When people think of German basketball, without question, the first thing that pops into their heads is Dirk Nowitzki, the leading international scorer in NBA history and arguably Germany’s biggest star in the world of hoops.
But Nowitzki was not even a professional player in 1993, the year that Germany claimed its first, and to date, only basketball gold medal.
The man that was largely responsible for the Germans 1993 Eurobasket success is Christian Welp, not exactly a house hold name by today’s standards, but he was the one held accountable for his nation’s moment of glory.
And what a moment it was, the 7’0” Welp not only won the gold medal, but, in front of his home support in Munich, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, averaging 11.3 points a game.
But it was his consistency, effectiveness at both ends, and game-winning mentality, especially in the championship game that landed him the MVP trophy. With 15 seconds left in the Final and Russia leading 70-68, Kai-Joachim Nurnburger brought the ball up court and fed it to Welp, who cut along the baseline and slammed it home along with the foul.
Welp kept calm and with the entire nation watching, sunk the resulting free throw for a 71-70 lead. The Russians had one more opportunity, but missed the desperation three leaving Germany free to celebrate.
As strange as it sounds though, Welp’s day in the spotlight would have never occurred had he not left the NBA.
Despite representing his country at the 1984 Olympics, Welp, Washington State’s all-time leading scorer was drafted in the first round to the Philadelphia 76ers with the 16th pick in 1987, unfortunately due to the international regulations; NBA players were unable to play for their respective nations as they were classed as professionals.
The policy was that international basketball was for amateur players and if you were outside of the NBA, you were deemed eligible. So Welp, used sparingly during his tenures with the Sixers, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors returned to Germany in 1990 in search for more playing time, and inked a deal with Bayern Leverkusen.
His international success blossomed, domestically, as he captured six national titles -and after steering Germany to gold – he remained with Leverkusen for three more seasons before heading to Olympiacos.
Welp’s one season in Greece saw him win the Euroleague crown before returning to Germany to play for ALBA Berlin before spending his remaining playing days in Italy with the now defunct Viola Reggio Calabria.
The year after Germany’s success at Eurobasket saw a fresh-faced Nowitzki surface for the first time on the professional stage for Wurzburg and after impressing NBA players at the Nike Hoop Summit, decided to enter the 1998 NBA Draft.
Today, Nowitzki has gone on to win an NBA title, along with a Finals MVP and several glorious accolades with the Dallas Mavericks. But nearly 22 years have past since that momentous day for Germany in Munich, and despite Nowitzki’s international status, the best effort so far that he has been able to muster is a silver medal at Eurobasket 2005 in Serbia and Montenegro.
And now as Nowitzki inches closer to an international farewell with a possible swansong in Berlin at this summer’s Eurobasket, his status internationally will be remembered fondly … But Welp will always be remembered as the man that brought Germany its true glory day.
Photo: FIBA Europe