For Dirk Nowitzki, the journey from Wurzburg, Germany, to Springfield, Mass., isn't complete, but it's a road that will certainly lead to the Hall of Fame.
Along the way, the debate about the face of the Dallas Mavericks' franchise has changed. No longer is it about whether his name merits mention among the best to have ever played the game. Now it's about where Nowitzki ranks among his fellow NBA legends.
"I don't think I've realized that yet," said Nowitzki, who was so uncertain that he belonged in the NBA during his rough rookie year in the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign that former coach Don Nelson had to talk him out of returning to Europe. "It still feels weird to me to pass all these names that I watched when I was young. I'm not sure I ever realized it."
When did those with the best view of Dirk's development realize they were working with a legend in the making?
ARRIVAL IN AMERICA
As Nowitzki has said several times after passing an all-time great on his rise onto the list of top 10 NBA scorers, who would have ever believed that a skinny kid from Germany would end up in this kind of company?
Nobody in the basketball world had ever heard of Nowitzki when Holger Geschwindner discovered the 7-footer at a local gym in Wurzburg and soon started training him with unconventional methods. Within a few years, Nowitzki had emerged as one of the elite prospects in Europe, although NBA evaluators had seen only grainy footage of him playing for a second-division German club before he participated in the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit.
HOLGER GESCHWINDNER, Nowitzki's mentor, 1995-present: "You never can calculate that, that's for sure. But the thing is, when we started and he was 16, I looked at what the NBA guys had been doing in those days, the basic idea was to get him into shooting. When Dirk started in those days, there was no big guy, no 7-footer who could shoot from outside. So we concentrated on shooting. It paid off in the long run. He's now 16 years in the [league] and catching up with those guys, his former idols and all those great players. It was never the plan, but if you can make shots and you do that for 16 years, you finally will catch up. I guess the basic idea to invent some stuff into the NBA helped a lot. ... Usually if you watch kids' games, everybody runs to the ball. He was one of the guys that tried to find an open spot, waiting where the next pass will be, things that are hard to learn. He had no individual skills. Shooting and all the parts you can practice had been missing, but that you can invest. You can make a certain plan, but you cannot create or teach talent, stuff like this. That was the key. ... We had that at the beginning. Not that I had a [crystal] ball to look into. That's not the thing. But the funny thing is, if a 7-footer can shoot the ball from the 3-point line, who are they going to send out there? Shaq? All those guys? If Shaq would come out, he'd be missing inside for the rebound, his biggest strength. So you bring the guy into a situation that's to your advantage, and that's what it is. They have to find a 7-footer that can chase a guy, because he was pretty quick on his feet. It was not too difficult to predict. The only thing we had to check out was the nerves under the big lights. Would he be able to handle it?"
DON NELSON, Mavericks coach and general manager, 1998-2005: "When we were able to see him in the [spring] when he was practicing for that international thing [Nike Hoop Summit]. They worked out at the YMCA in Dallas for a week before playing down south [in San Antonio]. Donnie got a way to sneak us in. We sat in the back, and we never saw anything like it. We had him then as a star player. You never know about all-time great, but we certainly thought he'd be an All-Star. At 7 feet, the guy could shoot it from anywhere and everywhere. He could handle it, had a feel for the game. I never had him as much of a defender, but to do all that at 7 feet tall and to have a perfect basketball body, long and strong, he just had the whole package. We'd never seen anything like it at 17 or 18 years old."
DONNIE NELSON, Mavericks assistant coach/president of basketball operations, 1998-present: "When he played against the USA team [and led the World team to a win with 33 points and 14 rebounds], all of a sudden, you could see his real potential. That was kind of bittersweet for me. I was like, 'Holy s---, the cat just got let out of the bag.'"
DON NELSON: "We tried to hide him so none of the other teams could get to him before the draft. Donnie did a great job of that."
DONNIE NELSON: "When we drafted him, we thought he'd be a guy who would revolutionize the position. We talked about our worst-case scenario would be a guy who has a really, really good 10-year career along the lines of a Detlef [Schrempf]. If our gut instinct was right, it would be along the lines of a KG [Kevin Garnett], somebody that could really revolutionize the position in a different way."
STEVE NASH, Mavericks point guard, 1998-2004: "I know we gave each other a hard time in our careers early on, because we were underwhelming, but you could see his ability. It's crazy for a guy to be that big and that mobile and able to shoot the ball like he could with that high release. You knew he was going to be a matchup nightmare in this league. I think when people were judging him as a finished product when he was 21, 23, 25 years old, I could see he loves the game, he's incredibly gifted, and he wants to play. Imagine what he'll be at 28, 29, 30, let alone what he is now and what he's done. He's been in the league a long time, and he's one of the all-time greats for sure."
NICK VAN EXEL, Mavericks guard, 2001-03: "I can honestly say that I knew that he was going to be a good-to-great player his rookie year. We played him when I was in Denver, and I just saw something. I remember walking to my car after that game and hearing something behind me and seeing him. I stopped and I waited on him to catch up and I said, 'Man, you just keep playing. You got special talent. You're going to be great.' I'd seen something that made me stop and wait on a rookie and tell him, 'You're going to be a great player.' It was funny because when I got to Dallas he remembered that story. He was the new stretch 4, the way he shot the ball and could even put it on the floor. I knew early on that he had a special gift. Then when I got to play alongside him, I knew he was great. I always said this guy is just like Larry Bird."
KEITH GRANT, Mavericks assistant general manager, 1996-present: "For me, it was his second year. He struggled his first year. He and Steve [Nash] both did. You could just see the maturity from Year 1 to Year 2, that he had a chance to be really special. You could just see his work ethic over the summer. We didn't get to see him that first year because of the lockout. He just came in and started playing games. That's not fair to anybody. You could see it over the summer and at the start of the next year, where he started basically winning us games. He was a player that had to be reckoned with. That's when he really started to turn the corner. We saw him as a young kid in that Nike Hoop Summit game. They used our practice facility that week, so we saw him practice. You saw things against guys his own age and hoped it translated. That first year was tough for him, but you could really see a difference in that second year."
NOWITZKI: "I just wanted to keep working and get better. My first year was tough. Then I started to get a little better, people started to switch my pick-and-rolls, and I had nothing. I don't know. I just always saw myself as a piece of work. Always wanted to get better. In the summer, I'd work with Holger and the national team and always add something. Add an off-the-dribble shot, which I didn't have early on. It was all pick-and-pop, all spot-up shooting. Add post-ups and an all-around game. I don't know. Just over the years, always trying to get better."
By his third season, Nowitzki had established himself as an All-Star, averaging 21.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game with a player efficiency rating of 22.8. The 2000-01 season was a breakout campaign as a franchise for the Mavericks, who ended a decade-long postseason drought and upset the Utah Jazz in the first round before being eliminated in five games by the San Antonio Spurs. Nowitzki averaged 23.4 points in those playoffs, finishing with a 42-point, 18-rebound performance when the Spurs eliminated the Mavs.
DEL HARRIS, Mavericks assistant coach, 2000-07: "He got a tooth knocked out [in Game 4 against the Spurs]. He just threw it on the floor and kept playing. Ah, he was tough. Over the years, I've seen guys sprain their ankles and be out two weeks or a month. If Dirk misses two quarters or a game, then he had a really bad one, because he just retapes and comes back out. He still practices and everything. I've never seen him take time off."
MICHAEL FINLEY, Mavericks shooting guard, 1997-2005: "We were in San Antonio, and he had 40-plus. I just saw that he enjoyed that moment, being the top scorer and being in that position. He strived to continue to try to get to that point in every game that he played from then on. I think that was my worst game at the time, and it was his best game. It all worked out."
GESCHWINDNER: "After the San Antonio game in the first year [of the playoffs], I was pretty positive if we stick to the plan that he can make it."
Any doubts lingering in the Mavs' front office about whether Nowitzki was a true franchise centerpiece were eliminated in the first round of the 2002 playoffs, when the Mavs swept Garnett's Timberwolves, with Nowitzki averaging 33.3 points and 15.7 rebounds in the series.
MARK CUBAN, Mavericks owner, 2000-present: "Just go back and look at his numbers. They were off the charts, and we were playing against Minnesota and Kevin Garnett in his prime -- early in his prime. That's when I realized. ... We weren't depending on Fin. We weren't depending on Steve. It was Dirk that took over, and he was putting up numbers that nobody expected. From then on, come playoff time, Dirk did everything."
DONNIE NELSON: "I remember when we drafted him, Garnett was the standard. We knew he was a much different player than Garnett, who was just so athletic and could defend all five positions and all that. Our hope was that Dirk would have a similar impact on the position with a different skill set. That was a breakthrough moment when he was able to do that against the cream of the class, so to speak. After that year, we thought we had something pretty special."
AL WHITLEY, Nash's childhood friend and Mavericks equipment manager, 2001-present: "Probably Year 5 or 6, you're like, OK, this guy more than gets the NBA and he can score on anybody any time. Every summer when he came back with a new move, something that was tougher and tougher to defend and something he added to his arsenal, it was just unlimited where his potential was going to go. To say he's going to be close to five or six [on the all-time scoring list] when he retires is an incredible thing. I just don't take it for granted one day that I get to see him in person. It's incredible to watch him. ... When he first came in as a rookie, I remember Chris Webber and guys who were talking trash to him and taking advantage of him because he was a young kid and didn't really understand what was going on in the NBA game. To see him come back in those Sacramento series and go at Chris Webber and dominate him was really kind of a turning point. OK, not only has he arrived, but he's going to be great in this league and he's going to be great for a long time."
AVERY JOHNSON, Mavericks point guard, 2002-03; assistant coach, 2004-05; and coach, 2005-08: "I don't think it was necessarily a particular moment. I just remember playing with and coaching a guy who could play through pain. David Robinson always talked to me about great players playing through pain and being borderline injured. There were so many games that Dirk played that 80 to 90 percent of NBA players wouldn't even think about playing. Not only playing through pain and being borderline injured, but coming out and scoring 30 points. He might not be able to go through his normal pregame shooting routine. He might be limping, not able to do the different jumps. You just wouldn't think he'd play. Then 18 minutes before the game, he'd be there in the huddle. ... When guys used to say that 'soft Euro' foolishness, I would say they ought to be on Comedy Central. They would get a lot of laughs from those who know how tough Dirk was and is."
Nowitzki was part of the Mavs' big three during his formative NBA seasons, often deferring to Finley and Nash. He had no choice but to be "the man" after the Mavs allowed Nash to go to Phoenix in free agency in 2004 and used the amnesty clause to release Finley the following summer.
NOWITZKI: "Before that, I think my numbers were OK, and then it was like, 'This is your team.' Cubes gave me that big six-year deal. Then I started to get the ball more and more, started to get the ball down the stretch and be the go-to guy, and I had a couple of fun years. Attacking and you go to the gym every night and you feel like nobody can stop you from getting 25. Those were fun years."
JASON TERRY, Mavericks guard, 2004-12: "I thought from the day I met Dirk in '04 when I came to the Mavericks that he was one of the greats. That was because of his work ethic. I understood that if he continued on that path that he'd go down as one of the all-time greats in the game. What solidified it for me was the year he won the MVP [in 2006-07]. It wasn't his best season statistically, but he took great strides as a leader that year. All great players are great not only because of their stats, but also because they make their teammates better. That's when he took the next step, the next progression."
ADRIAN GRIFFIN, Mavericks shooting guard, 2001-03, '05-06: "He didn't know that he was 'the man' [when Nash and Finley were Mavs]. Put it this way, at the end of games, there was some indecisiveness about who was going to get the shots. When I came back, there was no question who 'the man' was. Dirk had grown. I could tell his confidence had grown. His leadership had grown. He wanted the ball at the end of games. He was just more assertive. He had that look that the championship players, the Hall of Fame players have. You just see he took his game to another level. We always felt we had a chance to win when we had Dirk out there. We knew that if we could keep it close, Dirk was going to come and save the day."
DEVIN HARRIS, Mavericks point guard, 2004-08, '13-present: "I watched his work ethic my first two years. When I used to come in at night, I used to just watch him shoot. I actually worked with Holger a little bit my second year. I mean, he's the best shooter I've ever seen. He's not the most athletic guy, but he's so smart. He knows how to get angles and stuff like that, stuff you can't really teach. He's just got that knack. But his work ethic, you could tell he wanted to be great. ... We played Houston, and he had . I think T-Mac had . It was just back and forth. I'm sitting there on the bench like, 'T-Mac goes for 3, Dirk goes for 3, T-Mac goes for a dunk, Dirk goes for a step-back jumper.' I think we went to overtime that game. The whole fourth quarter and overtime was just nuts. That's our guy, though."
No matter all the numbers and All-Star appearances he had accumulated, Dirk didn't get his full due until claiming the Finals MVP in 2011. His critics portrayed him as a soft Euro, ignoring all the instances of him playing through injuries or the fact that he joins the Hall of Fame trio of Hakeem Olajuwon, Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit as the only members of the 25-point, 10-rebound postseason club. They considered him the face of a franchise that folded after taking a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals and didn't sniff a repeat appearance -- until that surprising title run five seasons later. Nobody with a rational mind could refuse to recognize the big German's greatness once he won a championship ring.
GESCHWINDNER: "That is a rule the media makes in the NBA. As you know, a gold-medal winner in the Olympics is for out-of-the-States guys the biggest thing you can get, but if you play in the NBA, the gold medal is almost nothing. You have to win the championship. Everybody jumps on the big players like [Charles] Barkley who never won a championship. It's a really great addition to it, but that's not the only point."
TERRY: "Before the championship, he was going to go down as one of the top two or three players ever born in Europe. Once he got that NBA championship, he was going to go down as one of the greats."
NOWITZKI: "In '06, I felt like I had an unbelievable playoff run. That was disappointing. I felt like I was at the top of my game; 27, 28 is your prime because you feel great physically but you also have that experience from your first six or seven years. I felt like that was my prime, so it's tough that we didn't get the ring and finish that in '06. Then I still felt good: 'I can do it. We'll get there, no problem. We'll get back to the Finals.' It just didn't happen. It didn't happen year after year, tough playoff losses. And then '11 rolled around and we just had the perfect team for it. I had the experience from '06 that I wanted to be the closer and just had the right guys around me -- the right playmakers, the right amount of defenders. We just had a great mix. Ultimately, that [championship] was the only thing that was still missing. Man, what a fun ride that was."
The ride continues for that skinny kid from Germany who grew into an NBA legend.