As you may have heard, Dirk Nowitzki, the current No. 1 man-crush in this humble writer's basketball life, spurred the Dallas Mavericks to the franchise's first-ever NBA title Sunday night. In the process, Nowitzki solidified his legacy as -- and I'll just quote Grantland's Bill Simmons here -- "one of the 20 best basketball players of all time, the best European player ever [and] one of the best shooters ever. [...]" Pretty much, yep.
Dirk may not have changed the way we look at international players at the professional level -- there have been many other pioneers in this regard -- but he has irrevocably changed the old, tired notions about international players lacking the internal makeup to become NBA champions. Thanks to him and his forebears, the number of international players in the NBA and the college game continues to grow at a rapid pace.
Funny story, though: Nowitzki almost wasn't a purely international player. In other words, he was closer than you might think to giving American amateur hoops the, ahem, college try. And what college nearly lured this future NBA legend? Why, Northwestern, of course.
The Chicago Tribune's David Haugh chronicles the time Nowitzki, then an unheralded unknown from Germany, was seen shooting by a local Chicago reporter -- David Kaplan, now a WGN-TV host -- at a Final Four event Nowitzki's team was visiting in San Antonio in 1998. Kaplan saw Nowitzki draining 3s and wasted no time contacting then-Northwestern basketball coach Kevin O'Neill (now USC's coach) about offering the 7-footer a scholarship.
Seriously: This is a true story.
"Kap called me saying there's this 7-footer making all these 3s and wanting permission to offer him a scholarship for Northwestern on the spot,'' O'Neill recalled Monday. "I said, you gotta be kidding me … but OK.' [...] Nowitzki mentioned he was looking for an American college to showcase his skills for the NBA. Kaplan's quick recruiting pitch on behalf of Northwestern sold the idea of Nowitzki feeling comfortable amid Chicago's heavy German population.
"He told me, 'Sounds great, I'd love to set up a visit,' '' Kaplan said. "Then everybody saw him play, and there was no doubt he was going pro.''
First of all, it's imminently strange to hear a reporter admit to not only spotting a kid and informing a local basketball coach -- ostensibly a focus of his own coverage -- but to a) asking for permission to recruit that player, b) doing so and c) offering that player a scholarship on the spot. That's, shall we say, unusual.
And then, of course, there's the fact that Nowitzki might well have been a Northwestern Wildcat were it not for the fact that pretty much everyone soon realized he was a pro-level talent. The Milwaukee Bucks selected him No. 9 overall in the 1998 NBA draft, then quickly traded him to Dallas for Michigan forward Robert "Tractor" Traylor. The rest, as they say, is history.
Still, can you imagine? Dirk in college? At Northwestern? It sounds thoroughly strange. (Almost as strange as the recruiting pitch that nearly got him there.) It also sounds downright awesome. Oh, what could have been.