Dirk Nowitzki, NBA Finals MVP: The basketball player as a young man.

The stadium scene.
June 13 2011 3:57 PM

Young Dirk

I played against the NBA Finals MVP when he was 17. He was a lot better than me.

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Our best player was an American named Johnny Roberson. Johnny was a too-skinny power forward from San Antonio who had bounced around various European leagues after being cut by the Spurs in training camp. Johnny was in his late 20s and had maybe two years left of his prime. I don't know how he ended up in Landshut—if he hoped for another shot at the NBA, he was a very long way away. But for one game, he took Nowitzki to school.

There was a kink in Johnny's jump shot that turned him into a streak shooter. But streaks are great when you're riding them. When Nowitzki came out to press him, Johnny used head fakes and ball fakes to drive inside. Eventually Würzburg started double-teaming him, but Johnny spun and spun on his pivot until the angles opened up. He finished with 30-odd points, and we won going away. This put Johnny in an expansive mood, and that night he and I stayed up late at dinner talking.

Johnny was the best basketball player I'd ever been around, and I wanted him to tell me how good this Nowitzki was going to be. The kid, he said, had a lot to learn. Somehow this conversation turned into another one, about luck—and the various reasons Johnny had ended up here, playing a preseason tournament in the southern league of the German second division. There were coaches who had screwed him over and shots that had rimmed out. Nowitzki had a lot to learn, he kept saying.

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Everyone on our team had a similar story about why he'd ended up in the minor leagues. Our small forward was a sweet-shooting, barrel-chested, 6-foot-7 Slovak who could run 100 meters in under 11 seconds. Our point guard was an Argentinian kid with a 36-inch vertical. I'd seen him work his way around the 3-point line in practice, knocking down 10, 15, 20 in a row.

And yet, somehow, none of them—none of us—were talented enough to get out of a mediocre European league. There was something wrong with everyone. Johnny was 20 pounds underweight and pushed his elbow outside-in when he shot. The Slovak was lazy and a little slow-footed on defense. But there was nothing much wrong with Nowitzki—nothing he couldn't fix. Not only was he 7 feet tall, but he had the kind of build you could put muscle on. He could dribble like a point guard and jump out of the gym. And I've never seen anyone with a purer shooting motion or more range.

The next day, we faced Würzburg again in the tournament finals, and this time they ran us off the court. That's the thing about games involving a mixture of skill and luck—if you play often enough, skill wins out. At one point I found myself alone on the break, tracking back against Nowitzki. I suppose you could say that he dunked on me, but the truth is that he was so far above and beyond me that I wasn't even really in the picture. I saw him coming, and I saw him going past me, and I saw him hanging on the rim. Getting in his way would have been like stepping in front of a car.

It seems strange to me that, after everything that has happened in my life, Nowitzki is still playing basketball. My one season in pro sports left a deep mark on me—months after quitting I couldn't touch a ball. The feeling of being constantly and objectively measured still hasn't left me. Neither has the sinking feeling you get in sports' lower rungs. Every time you lose, you can't help thinking of all the leagues above you, all the guys on all those teams who would've beaten you too, if they'd only had the chance. Last night, when I was watching the NBA Finals, I took comfort from what I already suspected at the time: That I lost against the best in the world.

Benjamin Markovits' most recent novel, Playing Days, is set in the world of minor-league European basketball. He lives in London with his wife and two kids.

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