TalkBasket’s John Hobbs was in Berlin last week, sampling the German lifestyle and he was also there to witness and document the return of arguably Germany’s biggest sporting star. After a week, here is the story of Dirk Nowitzki’s return to his homeland for the first time, as a Dallas Mavericks player.
The hype was evident in the German capital even when I stepped out of Berlin Tegel Airport. Two guys wearing white Mavs vests bearing the 41 on the back - and a female - wearing the black national jersey with the infamous 14.
Their home town hero Dirk Nowitzki was indeed in town. It was the first time he was playing in Germany wearing the recognizable blue of the 2011 NBA champions. It took him 14 seasons, but the 7-footer was finally home.
“It’s great, being back for the first time,” Nowitzki beamed. “Obviously playing for the national team for a long time, you know, over a decade but this is my first time in a Mavericks dress so this has been an exciting time, there’s been a lot going on over the last two days.”
The Wurzburg native, who learned to play the sport of basketball in a tiny gym near Bamberg where the three-point line was too big in diameter for the floor was thrilled to be back in Europe and especially Germany. He preferred to speak the native tongue in his two press conferences, even when he was told that the interviews were being shown live on NBA TV and it was requested that he would speak in English.
“Nein,” he quietly said to an NBA communications employee at the pre-game presser. He made a statement of intent already. We’re in Germany; we speak German, not English. That was until I asked my questions about the Mavericks’ opponents, Euroleague side Alba Berlin at a packed press conference room, where Nowitzki admitted that there were more press here than in the 2011 NBA Finals where they won their first championship against Miami.
Dirk said that his team didn’t know too much about Alba Berlin but that they were getting used to the plays again, seeing what roles the rookies such as Jae Crowder, Bernard James and Jared Cunningham would play and overall getting used to each other. There are eight new faces to the team and the game in Berlin was the first game.
Off the court though, Nowitzki was at the younger Berlin natives’ mercy. His every move followed and every wave cheered wildly. This was something that the Germans hoop fans could have only dreamed of. It was NBA commissioner David Stern’s dream that the Mavericks come to Europe to play, especially in Germany. 14 years later, Stern’s dream, along with thousands upon thousands of Germans was made into a reality.
“I want to thank Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks,” Stern said. “It’s been a dream of mine as Commissioner to bring the Mavericks overseas, particularly to Germany because of a gentleman by the name of Dirk Nowitzki and it was an extraordinary pleasure for me to be there when we dedicated the basketball court and sitting with Dirk and watching the admiration that the youngsters have for him.”
The admiration was infectious, and yet, the 2011 NBA Finals MVP took it all in his stride. He was enjoying himself, and he wanted to remember his brief stay in Germany before the team flew to Barcelona. A city where two years ago welcomed back one of their own in Pau Gasol.
The big man knew that the main line of business was on the court, on the eve of the game against Alba Berlin, the Mavs scrimmaged hard as they looked to fight the jetlag, being seven hours behind in Dallas. Nowitzki was feeling as was veteran Vince Carter.
“As a player, you hate it because you want to just lay there but because the flight was so long but it was good to get our legs going, get the blood flowing a little bit because, and I think I speak for everybody, we feelin’ lazy and we just want to lay in bed all day,” the former North Carolina standout, Carter commented.
Despite the jetlag that was still bothering them, the Mavericks were ready for the German giants, and the off-court crew were preparing for Dirk’s return by repeatedly announcing the Dallas Mavericks players and starters but more to the point, they were practicing how they would announce Nowitzki himself.
The night came, the crowds were flocking in, most decked in the yellow and navy blue of the Alba Berlin team, but even they were fighting their way to the front of the arena. Nowitzki, along with Carter, Shawn Marion and OJ Mayo were warming-up and the lights were flashing, the cameras, the iPhones were on show and it was met with ear-to-ear smiles. For them, it was the first real look at their hero; undoubtedly the biggest sporting star in Germany. Forget Jürgen Klinnsmann, forget Franz Beckenbauer; their MVP was home. And when the time came for Nowitzki to be introduced – 16,000 fans inside the O2 World Arena – all rose to their feet for a cheer that shook the capital and the goosebumps were visible. You couldn’t even hear the announcer say his name, it was deafening.
Nowitzki’s pre-game speech to the gracious public inside the arena even got delayed because of the sheer appreciation shown. He finally addressed the crowd in German by thanking them for coming to support the NBA Europe Live tour and for welcoming him home.
On the court
Dirk’s trademark fadeaway jumper over two Alba players brought his first points of the game on his first shot attempt but overall, Nowitzki was a target for the Berlin players and the early fatigue showed. Coach Carlisle brought Dirk off at regular intervals.
Nowitzki finished with eight points on the night, shooting a below par 3-9 from the field. The 7-footer even blew an uncontested lay-up in the second quarter with the ball slipping out of his hands when he was running unopposed. A moment he will want to forget even if the Berlin faithful were making sure that it never be disregarded.
Despite his seemingly larger than life status before and during the game; Nowitzki’s German team-mate went ahead and stole the show. Chris Kaman, recovering from injury led the Mavericks with 14 points and he didn’t look to have missed a beat. His jumper was smooth as a baby’s behind; the Grand Rapids man has a slick fadeaway motion to his jumper, making it unblockable. He fought hard for rebounds and did everything coach Carlisle asked of him, maybe a little more. The German public adored Kaman also, not as much as number 41, but there was a great appreciation for Kaman, who, despite suiting for the German national team, can’t speak a lick of the native lingo.
Dallas scraped through 89-84 in a hard-fought contest. To the delight of the fans this wasn’t a game where the Mavericks chopped and changed their line-up. Carlisle used his stars frequently and often. He wanted them to get back in to the groove now, not later; he wanted to win this game.
Even afterwards though, when the smoke had cleared and the fans were trickling out in to Berlin’s main strip, the game’s MVP was the other German international, Kaman, but Nowitzki was still the story, even if his performance didn’t warrant it.
When asked if Nowitzki was nervous, coach Carlisle replied: “I don’t think so. They had a really good game plan they wanted to scramble the game up and they wanted to get us playing frantic, they did a great job of it for different parts of the game but Dirk’s beyond getting nervous and when his shots were there, you know they were in the slots so that wasn’t it at all.”
Dirk added through a German translator: “It was fun to play here, in this atmosphere and it was a tight game which helped, and we really had to fight and we made a number of mistakes particularly in the beginning so had ten turnovers to start which was difficult.”
The big man was just a little harsh as it was nine turnovers in the first quarter which turned into 27 for the game overall, but Dallas got the W and got their pre-season off to a winning start. Rodrigue Beaubois was carried out in the third quarter with what was later revealed to be a sprained ankle, so he will rest the ankle for a few days before the Mavericks head home.
After three whirlwind days in the German capital, the Mavericks headed home and Dirk Nowitzki got his final look through the small window on the team plane at the country that gave him basketball, and gave him his dream job before they flew across to Barcelona.