ORLANDO — When I still had the time to play video games, I once played NBA Live for 18 hours straight. A whole season with Seattle. The Sonics’ Detlef Schrempf was my idol. In the game, the German never missed, not even from mid-court.
These days, another German is making his mark in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki, a fifth-year player, is currently sixth in the NBA in scoring, posting 24.4 points per game. Some consider the Dallas Maverick the best forward in the league.
Last month, I met Dirk after a 98-93 loss in Orlando.
Other than being German, Dirk, 24, and I, 25, really haven’t much in common. I’m 5-foot-11, and my jumper is ugly, I’m told. Dirk being German, however, intrigued me. How is he dealing with being a foreigner in the States at a time like this? Germany was, after all, opposed to American war plans in Iraq.
When I first walked on to the court during warm-ups, Dirk was shooting free throws. Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoosh. After that, he shot jumpers from all around the court. He made them all. I thought of launching threes with Schrempf and never missing. I didn’t see Dirk miss a shot until an easy reverse lay-up on his way to the locker room.
After the game, Dirk was walking gingerly about the locker room when I introduced myself in German. I had hoped that using our native tongue would break the ice, but Dirk just grumbled something and kept walking.
After the loss, the mood among the Mavericks was subdued. Owner Mark Cuban sat in a corner and glared. TV and newspaper reporters wandered from player to player and seemed to be the only ones making any noise.
Dirk talked in a low voice and sounded much like any other athlete, rewording the reporters’ questions so they could fill the holes in their stories.
I waited until everyone was done and asked Dirk, again in German, if I could ask him a few non-game related questions. His feet in a huge ice bucket and his knees wrapped in ice, he agreed.
I looked at the questions I had jotted down on the way to Orlando, and all of a sudden, they all seemed stupid. Here I was with one of the greatest German athletes ever, and the first question on my notepad was: Dirk, you’ve gotten better every year. How much better can you become?
I asked it anyway.
“We’ll have to see,” Dirk said. “I think there’s a lot of potential left in me.”
“How did you handle everything when you first came here?” I asked. “The NBA, the media and all that?”
“Sure, in the beginning, it was a little hard, the whole adaptation here,” Dirk said. “Playing basketball and the lifestyle in the NBA, everything around the NBA was new, and it took a while until I settled down. I think that was a reason that there were many highs and lows in my first year. But I think that taught me a lot, and I learned a lot in that first year, and since then, the curve has been pretty steep.”
His answer reminded me of my own first year in the States and my first “season” in college. Everything was new, but, like Dirk, I learned a lot and adapted quickly.
I was relieved when Dirk actually talked to me instead of just spitting out one-liners like he had for the sports media. That enabled me to abandon the prewritten questions and have an actual conversation.
The interview was going well, I thought, so I steered it toward international relations.
With players from Germany, France, Mexico and Canada, the Mavericks are one of the NBA’s most international teams.
“That’s definitely fun, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter,” Dirk said. “When we’re on the court, we’re all equal and try to win the game for our organization. Of course, it’s fun to play with so many internationals, different cultures and all that, but I wouldn’t care if I played somewhere else.”
So what about the war?
“Politics is not our area of expertise, fortunately,” Dirk said. “That’s left outside the locker room and I’m glad about that. I don’t make political statements; you’re not going to get anything out of me.”
In only his fifth year in the league, Dirk is handling the NBA circus coolly, but he’s still appreciative of where he is.
“After all, I made my hobby my job,” he said. “There really isn’t anything better, and I’m really happy with my life. I’m one of the few who could do that, and I’m happy every day. Sure, sometimes there are days when it’s a little harder to get going, but when you get on the court and the ball bounces and the crowd is there, it all starts again.”
I knew Dirk had been asked about Schrempf a million times. He was Dirk’s idol, too, but now Dirk gets to hang with Detlef whenever his team visits Seattle, where the now-retired Schrempf lives.
“Normally, when we play in Seattle, we’ll meet for lunch or so,” he said. “Last time it didn’t work out, but maybe next time.”
I was most impressed with how hardened Dirk was. I asked him what had been his biggest surprise since being drafted ninth in the 1998 draft.
“Nothing really,” he said. “I was a little surprised how good the league really is. You have certain expectations coming over here, but it was really hard to cope. That surprised me the most. But otherwise, nothing really surprised me.”
After that, Dirk got up, and two trainers rushed over to remove the ice packs from his knees. I got the message. I thanked Dirk for his time, nodded at Mark Cuban and left.
I don’t get to play too many video games anymore and I don’t have any athlete idols, but Dirk is a fitting successor to Schrempf.
Contact Alex Zesch at email@example.com