Sports Nut

Young Dirk

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

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.

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.

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.

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.