x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The Maverick son Nowitzki returns to a hero's welcome

He may have been gone, but Dirk Nowitzki was certainly not forgotten. The National visits the MVP's hometown in southern Germany.

Dirk Nowitzki returned to his hometown of Wuerzberg in southern Germany to be received by an estimated crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000.
Dirk Nowitzki returned to his hometown of Wuerzberg in southern Germany to be received by an estimated crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000.

The blue basketball on a back shelf looks almost forlorn.

Smaller than regulation size and garish of colour, forgotten in the rear of the Sport Shop, it seems the only item that makes any mention of Dirk Nowitzki or the NBA champions the Dallas Mavericks.

Near it on the wall hangs a shirt of Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star, but all around the basketball and the shirt blare the towels and T-shirts and scarves of football, football, football, the game that consumes Germany: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, on and on …

Nobody comes in and clamours for Nowitzki or Mavericks gear, Jorg Ringleb says from behind the shop counter. "No," he says. "Basketball, here, is not so big."

All around the town of Wurzburg, around the pedestrian malls and the streaming trams and the voluminous shop windows, it is possible to walk for hours and spot no Nowitzki gear, no homage to Nowitzki.

"We don't really have basketball articles in the store," said Thorsten Dufner, 26, at work in a larger sporting-goods shop. "We've got the balls" - standard brownish-orange ones - "but no jerseys."

So it would seem that this could be one of those stories quirky enough to be almost funny. Maybe the town in which Nowitzki grew up (and up and up) to 7 feet barely acknowledges its own global brand. Maybe, as when Dallas reached the NBA Finals in 2006, the town did not stay awake for those wee-hours tip-offs.

Maybe the first player ever to lead his team to an NBA championship without any American training, whether at a university or otherwise, might be more appreciated in his country of residence, where mass gratitude marked the Mavericks toppling of the loathed Miami Heat, than in his 133,000-strong city of upbringing in northern Bavaria.

But wait.

That slapdash view overlooks many university students, one enormous rally and one fine little miracle called Loma.

The university students, well, they do not need much sleep anyway. "We all watched the finals," Dufner said. "We all did. It definitely is different [from 2006] and it's because he's kind of a local hero. Everybody was awake and went to pubs and bars."

Dufner and friends convened at an apartment in a group of 10 or 15, he said.

"Didn't go to a bar. We had to purchase an online account to watch the game. It was eight euros. We even paid for it," he said. "We are all students so it was not too bad. We all did not have to go to work. I really like to watch it, but I'm not a real fan."

"We watched," he said, "on a Notebook."

After Dallas won Game 6 and the series by four games to two, and when Nowitzki emotionally left Miami's court to sob in the locker room after 13 years of straining for just that moment, and when Dufner's group "all felt so happy," he said, Wurzburg planned a fete. It would happen on June 28. Its organisers would include Nowitzki's sister, Silke.

"We were hoping to get a few thousand people to come and celebrate, but we were not sure," Silke Nowitzki wrote in an e-mail.

Well, as a parade rolled through town with Dirk Nowitzki in a car, and as Nowitzki appeared in a 3,000-seat arena jammed full, and as three fans held up large letters reading "M" and "V" and "P" - for Most Valuable Player - and as Nowitzki alighted on a balcony to stout cheers at a palace the locals refer to as The Residence, the size of the crowd staggered all. Estimates ran between 10,000 and 15,000, or roughly 10 per cent of the population.

"It was an amazing and unforgettable day," Silke wrote, soon adding, "It is a soccer country so for a basketball player who plays overseas to draw such a crowd is really spectacular. The most emotional moment was when he stepped out on the balcony of The Residence."

At that moment, she wrote, "I was standing at a window next to the balcony. I was standing inside and peeked out behind the curtains and saw the huge crowd. It was very emotional but somehow unreal. Unreal that all these people came out for him. Everybody in the room with me was overwhelmed."

She added: "The fact that it actually happened is sometimes hard to comprehend. He is in the NBA for 13 years now so we had time to grow into the fact that he is a famous person. But the winning of the championship took everything to a new level."

Even within football mania, Nowitzki's far-flung plight and 13-year yearning had taken on a fresh significance, as if people might have identified with the struggle while appreciating the local kid who graced the local pro club as a teenager. The local weekly newspaper, Wob, replaced the "o" in its masthead with a basketball.

"We write about everything that happens in town and around," said Fabian Steigerwald, the head of the weekly. "It was a big thing because we put it on the first page. In Wurz-burg we love Nowitzki and that's why we did it on the top."

For the cloaked but zealous basketball fandom of Wurzburg, though, the epitome surfaced across town from The Residence, along the slightly curvy road Sanderstrassen, near the apothecary and the paper shop and the internet cafe and the old pub with portals painted German-flag black-red-gold, at the unlikely bar called Loma.

Loma, after all, isn't done up like a pub or sports bar. Tasteful in a black motif, it looks like it could dwell solely as some stylish cafe. When its owners decided to air the games, Christoph Schiebel said, they did not anticipate the multitudes that would turn up in the middle of the night. They thought: "We'll give it a go, give it a shot." Schiebel, after all, had watched in 2006 at an apartment with five to 10 friends unable to find an establishment with the broadcast.

Well, from the Mavericks' play-off-series sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers, to their prevalence over the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the finals against Miami, the audience at Loma in 2011 built until, Schiebel said, "There was, like, not even space to breathe. Because we are kind of a small bar." A place with a capacity of 250 routinely filled to 250. It spilt out on to the pavement.

"From Games 1 to 2 and 2 to 3, and then since Game 3 or 4, there were other bars who joined it, who started showing games as well," Schiebel said, but Loma remained the epicentre.

The people of Wurzburg began turning up and filling the space three or four hours before tip-off, at 11pm or midnight, just to claim a place to stand. Tip-offs would come near 3am, so, said Schiebel, "I thought maybe, yeah, there are some crazy guys who will watch it," but the crowd far outnumbered any crazy guys within it.

"We always had half-and-half," he said. "Fifty per cent of the people had the day off the next day and 50 per cent slept before the game and then went to work afterward."

This, for a town that doesn't really know about the Miami star LeBron James, and remains "not that up to date" on NBA matters, according to Schiebel, and where, he said, "We are all football guys, but, yeah, I fell in love with basketball 10 years ago."

As word wandered, phone calls whooshed in. "After Game 4, it was just crazy," Schiebel said.

Reservation requests came from Belgium, from Berlin, from Hamburg. One guy wanted to charter a bus and bring friends.

"We always said, 'Sorry, guys, we're just a small bar, fitting 250 people, maximum," so no reservations, Schiebel said.

For the closing Game 6, ESPN turned up, reporting back to the United States from the wee hours, and pertaining to those wee hours, Loma had to receive permission from the city to remain open past 5am. Into those hours would go sights of Nowitzki on screen and chants of, "MVP! MVP!" remembered one of Loma's owners, Carsten Schmitt.

It all led to one memorable zenith at one peculiar hour. Said Schiebel: "I think the last minute was about 5.30am. The feeling was incredible."

While previous games in the series had trembled with pivotal finishes, Game 6 went 105-95 to Dallas and spent its last few minutes all clarified. The televised scenes included shots of the Miami players and, Schiebel said, "You just saw on their faces that they didn't have the hope anymore. Two or three minutes before the ending, everybody was cheering even more."

Outdoors they soon poured into "broad daylight", Schiebel said. Some would go to work, some would go to sleep, but nobody left just yet. Passers-by going to work or running errands took on furrowed expressions wondering what could be happening. Car horns honked.

And as the Loma closed, but the throng on the street still revelled, here came Thorsten Dufner, bicycling home in the dawn from the friend's place where they had bought the internet feed for €8. With Sanderstrasse a regular thoroughfare, he came upon the human impasse.

"There were so many people in the street that you couldn't walk, so it was really a surprise," he said. So thick was the crowd that he had to improvise. In yet another case of a shrunken sporting planet, he had to dismount the bicycle and carefully walk it through.