The House that Dirk built

Dirk Nowitzki is a superstar in Germany – but in the US, he is »Saint Dirk«. The writer Thomas Pletzinger met him in Dallas.

Sometimes fate offers an answer before you even pose a question. Haile, the taxi driver who is taking me from the airport in Dallas to my hotel, is in his mid-forties; he’s from Eritrea. He believes in God, generosity, and Dirk Nowitzki. He’s wearing a blue t-shirt with Nowitzki’s number 41. His taxi smells of licorice, and a rosary made of blue and white beads hangs from his rear view mirror. There’s an ivory colored prayer card on his dashboard—St. Christopher, the patron saint of drivers. Right next to it, an autographed gold-framed trading card of Dirk Nowitzki with long hair and a headband.

Nowitzki is the reason why I’ve come to Dallas, but the taxi driver doesn’t know anything about that when he says, smiling, »Saint Dirk, savior of Dallas basketball.« The traffic is viscous, the sun shines severely on the asphalt, the taxi’s air conditioner complains. Haile honks and cheers and hands me a licorice. He asks why I’ve come to Dallas. I explain I’m here to meet Dirk Nowitzki, and I nod at the dashboard, towards the blue-and-white rosary – it’s the playoffs. Haile turns around, driving at full speed, and stares at me, momentarily speechless. »You’re meeting Dirk? Are you fucking joking?«

»You’re meeting Dirk? Are you joking?«

Crazy about Dirk

Like many others, I also once dreamed of a basketball career. I gave up that dream in 1994, when I heard the rumors of a talented, beanstalk-Tarzan from Würzburg, who was sixteen and around six-foot-eight, very mobile and in possession of an excellent jumper. In the gyms, they said he had the potential to be the best player in Germany. A year later I saw Nowitzki play for the first time, in a German League game between Brandt Hagen and Würzburg—it must have been around 1998. The game wasn’t sold out. Nowitzki had grown to seven feet, and he already existed outside the roles and rules that Germans generally believed. He could do anything. He was big, quick, and clever, he could shoot from anywhere in the gym, he could dribble and find his open teammates – he had mastered the game at every level. Nowitzki read the structure of the game better, he thought faster. He was different than the other players we knew about then. My old team beat Würzburg, but we had seen the future of the game. 

I’ve never been able to shake basketball. I love the game, though I only play occasionally now. I’m an enthusiast, and once in a while I’m a fan. When I watch a basketball game, there’s a melancholic passion, a happy nostalgia, a pleasant sadness about the things that once appeared possible but never happened. There are many more of my kind: nostalgics and stat lovers, players in theory. Dirk Nowitzki is our representative.  He is everything that we never became. Just much, much better.

Church of Nowitzki

»Welcome to the church of Nowitzki.«

In Germany, Dirk Nowitzki is more well-known than the game he plays. He’s famous because he’s famous. He’s been doing ads for a bank and an athletic brand for years. He’s been a guest on Germany’s most popular talk show. In the US, Nowitzki is a real superstar. He is one of the best players in a traditional American game. The fans in Dallas love Nowitzki; the opponent’s fans fear him. Rightly so. Journalists and cultural scholars write about the fascinating phenomena that is Nowitzki. Angela Merkel receives him in the Chancellor’s office, Barack Obama receives him in the White House. Nowitzki is the best European that has ever played the game. He was the MVP of the Finals, carried the flag at the Olympics, was an All-Star, NBA champion. His game stands up to every kind of scrutiny – statistical, tactical, and historic. What’s more: Nowitzki fundamentally changed America’s game, he revolutionized it. Basketball after Nowitzki is different than basketball before him: more mobile, varied, less predictable, more refined, more sophisticated.

I’m in Dallas to write about Nowitzki’s importance and the reasons for it. There are an unbelievable number of articles about Nowitzki, there are biographies, there are hundreds of interviews and portraits. Dirk Nowitzki is in the German equivalents of People, Us Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly. The story is always the same: a boy from Würzburg becomes one of the best basketball players in the world despite the difficulties and long odds. With the help of an eccentric, genius mentor, he practices in privacy of a Bavarian school gym and ultimately reaches his goal. He is a legend, an epic hero with forgivable faults. And I’m here to tell something new.

Heroes have to be protected, and the Nowitzki system is a closed system. Although Dirk and I have friends in common – Mithat Demirel, his roommate from the German National Team, and Patrick Femerling, who played the most games in German National Team history – there are unwritten rules, and Nowitzki’s teammates would chop off their shooting hands before giving away his telephone number. All that remains are the official paths. I hoped that one thing would lead to another once I was in Dallas. The Mavericks’ chief press officer had guaranteed me an interview. Ten minutes after the game. Tonight.

Dirk Nowitzki

I’ve prepared questions: About his rituals. About the boredom of life as a professional athlete. The importance of his skin color for his fame, the importance of race in the sport. If he’s ever plagued by financial burdens (the burden of what to do with around $20 million per year). How he can keep such a high level of concentration for fourteen long years. If basketball is still fun. If he sympathizes with other celebrities (or just shares the same burden). If he really reads Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon for motivation.  How he views his position in basketball history. About the first time paparazzi showed up in front of his door. What he thinks when the tabloid Bild prints mug shots of his ex-girlfriend, or when all the newspapers in Germany report about his mentor Holger Geschwinder’s tax issues.  If he’s as down to earth as everyone says. How often he curses it all. What hurts him the most. Whom he can trust. What is true and what is false.

Now I’m racing through Dallas in a taxi, and Haile answers all of my questions with enthusiasm. He’s left the highway and is taking a short cut to American Airlines Arena: through residential areas, industrial wastelands, past cacti, a dried-up riverbed. Parking lots, skyscrapers, parking lots.

Haile knows everything about Dirk. We bat around the greatest moments of his career: Haile tells of Indianapolis 2002, the unexpected success of Germany’s Bronze Medal at the World Cup. Nowitzki was voted the tournament MVP. I talk about the European Championship Finals in 2005 and how, when Nowitzki was taken out of the game, just before the end of a loss in the final against Greece, the audience in Belgrade stood up and applauded for minutes. Or Dirk after losing the NBA Finals in 2006: how he disappeared into the catacombs, hands over his head, as if he had just been hit in the stomach, was gasping for air. Dirk Nowitzki had created a vast amount of those kinds of moments over the last fourteen years. 

»Here we are,« said Haile, parking on Victory Lane. »The house that Dirk built.«

»The house that Dirk built.«

There is a huge banner across the entryway of the arena, a roaring Dirk and the Mavericks’ battle cry: Dallas is all in. Haile laughs his faithful laugh: »Welcome to the church of Nowitzki.« He’s sure that Dirk will win today. He’s counting on him. And then I realize I didn’t fly to Dallas for an interview: I want to witness a heroic performance. Haile opens the door for me and gives me his card. »A friend of Dirk is a friend of mine,« he says. »Call me.«

Dirk Nowitzki’s jersey, I think, surprised by my own giddiness.

Aside from a few delivery vehicles, the plaza in front of the American Airlines Arena is empty, and the sun is scorching. There are ten or fifteen salespeople waiting for customers in front of an air-conditioned team shop. All of them are wearing blue t-shirts with the playoff slogan. A friendly old blue-hair showed me the complete assortment of Nowitzki paraphernalia: there are Nowitzki jerseys, pants, shirts, there are headbands, backpacks, slippers and pajamas, cups, key chains, ball caps, wool hats, and Panama hats. There are Dirk Nowitzki beer mugs. Beside me, there’s only one other customer. He’s wearing a green polo shirt and taking pictures of two lonely looking Yi Jianlian jerseys. The man in the green polo shirt is Pari Dukovic, this story’s photographer. Pari looks exactly like you’d imagine a photographer to look—three cameras around his neck, a bag full of film. »This Dirk guy is famous, right?« he says, taking a couple pictures of Dirk trash cans. Pari isn’t a sports photographer and doesn’t know much about basketball. He usually photographs fashion, politicians, burlesque artists, he says, but he’s most interested in what happens backstage. The gritty stories about shining people. Me too, I say. We shake hands; now we’re a two-man team. 

The highlights of the championship season are being shown on monitors. Dirk shoots and scores. First the Mavericks knock out Portland, then the Los Angeles Lakers and their superstar Kobe Bryant, then the young Oklahoma City Thunder team, and finally, the Miami Heat. Dirk wears out his defenders, one after another. He shoots against smaller opponents, uses his mobility against bigger ones, is superior in every way. He withstands the pressure, he grows with it. Nothing can stop him. »Ridirkulous!« They show his one-legged, fade-away jump shot—the undefendable flamingo fade-away—again and again. Nowitzki playing with a fever and a torn ligament in his finger. Nowitzki holding the championship trophy, with the Finals MVP trophy. That was a year ago, I explain to Pari, who is photographing the screen; but this is a new season and it’s a different Mavericks team—they’ve lost their first two playoff games. A year changes everything. 

The parking lot fills up, the arena is opened, and the game begins. I’m standing in the middle of a whirlwind of excitement—for Dirk, Dirk, Dirk again—but the first quarter the game takes the air out of the arena. Things don’t go smoothly, even with Nowitzki. I’m too tired to understand the tactical texture of the game, but the Mavericks are losing. Dirk is substituted. I spend the second half in the press box, under the roof of the arena, and watch the game slip beyond reach. The Mavericks and I can’t get into the game. I hear the frenetic typing of sportswriters around me, recording scores, and when I look up the game is over and lost, 79:95.

Pressekonferenz mit Dirk Nowitzki © PD

»Good night, buddy«

Pari and I are sitting in the press room and waiting for Dirk, who has to sit down in front of journalists after every important game. The director of communications informs me that there won’t be an interview today, not after a loss like this, but I would have twenty-five, maybe thirty seconds to introduce myself after the press conference. Nowitzki answers the questions with visibly concerted politeness, and when he leaves the press room in frustration, I run after him and pose a question – without introducing myself – that is too dumb to be recorded here. Nowitzki looks at me in horror but immediately collects himself again and signs a basketball for a little boy. »Good night, buddy,« he says. Then he’s gone.

Two days later the Mavericks have their backs to the wall – if they lose, they’re out. I go to the arena early in the morning. Dirk’s face on the front of the arena looks more determined that two days earlier, well-rested. In the meantime, our meeting had been postponed five times. We were told Dirk needed to concentrate. Instead, I talk to bus drivers, ticket sellers, and drunks (everyone here pronounces his name as if it had an umlaut). It’s always the same thing: Dirk is unbelievable, Dirk is nice, Dirk is one of us. The security personnel greet me in German.

Donnie is sitting in his office between stacks of paper, trophies, and commemorative pictures and immediately cuts to the chase.

On the morning of the decisive game, Donnie Nelson is our Dirk-substitute. Nelson is the General Manager of the Mavericks, and he brought Nowitzki to Dallas in 1998. He’s sitting in his office between stacks of paper, trophies, and commemorative pictures and immediately cuts to the chase. Without prompting, he tells how terrible Dirk’s first year was. Whistles from the spectators, vitriol in the papers, ridicule across the league. Nelson leans back, looks along the walls at the Sports Illustrated covers and team pictures, the trophies. Suddenly, he tosses something glittery in my direction, completely without warning. It’s only luck that I catch it. Nelson’s laugh is louder than expected. I’m holding a Mavericks championship ring in my hand, gold and diamonds, fifty grand apiece. »A test,« Nelson says, and then he tells me that I have good hands.

What does Dirk really mean to Dallas? Nelson doesn’t think for a second: »Dirk changed Dallas, economically and culturally. The mentality. He deserves a monument, that simple.« Donnie Nelson is serious for a moment. »Several,« he says, »Dirk deserves several monuments.«

When we enter the locker room, Nelson orders me to take a seat at Dirk’s locker, in Dirk’s huge leather recliner, between Dirk’s socks and shoes. He takes the jersey with the number 41 from the hanger and solemnly presents it to me. It’s the jersey Dirk will wear tonight. Dirk Nowitzki’s jersey, I think, surprised by my own giddiness. 

»Dirk deserves several monuments.«

Then that afternoon with Holger Geschwindner at Starbucks: mad professor, genius in a flannel shirt, puzzling oddball, Nowitzki’s discoverer, mentor, friend, and – if something like this exists – his creator. There’s an empty coffee cup in front of him. The game tonight doesn’t’t seem to make him nervous. He’s here to correct Dirk’s mechanics, if necessary. They’ve been using hand signals for years, »shoot higher« and »spread your fingers«. He’s here to be in his spot if Dirk needs him.

When you talk to Holger Geschwindner, you get a clue to why Nowitzki has been able to play at such a level for so long. You have a clue, but you still don’t know. He had taken the young Dirk under his wing and developed a seven-step plan to creating what Dirk has become today. Geschwindner’s method is a complete package of mathematics, psychology, education, discipline, and plausible lunacy. Geschwindner was the captain of German’s Olympic Team in 1972, studied physics and mathematics, and he now lives in a castle in Bamberg. 

Geschwindner’s method is a complete package of mathematics, psychology, education, discipline, and plausible lunacy.

He opens up his laptop during the conversation. A stick figure with Dirk Nowitzki’s exact bodily proportions moves on the screen. The angles and curves show what the ideal shot looks like. The goal is to discover the angle Nowitzki has to shoot at, so even when he makes a mistake, he still hits. Geschwindner talks about basketball like jazz, about Chet Baker in the gym, about Faulkner and frog jumps. Sometimes Geschwindner pauses in the middle of a conversation, gazes into space, and writes down a few thoughts in his notebook.

I look around. The stage is impressive and surreal. Cameras on the court, all six levels, as well as the press and luxury boxes are sold out, cleavage with makeup, »The Star-Spangled Banner«, then the two minute warning. Dallas is all in. Just before the tip off I spot Pari’s green polo shirt darting between the players. The Mavericks are playing to save the season, and their honor, and he’s shooting pictures point blank.

Today everything goes through Dirk. The arena is clothed in blue, they’re waving blue hankies. They cheer when he gets the ball, they roar when he’s fouled. The Mavericks isolate him and give him the ball, and he bears the responsibility effortlessly. He ignores the world that’s watching him, and he delivers a great performance. At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Mavericks are leading by thirteen, 81:68, but then the levee breaks. Oklahoma City catches up, point by point, and takes the lead just before the final horn. The arena is stunned. When Dirk collects points 33 and 34 with a pair of free throws thirty seconds before the buzzer, it becomes increasingly still; the announcer calls out a last »Dööörk« into the arena, and the clock relentlessly runs down on the end of the season. It’s not enough, and Dallas is eliminated. 

Nach der Niederlage

»Here goes another year of Dirk.« © TP

Then once again, Dirk’s posture on the way to the locker room: his arms raised, as if he had to recover from a punch. The press follows the players into the locker room, where a deafening silence hangs in the air. No photos, no autograph requests. The players come out from the showers, one after the other, the press mob encircles them and poses their gloomy questions. The players wear towels with their number and an elastic band around their waists, the mob moves through the locker room, from one player to another. When Dirk comes out of the showers, a hero bent and battered, the mob strikes. All of the cameras and microphones point at Dirk; you can’t see him, but his towel flies past and lands in the laundry basket in the middle of the locker room. 

The morning after, the last interviews before the summer break. The Mavericks have lost the most important game of the year. The coach, manager, and players step before the press one last time, there is melancholy in the air. Nowitzki answers politely, but a few questions sound insistent, as if he could change the situation. There is also criticism. Then Dirk Nowitzki works his way up the stairs, a sad savior in T-shirt and flip-flops. The journalists gaze after him, »There goes another year of Dirk,« one says.

Up close, it is impossible to differentiate between relief and exhaustion in his face. Dirk Nowitzki sits in the Mavericks’ coffee kitchen and talks, now he has time. Last night he played basketball on the world class level, now it’s summer. He sighs briefly, the journalist’s questions about his knees, his age, failure, and the end of his career echo. »I’ve been doing this long enough,« he says. »You have to boil a couple of them down, I don’t give them any material.« Someone brings water, and we switch to German. No one is listening. I ask what he did last night. »Last night I scarfed down some fast food,« he says. »Normally we would have gone out. But what happened yesterday happened so quickly and abruptly that I wasn’t able to see anyone. So burger, fries, and a milkshake. Then I watched the other game, Spurs against Utah.«

In the morning, the last interviews before the summer break.

Dirk Nowitzki pauses to think, his answers are honest, but he is always aware of what he has to say and which anecdotes work with which interlocutors. He says: »Interviews and photo shoots and commercials aren’t my favorite things.« And: »I’m still embarrassed if I go into a restaurant and everyone applauds.« We talk about his contrasts, about Texas and Würzburg, his new world and his old world, where so much is still the same, »There’s still the old Edeka supermarket and the tanning salon.« He really does still live with his parents, though they finally remodeled the bathroom after the championship—he doesn’t have to bend over to brush his teeth anymore. We talk and talk, and then the press officer comes at some point and calls him to the next appointment. His teammates can be heard in the background, raising a ruckus, a farewell drink is being raised.

You have cast a wide net in order to understand Nowitzki’s importance. At the end of August I meet Wolf Lepenies, the sociologist, historian, and winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Berlin is only half as hot as Dallas, but the windows at the research institute in Berlin’s Grunewald district are wide open. There’s a basketball hoop behind the villa.

Lepenies, forty-one years old, had played basketball for Rot-Weiß Koblenz as a young man. Personal scoring record: forty-eight. The esteemed ethnologist Clifford Geertz taught him how to read and understand basketball at Princeton games. In New York he learned about Bill Bradley and the ’72 Knicks team, Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, and Walt Frazier. 

So Wolf Lepenies knows what he’s talking about when he talks about basketball. He’s a smart, enthusiastic man, and we immediately slip into excited shop talk. Lepenies tells of how he once watched Nowitzki and Geschwindner practice—seventy-five minutes of shooting, without interruption, impressive, perfectly planned! »Geschwindner is crazy in the best sense of the word, I’m impressed by his thought about maximums,« he says. »Where we think about averages, the two of them are ruthless. For them, seven out of ten shots means three shots missed. They want ten shots made.«

9 out of 10

Lepenies followed the championship at night on his computer; he even woke his wife up before the end of the final game – she just couldn’t miss it. Then he wrote about Nowitzki. He’s much more than a star for Lepenies: »Nowitzki has a greatness,« he says, that is fundamentally different. He brings up Pierre Bourdieu, says Nowitzki has an impressive cultural and social capital. Lepenies thinks he belongs alongside the German sporting greats: Fritz Walter, Max Schmeling, Uwe Seeler, and Franz Beckenbauer. Their losses make us grieve and we consider their victories justified. 

The conversation drifts from Nowitzki’s greatness to his groundedness, to concepts like honesty, production, and authenticity – and suddenly we’re analyzing Nowitzki’s wedding photo as if it were Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Wedding, the cut of his suit, the bride’s understated jewelry. »Maybe it’s going too far with Nowitzki,« Wolf Lepenies says and laughs, »but this picture isn’t just a star’s photo, it’s not just fashion. You sense there’s a core that you can’t touch. It’s vague but there’s something there that is ‘right’. Pure. Purity.« Lepenies looks out the window at his basketball hoop. He ponders, smiles, then returns to the subject. »Dirk Nowitzki,« Lepenies says, »is one of our truly great sports stories.«

»Ich wollte immer Basketballspieler sein, nicht mehr und nicht weniger.«

At the beginning of September I’m racing to a gym again, and this time Nowitzki’s driving. We’re on the way to practice, at nine in the morning, he could drive from his parents’ house to the practice gym in Rattelsdorf in his sleep. »We’ve been doing this for eighteen years,« he says. He’s been driving from Würzburg to Rattelsdorf down highways A7 and 70 for eighteen years. This is where he walked through the gym on his hands, jumped up on crates and jumped back down, two, two and a half hours without stopping. »We used to practice like the Russians used to.« Now everything is more carefully monitored, more routine. He has learned his lessons from the past year and practiced through the summer, he »ran a little« to keep up his concentration. »I can’t go back down to zero, even when I take a break.« He says he feels his age. »You pay for it.«

Dirk sorts through his summer. He uses his knuckles to count how many days each month has, he laughs, the memory of the past few months seems to please him. Plenty has happened since our last meeting. First in Dallas, because his wife had to work in her gallery. He was back in the weight room just a week after the Mavericks were eliminated. Then the reception in Kenya. Wedding in Dallas. Party in the Caribbean. Shooting a commercial on Mallorca. New Visa. Visit in Würzburg. »Watched a little Wimbledon,« he says, and he doesn’t mean that he turned on the television.

Nowitzki says Kenya was amazing. He only touched his phone a couple times, which is why he only caught the final break-up of the championship team by chance. At the reception. Nowitzki pauses briefly, sometimes English words slip into his German, but still makes the effort to correct himself and find the German word for reception. At the reception he learned that his playmaker Jason Kidd, his running mate Jason Terry, and his best friend Brian Cardinal wouldn’t be back. After fourteen years in the league, he appears to take these kinds of things in stride. Last season is last season, now he’s practicing for next year. Everything is starting from the beginning. Sometimes when Nowitzki talks about sports, he sounds like a machine. He drives fast and calmly, the car smells new, the way is old. 

Outside the windows it’s getting to be fall. We’re rushing between rows of poplars and fields of gladiolas, a hint of gold is draped over the hills. Dirk talks about contemporary British art at his wife’s gallery, and that he sometimes doesn’t understand, talks about flying, how it’s like riding the bus, about the celebrations that summer. We’re silent for a moment. Now would be a good time to ask the questions I’ve spelled out, I think to myself, but I let the opportunity slip away unused. I stick to being the front seat passenger, our conversation is flowing smoothly. »We got married during the Olympics,« Dirk says, »we missed Bolt and basketball.«

Dirk Nowitzki
»You sense there’s a core that you can’t touch. It’s vague but there’s something there that is ›right‹. Pure. Purity.«

Nowitzki turns off just behind the Rattelsdorf city limits sign and parks in front of a gym, one that’s like many gyms across Germany. Now, in the morning, the parking lot is empty, just a couple bikes and a solitary car. A woman with a dog and a cigarette nods at us. No cameras, no one. »I didn’t have a ball in my hands for almost three months this summer,« Dirk says, removing a completely threadbare leather ball from the trunk. »This one is eleven years old, I’ve practiced with it every summer since 2001.«

Geschwindner has already been there a while when we step onto the court. Synthetic flooring, no parquet. He’s coaching a couple twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, and two fathers are watching. The boys make the same pirouettes, the same sidesteps, whip the ball around their bodies just like Nowitzki. With some it looks like stumbling, with others it is a dance. »Wrap,« Geschwinder calls, »inside pivot,« the beginnings of a language that he and Nowitzki have been speaking for years. The boys make an effort to ignore Dirk when he ties his shoes, but when he steps onto the court with his spindly gait and starts shooting, the gym falls silent. The boys watch him, and you can see their minds racing. I write down the word »reverent«. Nowitzki shoots and shoots, and he makes the first twenty-one. We all count along. 

Silence prevails when Nowitzki and Geschwindner practice. The two have gone through the steps and drills so often over the last few years, decades, that hardly any words are necessary. A racehorse and his trainer. Dirk shoots, Holger passes, Holger nods, Dirk understands. We observe a ritual; the sound of ancient basketball is a mantra—swish, swish, again and again. Dirk becomes quicker and quicker, jumps higher, hits better, the concentration fills the gym.

None of us has ever been as good and none of us will ever be as good.

The truth about Dirk Nowitzki lies in the trunk of his car: the ancient basketball, shot and dribbled a million times, almost black from sweat and gym dust. When you hold that ball in your hands, it becomes clear why Dirk Nowitzki has become an unbelievably good basketball player.

Dirk Nowitzki has everything that leads other players to quit, to stagnation: money, fame, awards, interviews, interviews, interviews. »But those things have never interested me,« he says, and you believe him if you see him practice. You believe the story of the humble superstar, you believe he is down to earth, in his concentration, you believe in the power of the normative, even justice. The boys in the gym want to be like him. »I always wanted to be a basketball player,« he says, »one of the best.«

I probably don’t have to say anything new about Dirk Nowitzki: he’s like us. Just much, much better.

___ by Thomas Pletzinger.

Photos © Pari Dukovic, unless stated otherwise