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The Life

Unlocking Nowitzki's potential
ESPN The Magazine

It's a scene repeated, day after day, year after year, all over America. A man, a boy and a basketball. Teacher, student, learning device.

Only this time it's taking place not in America but in a small German town, and the boy -- albeit a 21-year-old -- is already an NBA star. The best part? Unless you knew this about Dirk Nowitzki, you'd never be able to tell.

A few weeks later he would sign an extension worth $90 mil, but not a nickel is evident as Holger Geschwindner, his personal coach/mentor/guru/chess partner, puts him through a series of original and slightly unorthodox drills. Snap a shot of them in sepia tones, scallop the photo's edges and it would pass as something out of Indiana in the '60s.

Start with the gym. It's inside the Rattelsdorf elementary school, 80 minutes from where Dirk lives in Wurzburg. Linoleum floor, wooden backboards, bolted rims, no ventilation. Not the kind of joint you normally drive 100 kilometers to use, but the special aura it holds for these two is almost palpable, an aura created by an endless string of muggy summer days stirred by the sound of the ball and Holger's sharp commands and Dirk's huffing for air.

Holger and Dirk started working together here five years ago, when Nowitzki was simply a new addition to the Wurzburg X-Rays, a team struggling to get out of the German Second Division. Holger, a former German Olympic team captain and first-division star, was the X-Rays coach. The footwork in some of the drills is rather elaborate, but all Holger has to say is a word or two and Dirk knows what to do.

One is simply called "The Jordan," a dribble-right, cross-over, pull-up J to the right of the free-throw line. "We've been doing some of them for years," Dirk says.

It looks as if not much else has changed. Dirk is wearing an old royal blue Mavs T-shirt, parachute sweat pants pushed up above his calves, a well-worn pair of white Nikes with blue-and-green Mavs trim. Holger has a faded navy cotton sweat suit -- the kind my fourth-grade gym teacher wore -- that looks as if it has been ironed. He'll be 56 in December, but still looks in playing shape.

When it's time to do abs, he sits on one end of a bench and hooks his feet, Dirk does the same at the other end, and they do mid-air crunches together. Dirk spends almost as much time on his hands as his feet, Holger pushing him around like a wheelbarrow, Holger serving as a safety net as he does walking handstands, Holger helping him stretch by bending him over his back until he completes a somersault.

Dirk questions nothing and speaks only when he front-rims a jumper. "Kurz!" he hisses, which means "short" in German.

The reason Dirk has such a varied and slightly eccentric array of shots becomes clear as they proceed through the shooting drills. Holger has him shooting jump-hooks with both hands while being bumped, no-dribble lunge-and-dunks with each hand, pull-up fadeaway runners, curls in every direction off imaginary screens. The wildest part is watching him not miss shooting right-handed banks, gradually moving from six to 18 feet, and then doing the same left-handed.

It's part of Holger's theory -- based on documented studies, he says -- that the brain does strong-handed tasks more efficiently and precisely if it is forced to execute them through the weak hand. Dirk's habit of bending his knees inward when he shoots free throws and catch-and-shoot Js is also Holger's work.

"Holger says it's bad for your knees to walk around like a cowboy," Dirk says. "You know, without him, there's no way I'd be where I am today."

A man who is willing to share his time and knowledge. A younger man who is willing to take the time and listen.

Some things just never get old.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. His column appears each Tuesday. E-mail

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