He was a farmer with no education, but his land blessed him with deep knowledge of the earth. He gave away all he owned to give it back to life and became one of America’s most famous natural healers.
Note from the editor: This article was first published on April 3, 2019. After their game against the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night, the Dallas Mavericks will retire Nowitzki, Dirk’s No. 41 jersey (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Dirk Nowitzki, at 19 years old, was a member of a second-division club in his birthplace of Wurzburg, Germany, that periodically postponed practices to work on a farm owned by a teammate.
Yes, Nowitzki had managed to get the attention of a few NBA organizations and collegiate programs. He wasn’t a phenom, however.
That all changed during the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit in San Antonio’s Freeman Coliseum, when the lanky kid, whose surname was misspelled “Nowitzski” on the ESPN broadcast multiple times, exploded for 33 points and 14 rebounds to lead the World team to a victory over the United States in a matchup against future NBA stars.
We take a look back through the eyes of people who saw the big German’s arrival to America and world-class basketball more than two decades later, with Nowitzki calling it a career after a famous 21-season NBA career.
‘Ahh, we’ll simply slip away,’ says the group.
It’s not as if you’re up against world-class opposition for the first time. Because of his bad luck, Nowitzki had trouble in getting out of Germany. The Wurzburg X-Rays were in the midst of the playoffs, with a chance to be promoted to the first division for the first time, forcing Nowitzki to choose between his local club and pursuing his own passion.
Dirk Nowitzki: I guess I was asked [to the Hoop Summit] a year ago, maybe two years ago. Because [the Wurzburg X-Rays] were in relegation at the time, it was always a horrible moment to be promoted. Our goal with the home team was to be promoted to the top division, but we fell short every year. We were in the promotion zone again that year, and we had some crucial games.
Nowitzki’s longtime mentor and then-X-Rays assistant coach, Holger Geschwindner, said, “We played a tremendously hazardous game [leaving Germany].” We were a second-division squad, and Dirk was a standout player.
Nowitzki: “Hey, I think that’s a very, really excellent chance to test yourself against some of the finest in the world at your age,” Holger remarked. I was thinking to myself, “Are you insane? This is what we’d hoped for, what we’d been practicing for the last several years.”
Geschwindner: I knew one thing for sure: The Hoop Summit was his one opportunity to perform at an international level, since we didn’t know how excellent he was.
Nowitzki: We had to get permission from the Army because I was still in the Army, and I don’t believe you can leave the country unless you ask and it’s for a major tournament or whatever. We were given permission to go. Then we had to enlist the help of the team. But Holger was more of a “Ahhh, we’ll simply slip away” kind of guy. So I played the game on Sunday night, and I believe we flew out of Frankfurt on Monday morning without notifying anybody. Holger may have spoken with a manager or something, but I remained silent. As a result, we snuck out.
Geschwindner: [Nowitzki’s] father was completely unaware. “You have to inform his father,” the mother stated when I spoke with her. “Did you tell him?” I asked the following morning when I walked in. “I’ll tell him now,” [Nowitzki] said. I said, “Listen, we have a two-hour journey from Wurzburg to [Frankfurt’s airport]. If he doesn’t know, we don’t board the aircraft.”
Donnie Nelson, former Mavericks president and general manager; former Mavericks assistant coach: When they arrived in Dallas, they were exhausted. What had been planned to be a two-leg expedition had become more like four. I was an assistant coach, so my responsibilities included getting coffee and assisting Germans when they came. Holger was wearing the same pants he’d worn since 1973 and still wears now when I met them in the foyer of [Reunion Tower]. Of course, I’m sure he still has his plaid shirt and leather jacket.
Donnie Nelson: The only time I saw [Nowitzki] was on a shaky, blurry recording. On the way over, a lot of foreign players shrank by six inches. I turned to face him and remarked, “Wow, that was incredible. He didn’t become any smaller.”
Geschwindner: [The World team] conducted a scrimmage game on Wednesday afternoon to determine who would play in the San Antonio game. We needed to take things seriously. The most important thing was to get him in the top five.
Nowitzki: You could see the practice court through the blinds in [Don Nelson’s] office. I assume he did that, which I was unaware of at the time. They seemed to be quite pleased with what they observed.
Former Mavericks head coach and general manager Don Nelson: Donnie actually got the squad to work out at the downtown YMCA in Dallas the week before they flew down to San Antonio. It was, of course, restricted to anyone save Donnie and myself.
Donnie Nelson: You could see [Dirk] had excellent footwork, handwork, and was able to shoot the ball. We just dealt with intrasquad issues.
Don Nelson: He was one of the most talented young athletes I’d ever seen, and he was 7 feet tall to boot. He was, after all, a fantastic basketball player!
Former Nike director of international basketball, George Raveling: Because of my friendship with Holger, I knew more about Dirk than most people, so he had already created the image for me psychologically. “Wow!” I exclaimed when I saw the painting hanging at the Louvre. All of the things Holger was telling me began to show themselves in Dirk’s performance.
Donnie Nelson: I was worried that he was too lovely a child to be a serial murderer. He’s a wonderful, big-hearted individual. The majority of the males who frequent such sites would rather tear your heart out and display it to you. “Is he tough enough?” I worried since he didn’t strike me as that sort of person. You could see he was dedicated to his profession.
Nowitzki: I wasn’t really a swag person at the moment. I’m a bit anxious since I’m not sure whether this will work or how nice the kids will be. As a result, I had no idea what to anticipate.
Don Nelson: After a few rehearsals, we agreed to do all we could to keep him hidden from anybody who may see him. We made the decision to choose him with whatever pick we had available. We couldn’t persuade him not to participate in the game.
Donnie Nelson: In San Antonio, I believe we saw the actual tiger emerge.
Geschwindner: Back then, the game took place on Saturday between the Final Four.
Roster for the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit in the United States
|Player||Senior High School|
|Erick Barkley is a basketball player who plays for the Los Angeles||Maine Central Institute is a non-profit educational institution based in Portland, Maine (ME)|
|Capel, Jeff||St. John’s Preparatory School (MD)|
|Curry, Ronald||Hampton High School is a public high school in Hampton, Virginia (VA)|
|Dane Fife||Clarkston High School is a public high school located in Clarkston (MI)|
|Al Harrington is a well-known sportscaster.||St. Patrick’s High School (NJ)|
|Tony Kitchings is a British actor.||S. Aiken High School (SC)|
|Lewis, Rashard||Alief Elsik HS is a high school in Alief, Turkey (TX)|
|Kevin Lyde is a character in the film Kevin Lyde||Whitney Young High School (IL)|
|Richardson, Quentin||Pembroke Hill is a hill in Pembrokeshire, England (MO)|
|Rush, JaRon||Fair Park High School is a public high school in Fair Park, California (LA)|
|Swift, Stromile||St. Joseph, North Dakota (CA)|
|Ray Young||Oak Hill Academy is a private school located in Oak Hill (VA)|
ESPN play-by-play announcer Dan Shulman: “Boy, this squad is loaded,” I recalled thinking after learning more about the American youngsters than the World team. It was of a certain size, I recall. Stromile Swift was a member of the squad. The squad included Rashard Lewis. Al Harrington was a member of the squad. And they were genuine big-name high school graduates.
Geschwindner: The only subject we discussed with Dirk was, “They won’t be able to persuade you to be brave. Drive to the basket if you receive the ball. Attempt to dunk it. Keep going even if they slam you down.”
Nowitzki: I knew all of these players were certainly among the greatest in the world at their age, so there was a degree of respect there, but I’d never heard of any of their names in Germany.
Donnie Nelson: The United States came out and put on a terrific full-court press in the first half of the game, and let’s just say our frontcourt was a lot better than our backcourt. And I believe we got the ball past half court a total of ten times in the first half, according to my recall. We were in a lot of danger!
Shulman: The United States got off to a flying start. I recall thinking to myself, “They’re going to vaporize them. This isn’t going to be a game at all.”
Nowitzki: I expected them to be quite athletic. I expected them to push us throughout the game and for us to turn the ball over 100 times.
Raveling: The squad was coached by Alessandro Gamba, a great international coach from Italy. They’re probably around ten minutes into the game when a timeout is called. “George, who in the eff is that man sitting behind the bench advising me how to coach my team?” he says in my ear as I’m sitting right next to their bench at the scorer’s table. I had a feeling he was referring to Holger. “I need you to get his ass off of my bench and quit attempting to teach my squad,” he added. So Dirk had two head coaches, with Holger’s voice being the most recognizable.
Donnie Nelson: Of course, we looked like we were going to be blasted by 100 points going into halftime, and Dirk made his own adjustments heading into the third quarter.
Shulman: Then the German thin kid began fouling everyone out of the game. Approximately six American players fouled out of the game.
Donnie Nelson: Dirk was in when they put the press back on near the top of the key after the first couple of possessions were like the first half, then he begins going up over half court as tall as an oak tree. The poor kid who was kicking the ball out was 5-10 and just trying to get it in when he came across a German oak. And he simply tosses it up there, saying, “Oh, thank god.”
Nowitzki: We did quite well.
‘We had no idea how to protect him.’ ‘This was the first time we’d seen him.’
After the break, Nowitzki controlled the second half, scoring 19 points. In the World team’s 104-99 victory, he had 33 points and 14 rebounds, establishing Hoop Summit marks that would stand for more than a decade.
Shulman: Dirk was the reason for the World’s comeback, because they couldn’t stop him, whether he was shooting from the outside or shooting fake and driving.
Donnie Nelson: Dirk is doing exactly what Holger has been teaching him for years. That is, catch the ball and shoot 3s coast-to-coast like a guard.
World Roster for the Nike Hoop Summit in 1998
|Matt Nielsen (Matt Nielsen) is a||Australia|
|Andrea Michelori is a writer who lives in Italy.||Italy|
|Antonio Latimer is an American football player.||Puerto Rico is a United States territory.|
Darius Songaila, a forward for the World squad who spent eight seasons in the NBA: It was as if the game was designed just for him to demonstrate his abilities to the rest of the globe.
Al Harrington, a 16-year NBA veteran who played forward for the United States, was just outstanding. It was incredible to see a tall, lanky white kid you’d never heard of come out there with so much talent. He had just pleasantly surprised us.
Raveling: I believe he enthralled the other team’s players because he was doing things they’d never seen a large person do before. They didn’t believe he’d be able to shoot so far out, and Dirk was occupied with the ball. This was supposed to be his coming-out celebration.
Donnie Nelson: We ended up creating a game out of it because a 6-11 man took the ball, threw it left and right, and shot 3s. That’s when you truly saw Dirk’s true colors emerge.
Don Nelson: My, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, my, Because the game was so simple for him to score, I couldn’t label him a superb passer. He just controlled the situation. For him, the game was so simple, and he was so fluid.
Songaila: Obviously, he put up tremendous statistics, so there was a lot of buzz after the game that he was going to be a great player. Nobody expected him to be as excellent as he turned out to be.
Harrington: The fact that they won the game irritated me the most that day. I’m not sure how we managed to lose the game.
Nowitzki: We stuck in there and in the end, we were able to steal the game. It was the first victory for the World team. We were ecstatic! In the changing room, we were pumped! That was a great time.
Harrington: We had no idea how to protect him. He was someone we had never seen before. I had never heard of him before the game. I had never heard of him before the game, but I learned about him afterward. That’s all there is to it.
Shulman: By the end of the night, all we could speak about was Nowitzki, whom I believe I mispronounced as “No-WIT-ski” since we didn’t know how to pronounce him properly. At the start of the game, he was an unknown, but by the finish, he was the primary attraction.
Donnie Nelson: When Dirk performed it on a global platform against world-class skill and athleticism in that age group, it was truly the first revelation. Every team in the room was present, and they all witnessed the same things we saw. “Holy cow, this guy can be a very decent player,” I thought at the time.
Geschwindner: We had to travel home right after the game. I thought I’d be clever and get the San Antonio newspaper at the airport. “An international team defeats American lads,” or something like that. I figured that would serve as more or less of an excuse to return home.
Nowitzki: The squad was a little irritated. However, they went on to win the game that I was unable to attend. Then I was allowed to play the next game, which we won. That year, we were truly promoted.
Geschwindner: [In Germany], they assassinated us. We were brutally murdered by them. Dirk was not present for the game between the [Wurzburg X-Rays] and the [Wurzburg X-Rays]. Even if the guys win, it doesn’t matter. They were furious. I was the one who led kids astray. We were brutally murdered by them. In Germany, the press was our downfall.
Nowitzki: I believe one of our international players was the most enraged, since his contract included a promotion incentive. I believe that was a decent chunk of money at the time for us to be playing over there. “You’re toying with my money,” he essentially says.
Donnie Nelson: In many ways, that [Hoop Summit] was Dirk’s “American Idol,” the basketball equivalent, where he destroyed it. Dirk’s life became a lot more difficult in a positive manner after the game.
Raveling: Donnie Nelson was the one who saw it all coming. He was more certain than anybody else that Dirk would be a superstar, so he set about doing his homework to ensure the Mavericks acquired him.
Don Nelson: I knew [before the draft] that everyone would want him to work out and do the circuit. That’s when Donnie and I devised a plan to make him vanish in Donnie’s basement. [Laughs.] Donnie happened to have a little cot down there.
Nowitzki: I was the buzz of NBA circles and scouts thanks to Holger and hearing from foreign agents. That came as a complete surprise to me. I think I didn’t grasp how huge that game was or what it meant until I got home and all these agents approached me and said, “Hey, you’re in the lottery now.” I was thinking to myself, “What are you talking about?! That’s really ridiculous.”
Don Nelson: I thought he’d be an All-Star for a long time back then. I knew he had what it took to be among the greatest. He made all of those dreams come true, as well as a slew of others.