Nestled in the northern folds of Bavaria alongside the Main
River, Wurzburg is the picture of European charm. It's a quaint
town dotted with medieval castles and some of the world's most
stunning Baroque architecture. Scenic and serene, Wurzburg has
one other claim to international fame: Wilhelm Roentgen
discovered the X-ray there in 1895. "It's not a tourist town,
but people come from all over to visit," Dallas Mavericks
forward Dirk Nowitzki says wistfully. "It's just a beautiful,
Forgive the 21-year-old Nowitzki his longing for home. In this,
his second NBA season, he has quickly come to a bittersweet
realization: He won't be returning to Wurzburg for more than an
off-season visit for the next, say, 15 years. After a shaky
rookie season that at times left him wondering whether he wasn't
better suited to the European leagues, he is emerging as an NBA
folk hero worthy of the Brothers Grimm, a multitasking 7-foot
250-pounder who is as cozy shooting threes and dribbling upcourt
as he is banging underneath. Well on his way to eclipsing Detlef
Schrempf as Germany's best basketball export, Nowitzki has been
abusing defenders of all shapes and sizes this season: At week's
end he was scoring 18.1 points per game on 48.6% shooting from
seemingly every spot on the floor. In the Mavericks' 108-106 road
loss to the Lakers on Dec. 27, Nowitzki poured in 19
fourth-quarter points--as many as the Clippers tallied against the
Lakers in a half last month--en route to a 30-point night. He
followed that up with a career-high 32 points, along with six
rebounds and six assists, in a 109-104 home loss to Toronto last
Thursday. "He sure is something, isn't he?" says forward Antonio
Davis, one of four Raptors who tried to guard Nowitzki.
"Shooting, passing, rebounding, he can do it all. And he's big.
I'm surprised because we didn't know much about him."
That's nothing new for Nowitzki, a late bloomer who was 13 before
he touched a basketball and until last year wasn't even the
best-known athlete in his own haus. His father, Joerg, played
team handball for West Germany; his mother, Helga, starred for
the women's national basketball team; and his big sister, Silke,
plays pro hoops in Germany. "I was always playing soccer, tennis
and team handball, but not at such a high level as the rest of my
family," Dirk says. "When I finally discovered basketball, I
didn't know how to play, but it became my favorite right away."
By the time he was 16, Nowitzki was 6'7" and good enough to make
the Wurzburg X-Rays, a second-division pro team that played
weekly in a small amphitheater. When he wasn't playing
basketball or going to class at Roentgen Gymnasium--the German
equivalent of high school--he was helping out in the family's
40-employee house-painting business or hanging with his
girlfriend, Sybille. "I was having a simple, happy life there,"
he says with only slight traces of an accent. "I wasn't even
thinking about the NBA."
His Weltanschauung, so to speak, changed in March 1998. At the
Nike Hoop Summit, an exhibition during Final Four weekend that
pits an under-19 international team against the top U.S. high
school players, Nowitzki led the world stars to an astonishing
upset, racking up 33 points and 14 rebounds. Within a few weeks
he had received more than 30 Division I scholarship offers and
piqued the interest of NBA front offices. "That game was really
an unveiling," says Mavs assistant coach Donn Nelson. "With his
size and skill level it was pretty obvious he could make a quick
transition to the NBA."
A few days before he completed a mandatory nine-month stint in
the German army, Nowitzki was drafted ninth by the Milwaukee
Bucks, who--as part of a prearranged deal with Dallas--traded him
and No. 19 pick Pat Garrity to the Mavs for No. 6 selection
Robert Traylor. There was brief rejoicing in the Nowitzki
household over Dirk's high draft position, followed by an earnest
family discussion. While Joerg encouraged his son to try the NBA
and test his mettle against the best, Helga lobbied for him to
play in Europe for a year or two and develop his skills. "What
mother doesn't want her son to be close by?" she says. "He had
never even lived away from home before." In the end the family
deferred to Dirk's coach and agent, Holger Geschwindner, West
Germany's 1972 Olympic basketball captain, who declared Dirk
ready for the big time.
Trumpeted in the preseason by Mavericks general manager and coach
Don Nelson as the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year,
Nowitzki gave a reasonable accounting of himself in the first few
games but then had a hard time adjusting to the warp speed of the
NBA--"I still can't believe how fast the point guards are," he
says--as well as to Nelson's idiosyncratic style. By midseason he
was so far down the Dallas bench that the coaching staff had no
reservations about putting him through exhausting pregame
workouts stressing footwork, defense and shot creation. In the
Mavs' final 14 games Nowitzki returned to the rotation and showed
glimpses of his talent, averaging 13.6 points and 5.2 rebounds,
but he never felt comfortable. "Usually with international
players the first year is a throwaway," says Donn Nelson. "Last
season was NBA 101 for Dirk."
After sharpening his game on the Mavericks' summer-league team,
he returned for his second season in superior shape and better
attuned to the rhythms of the NBA. Nowitzki has a range of skills
that have him matching up against 5'3" Muggsy Bogues in one game
and 7-foot Patrick Ewing in the next. His natural position is
small forward, where he can shoot over most opponents and hold
his own defensively, yet when power forward Gary Trent missed the
first 22 games this season with a torn left hamstring, Nowitzki
filled in ably on the blocks. Don Nelson is quick to add that
while his roster is stacked with shooting guards, including
potential All-Star Michael Finley, Nowitzki can easily fill that
slot as well, making him something of a Teutonic two tonic.
It's Nowitzki's shooting touch, in fact, that earns him the
highest praise. Not unlike a housepainter doing a ceiling back in
Wurzburg, he extends fully before commencing the smoothest of
strokes. Nowitzki was shooting 44.9% from three-point range
through Sunday--seventh best in the league--and had made nine of
his last 10 treys, but he's equally comfortable taking a few
dribbles and shooting a medium-range jumper over a smaller
defender. "Dirk's just a world-class shooter, and I don't qualify
it by saying 'for a guy his size,'" says point guard Steve Nash,
Nowitzki's best friend on the team. "His stroke makes him seem
quicker because you can't play off him."
Nowitzki's emergence is vindication of sorts for Don Nelson, who
built his draft strategy around him rather than a known quantity
like Paul Pierce. The Mavericks haven't been to the postseason in
a decade and finished the 1990s with a .281 winning percentage,
which makes them a team in desperate need of an uptick. When
Nowitzki languished last season, it seemed to be additional
evidence that the franchise was simply doomed and that Nelson's
ways--the wacky tactics, the notions that 7'7" Manute Bol could be
a three-point shooter and that an unknown German was lottery
material--were horribly misguided. Though the Mavericks were only
9-21 at week's end, Nowitzki may single-handedly salvage Nelson's
job. "To be honest, what we're seeing this year from Dirk," says
Nelson, "I thought we'd see last year."
As with most European players, Nowitzki's glaring weaknesses are
defensive. His teammates no longer joke, as they did last season,
that his name should be Irk (as in no D), but Nowitzki is
reminded nightly that he needs to get quicker and stronger.
"Don't forget, he's going from the equivalent of Division III
basketball to guarding some of the best athletes in the world,"
says Donn Nelson. "For a kid who's barely 21, he's adjusting just
In some ways, though, Nowitzki still doesn't fit the mold of the
modern pro athlete. His idea of a night on the town is attending
a performance by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, he unabashedly
admits to liking museums and--get this--he doesn't own a cell
phone. Still, with the help of teammates like Nash, himself an
expatriate from Canada, Nowitzki is gradually becoming
Americanized. He's fallen head over heels for DirecTV, he eats
fast food for lunch and dinner, and he recently learned that Dirk
Diggler, the nickname hecklers have bestowed on him, is a
fictitious porn star. "Sure, I think about Germany all the time,
and I call home almost every day," he says. "Really, though, I'm
too busy here to get homesick."
Back in picturesque Wurzburg, a mere 5,190 miles and seven time
zones removed from Dallas, Helga and Joerg try their best to
follow their son's flourishing career. There's no DirecTV there,
and the newspapers pay scant attention to the NBA, but those
daily phone calls from Dirk help, and they check the Mavs' box
scores on the Internet. It was much easier when Dirk was living
downstairs and playing for the X-Rays down the road, but
ultimately the Nowitzkis realize their son made the right
decision. "Would I like it if he weren't so far way? Ja, of
course," says Helga, her speech an endearing mix of German and
English. "But the way Dirk has been playing this season, we're
all ganz stolz. Very proud."
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Hot Hand The former Wurzburg X-Ray might be Germany's finest export to the NBA.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO STURM UND DUNK Nowitzki has proved effective inside and shown a three-point stroke that sets him apart from other 7-footers.
Nowitzki has guarded 5'3" Muggsy Bogues in one game and 7-foot
Patrick Ewing in the next.