Dirk Nowitzki: NBA’s greatest European on MVP ‘shame’ and the ‘honour’ of inspiring new generations

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Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks teammates celebrate their 2011 NBA title (AFP via Getty Images)
Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks teammates celebrate their 2011 NBA title (AFP via Getty Images)

The GOAT – the greatest of all-time – is a common phrase when discussing individual success within the spectrum of American sports.

While Michael Jordan and LeBron James grapple for the label within the NBA, there is only one answer when considering European basketball players: Dirk Nowitzki.

The Dallas Mavericks great spent 21 years in the NBA, winning the MVP award in 2007 and claiming the championship in 2011. Nowitzki, who played tennis and handball in his hometown of Würzburg, Germany, joined a local basketball club as a teenager and the rest is history.

“It was the sport that came easy to me,” Nowitzki exclusively told The Independent. “I was tall, could move and I had a good touch for the ball.

“I was around other tall people – I think that helped my confidence level, so I decided to stick with basketball.”

When Nowitzki started his journey from Bavaria to the bright lights of the NBA, he began regularly watching the league and, while there were players he followed, there was one team that stuck out.

“It was the Chicago Bulls era,” Nowitzki said. “The Bulls had just won their first championship in ‘91 when I started to really play, so I was a big Chicago fan.

“[I] loved Detlef Schrempf. He was a German guy that made it in the league, was an NBA All-Star and had an amazing career. [I was a] big Charles Barkley fan – he’s the reason I wore No14 in Germany, because Barkley had the No14 in the 1992 Olympics.”

While Nowitzki picked out idols that inspired his game, the German named a key figure in his development: long-time coach Holger Geschwindner.

Geschwindner met Nowitzki when the latter was 16 and helped him stay grounded while tapping into his immense potential.

Nowitzki during his MVP-winning 2006/07 NBA season (Getty Images)
Nowitzki during his MVP-winning 2006/07 NBA season (Getty Images)

“It was Holger who helped me achieve my goals,” Nowitzki said. “He told me everything to know about the sport – how to shoot, how to move. Holger was a mentor to me and he helped a lot. He pushed me outside the court to finish high school and just be a more all-round person than just the basketball player.”

Drafted ninth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1998 NBA draft, Nowitzki was traded to the Mavericks where the German became famous for his remarkable scoring ability, versatility, and trademark fadeaway shot – which is now immortalised on Dallas’ home court.

After falling to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals, Nowitzki bounced back to claim the MVP award in 2007. He became the first European player to ever win the honour, but admitted that the individual recognition was bittersweet.

“I will always look back on [the 2006/07 season] with one laughing and one crying eye,” Nowitzki told The Independent. “We won 67 games, had a blast and it felt like we would never lose – but then we ran into a red-hot Golden State team and lost in the first round.

“I think I was the first MVP to lose a seven-game series in the first round. I was extremely frustrated and disappointed. It was one of the worst losses of my career.

“It’s something now I look back on with pride – but at the time that I received the award, I remember being embarrassed and almost ashamed about it.”

Nowitzki commented on how each failure inspired him to work harder to achieve his championship aspirations.

Nowitzki celebrating the Mavericks’ 2011 NBA title in his hometown of Würzburg (Bongarts/Getty Images)
Nowitzki celebrating the Mavericks’ 2011 NBA title in his hometown of Würzburg (Bongarts/Getty Images)

“In every year, the goal was to win a championship and I always fell short. If you don't end the season on a win, that means you've lost somewhere along the way. I had to re-motivate myself.

“It's not just the 2006/07 loss, it was all the play-off losses combined that kept pushing me to work harder and eventually be the more complete player that I was in 2011 to pull out the championship.”

During Dallas’ 2010/11 championship run, the Mavericks defeated the defending champions, the Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers, as well as Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder en route to the NBA Finals, where Dallas upset the heavily-favoured Heat – armed with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – in six games.

Dallas’ journey through such opponents is one of the great NBA underdog stories, but the 43-year-old Nowitzki humbly dismissed such suggestions.

“Well, that’s a great compliment to get if somebody says that! I know that we were not the favourite. We found our rhythm in the first round against Portland and ended up beating all these teams that were obviously heavily favoured against us – it was an unbelievable run.

“It shows you how much chemistry, momentum and just playing well at the right time can bring you. We had veteran players that had done numerous things on an individual basis but had never won the championship.

“We put all our egos to the side and came together for this common goal. I think that was the deciding factor in the end – everybody just played hard for each other and wanted to win.”

While leading a team to the title is a great personal achievement, Nowitzki instead focuses on what the championship meant to the city of Dallas and how he repaid the faith placed in him by franchise owner Mark Cuban.

“I will never forget the parade, the feeling in the city and making the fans super happy – that was the most unbelievable feeling, to bring a championship to a city that’s never had an NBA championship before.

“From day one, the fans were always giving me standing ovations when I was subbed in. Mark Cuban was always super loyal to me and made me his franchise player.

“I always said that I wanted to be a Maverick for life and to bring a championship here – that was always my goal and I’m glad it happened.”

Nowitzki with former teammate and fellow European, Luka Doncic (Getty Images)
Nowitzki with former teammate and fellow European, Luka Doncic (Getty Images)

His loyalty was put to the test when his contract expired in 2014, as Bryant reached out to Nowitzki and tested the waters regarding a potential move to the Lakers. The German resisted and stayed in Dallas for the remainder of his career, breaking Bryant’s own record of the longest stint spent with a single franchise of 20 years.

“It's a huge honour to play 21 seasons and play longer than Kobe for one team,” he said. “Everybody knows I looked up to Kobe tremendously. He was one of my favourite players so to be in that conversation with him is a privilege.

“It’s super special to know that somebody says ‘Maverick’ and ‘Dirk’ as kind of going hand-in-hand. I loved representing the city and that fan base.”

Nowitzki ensured the NBA’s popularity in this continent grew immensely during his career, inspiring a new, dominant generation of European players including two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2021 MVP Nikola Jokic and former teammate Luka Doncic.

For the humble star who left Würzburg and became the European GOAT, such a status is not a throne – it is a torch to pass from one generation to the next.

“There are so many great European players before me that made it in the league and had an impact on their teams: Schrempf, Tony Kukoc, Drazan Petrovic. If I’m able to pave the way for some of these guys now, then that’s a huge honour for me.

“It is a great feeling – that I was part of something bigger. I’m glad I was able to open some doors for them.”

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