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.

Dirk Nowitzki. Click image to expand.
NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki

I once knocked down a 3-pointer over Dirk Nowitzki. He was guarding me a little lazily, with his hands on his knees, daring me to shoot. So I shot, and the ball dropped in. And that's it—the full extent of my highlight reel against the 2011 NBA Finals MVP.

My shining moment came in the mid-1990s, when Dirk was 17 years old and I was fresh out of college, trying to make a living in the German minor leagues. I hadn't played organized basketball since senior year in high school, and even that season I spent mostly on the bench. Skinny, tall, and geeky, I had an old-fashioned two-handed release inherited from my father. In college, though, I'd put on some muscle and learned a jump shot. I flew to Hamburg after graduation with no idea whether I was good enough to make it. What I knew was that none of the other options on the table—grad school, law school, moving home and finding a job—seemed as enticing as becoming a professional basketball player.

After a few woeful tryouts, I found a home in the German second division. The league had a mix of part-timers, students, and full-time pros. There were some ex-Soviet-bloc players and a few second-tier American pros hanging on at the end of their careers. But mostly these were guys like me, putting off adulthood.

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Our team was based in Landshut, a small-market town north of Munich. We started the year with a preseason tournament against the top clubs of the second division. This was by no means a glamorous event. There were no television cameras and hardly any fans. The only seats were roll-out metal bleachers, and the gym we played in had a green synthetic floor. (Only first-division clubs could afford wooden ones.) Before we actually made it to the gym, our bus ran out of gas. We got out to push, and I felt more like a kid at summer camp than a professional athlete.

What I remember most vividly from the first game of the tournament (which we lost on a last-second putback) is the speed of play. About two minutes in, I couldn't see straight. There was sweat in my eyes and my blood was pumping so hard that a curtain of purple obscured my vision. It seemed like all I was doing was running wind sprints. Every time I got the ball I shot, because I was too tired to do anything else and the rim was the only thing standing still.

In the second game, we faced DJK Würzburg and its young star, Nowitzki. We had to win to have any chance of reaching the finals. Dirk was just a high school kid, but his legend was already building. A story was going around that Seattle coach George Karl had called him up after the Sonics lost to the Bulls in the 1996 Finals. Call me when you win, Nowitzki had said to him, and hung up. At least that was the story.

What amazes me when I watch him now is the effort that goes into each of Nowitzki's offensive moves—how he uses all of his length and athletic ability to win a few inches of separation for his turnaround fadeaway jump shot. When he played against us, nobody could keep him out of the lane. He was not only the tallest player on the court but one of the fastest. I remember switching on to him once at the top of the key. One dribble later and he was at the rim. How can you stay in front of a guy who can go around you and past you in a single stride? After that, it didn't even matter if he missed the shot—he was the quickest man to the ball and could tap it back in at will.

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