After 13 years of striving, the Dallas Mavericks's Dirk Nowitzki finally makes the NBA Finals his home.
The German Nowitzki has gone global
Around dawn our time yesterday came another little jolt of globalisation. Somebody named Dirk rules the sporting world even while playing a game his nation barely follows and had nothing to do with devising, and playing it 8,355 kilometres, one ocean and seven time zones whence he came.
This Dirk - Nowitzki - just became the first player of an upbringing completely non-American to lead his team to the uppermost championship in basketball, that Canadian concoction and American predilection born in 1891 using peach baskets upon Massachusetts walls.
When his 13 years of striving finally concluded as his Dallas Mavericks mastered the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, and when he fled the arena quickly because he wished to sob in private, and when he returned to receive his Most Valuable Player trophy, the sporting planet not only got just a notch flatter, but revealed again how briskly it moves anymore.
In the recent yet somehow also ancient days of June 1998, some themes already had entrenched themselves when Dallas manoeuvred to get an impossibly versatile, 7-foot 20 year old from Wurzburg, Germany.
Everyone who followed the NBA knew that European players had begun to trickle into the big, bad league. Everyone knew that these players brought along an unmistakable softness. Everyone knew choosing them constituted risk.
Nobody knew - and who ever can? - that Mr Nowitzki among many others would continue to usher us into a reality in which assumptions croak and highbrow excellence hails from most anywhere.
Now, three players from foreign lands had won the honour of All-Star: Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria, Detlef Schrempf from Germany and Tim Duncan from the Virgin Islands. One, the awesome 7-foot Olajuwon, had led his Houston team to NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. All three, however, had honed their games in the demanding tier of American college basketball, all becoming intricately (Olajuwon, Duncan) or somewhat (Schrempf) familiar to the drooling legions of American basketball devotees.
Here in June 1998 came an outright mystery from a second-division German team in Wurzburg. The highly developed basketball brain belonging to then-Boston coach Rick Pitino was wowed with Nowitzki after a workout in Rome, but nobody knew that. The ruling Nelsons of Dallas, including Don, the respected coach, and his son, Donnie, the then-assistant, also craved Nowitzki, the elder Don describing "one of the best players I've ever seen".
In the crazy American brew known as the draft, held and televised in several sports, Boston had the 10th selection on the list and ached to select Nowitzki. Dallas, with multiple needs, finagled a crafty bouquet of bartering that wound up delivering them a great point guard in Steve Nash and the player Milwaukee chose at No 9: Nowitzki.
The American public noticed but did not quiver.
There came a brief mini-drama when it appeared Nowitzki might accept a contract perhaps in Italy because he might not deem himself worthy of the NBA just yet. He spoke openly of his own vague fear. He had never left home.
The Nelsons invited him to a barbecue and tried to convince him to matriculate. The coach who so ably tutored Nowitzki in Germany, the former national captain Holger Geschwindner, told Dallas-area reporters he thought the player suffered from an outsized impression of the NBA from watching too many news-show highlight packages lacking the time to show players also missing and erring.
The whole thing settled by the end of June when Nowitzki agreed to move.
By his second year, he already averaged 17.5 points and 6.5 rebounds. By his third, 21.8 and 9.2. By his fourth, he became another of those foreign-born All-Stars for the first of 10 times.
And from there, a curious sort of globalising thing has happened. As a mainstay for 13 years as good and great teammates have come and gone - with Jason Terry mighty in this championship - Nowitzki has become a face of an American club even if many Americans cannot pronounce his name (that tricky "w" with its "v" sound) and even if, by now, some might not even realise he is not American.
From there, and through Dallas' excruciating failure in the 2006 NBA Finals that haunted Nowitzki for a good while, a further curious thing took hold by spring 2011: Nowitzki upgraded from recognised figure to an almost-cherished rescuer of good. To Superman. As a ringing majority wished comeuppance upon the Heat and its stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for their pre-season gloating about championships not yet won, here came a German guy to save the day.
You talk about globalisation.