany and reinforced core values (Via PistonPowered). [...]

  • Jul 16, 201110:11 pm
    by Peter

    Reply

    Great article. Of course the article mostly focuses on providing a perspective what that means for basket ball fans in Germany. But it also mentions team. The writer apparently is a Pistons fan – and the Pistons with Hamilton, Prince, Wallace, Billups were – like the Mavs – a team that was able to overcome the Lakers with their super stars Bryant and O’Neil. Now, the Pistons did not have a star on their team as big as Dirk but Dirk is as humble as they come and has no problem whatsoever to be a team player.
    I was following Dirk since he is playing in the NBA. For me it is easier since i am living in the US. It was really an emotional moment to see him finally break through.

    • Jul 17, 20115:08 am
      by Jakob Eich

      Reply

      Good point with the comparison of the Pistons team. I wrote with Dan about it during the Finals (or Lakers series) and it really is true. I don’t think Dirk broke through this postseason, he’s steadily become better and what he’s improved most at is his defense. He used to be an absolute no-show on defense and albeit him not being a shot-blocker he consistently gets his rotations right AND strips the ball away from the attack. He’s become very adapt at that and found a way to contribute on that end of the floor without supreme athleticism as well. Thanks for the kind words!

  • Jul 18, 201110:38 am
    by Neurosenthal

    Reply

    great read, jakob! i myself remember the dark nineties in germany really well. for some time before al gore invented the internet (he did, right?), i had to rely on teletext to get scores and then hope that cnn world sports would show small snippets. hard times for an nba fan indeed.
    i hope that the interest for dirk and the nba will last a bit now. but the league pass really helps nowadays :-)

  • Jul 19, 201110:00 pm
    by Andrea

    Reply

    I’m from Italy and I started following the NBA around the mid ’90s..I can relate with many of the stuff some of you posted, like watching highlights from a couple of games on CNN daily (not sure if anyone remembers it but CNN showed an NBA-related program, lasting 30 minutes, each and every Sunday afternoon and Monday morning with Kevin Laughery, which I followed religiously)…I even caught games on DSF (via satellite) with Frank Buschmann announcing them…..though I have got to say that us Italians are way more lucky than you guys since NBA coverage over here is pretty good now. Hopefully the fact Dirk led the Mavs to the championship will change things for the better in Germany.

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