The NBA celebrates NBA 75 roster players almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki. This Q&A, conducted by SPOX and DAZN host Alex Schluter, appeared on SportingNews.com on October 11, 2019, just as the NBA was gearing up for its first season without Nowitzki from 1998-99.
For the first time in more than 20 years, Dirk Nowitzki didn’t have to prepare for another NBA season this summer.
SPOX and DAZN host Alex Schluter spoke to the 41-year-old about his new life at the “Nike Basketball Festival” in Berlin.
MORE: How Nowitzki went from unknown to incomparable
After everything I’ve read, I’m quite surprised to see you in good shape.
Dirk Nowitzki: At six feet tall, it’s a bit easier to hide. But the weight went up pretty fast. I didn’t really do anything for three months and I didn’t think much of my discipline in terms of eating. That’s fun, not thinking about training or basketball and just getting carried away. It was a nice summer with my family and, up to this point, I didn’t have many moments where I missed basketball. But I’m pretty sure they will come eventually.
Training camp has started. After more than 20 years, you do not participate. Is the body surprised by the lack of action at this point?
Nowitzki: I couldn’t hold out at this point. When you are over 30, you need to maintain a certain level of fitness during the summer; otherwise you are too late and it takes too long to get back. That’s why I always exercised during the holidays, which I didn’t do this year. Also, my foot wasn’t great this summer. It had to stop. I kept playing despite the pain, I had to take pills, give myself injections. It just wasn’t as fun as it had been in years past.
We all look at your retirement and your emotions. How did the following weeks go?
Nowitzki: There were a few more celebrations. There were some great speeches from old friends and family, but as soon as everyone left, everything got a little quieter. However, I tried to stay active. I took the children to school, went to some events, worked for my foundation. Then we went to the beach for two weeks. But it never got to the point where I spent a week in bed watching Netflix. I wanted to stay active and not overthink.
The last weeks, even months, were extreme; We never got the impression that you were a person who wants a farewell tour, like Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. You still have one. Was there ever a point where you felt a little uncomfortable with that?
Nowitzki: No. The farewell tour was amazing, especially since I didn’t announce anything beforehand. I enjoyed getting standing ovations on other stages, that was amazing. New York, Boston, or the All-Star Game in Charlotte, those are things I’ll never forget, especially since it all happened quite naturally. What the Mavs did in the end, getting my five idols to send me into retirement, was also insane.
But you knew this would be it for a while, right?
Nowitzki: Yes, after the 2017-18 season I had another surgery on my foot, hoping it would fix a few things. I was hoping I could move better again, have more fun, but that didn’t work out at all. Right at the beginning, I had tendonitis in my foot, which caused everything to recede. Being back like this, it was difficult to reach a high level again. My foot kept bothering, and in my head, I quickly had the feeling that it probably would.
However, he initially wanted to make the final decision on whether to continue long after the season. I decided to change that two days before making my announcement before the last home game. At that point, I made a decision with my family and I think it went perfectly. All of last week couldn’t have been better.
You mentioned the idols who were in attendance in Dallas: Charles Barkley, Detlef Schrempf, Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp, and Larry Bird. You have also been an idol to many children for years. How do you perceive this role?
Nowitzki: Obviously, it is an honor when people respect and value the things you have accomplished. It’s always a great feeling when kids are excited to see you. Obviously, I hope to inspire you as well. When I visited some camps when I was young and players from the national team showed up, my eyes lit up and I was also excited. Twenty years later, I am in his shoes. That’s great, and I hope to pass some things on to the next generation.
You always spoke of yourself as a pessimist, but you started early to work towards your goals with great determination. When did the dream of making the NBA become tangible for you?
Nowitzki: When I started taking basketball seriously at 14, 15 years old, I was obviously hoping for it. At that moment, I began to see everything that was available, even at night. I was such a huge NBA fan that for a while I got to know every player from every team in the entire league, full rosters. But I had no idea where it would take me.
I played for a select team in Bavaria, and some coaches said that I had a chance to become a good player in the Bundesliga, maybe even the Euroleague. But no one knew what would happen, that he would play in the NBA for 21 years. There were difficult moments that I had to overcome. You need to have some faith in yourself, that’s for sure.
Which is also true for your time at school. You almost retired, right?
Nowitzki: Yes, some years were tough. When you’re a teenager, everything in life is cooler than school, especially sports. In a year I played basketball, tennis and handball. Right after school, I went to tennis and in the evening there was handball practice. At the time, there just wasn’t much focus at the school. My parents told me to quit a sport and that’s why I stopped playing handball.
It got a bit better after that, but it was still a struggle for me. I thought about leaving school after the 10th grade, maybe going to the United States for a year of high school. But then Holger Geschwindner [Nowitzki’s mentor] He got on board and said, “No chance, you will finish school here.” And I fought.
Did your parents have certain school conditions that allowed you to go to practice?
Nowitzki: No never. They just thought it was important that I not fall behind in school. After looking at my grades in 11th grade, they got quite scared and put some more pressure on me. I had to get private lessons too. Once I was traveling with the youth national team, I had to bring a tutor with me. We were there to work on our conditioning and, between practices, I had to be tutored in a separate room.
Were you the quiet type at school or more of a class clown?
Nowitzki: I always had fun with friends. Every now and then, I would get in trouble for talking too much or interrupting lessons, but that’s part of it. It was quite popular because I was always the only one with gum. That was forbidden and it also got me in trouble a couple of times. But if you erase all that, I think I was a good student.
Without Geschwindner, would you have retired? What do you think of that from today’s perspective?
Nowitzki: I’m not sure I’d really fought otherwise. Looking at it now, I have to be thankful that Holger came out and pushed me to do it. He always bought me books, for Christmas, birthdays, to help me develop off the court. It was important to develop something besides basketball. You can always injure your knee and ruin your sleep if you are unlucky. So it was mandatory for him to finish school.
Did you always have this almost singular focus on sports?
Nowitzki: I never wanted anything more, sport was my life. Both of my parents were athletes. Basically, I grew up in the gym running after loose balls as soon as I could walk.
Did that also inspire the will to always improve?
Nowitzki: I do not think so. The main reason is that we lived in a big house where I was always the youngest. My sister is four years older, two cousins older than me also lived there. So he was often too young to play with them. They said, “Sit aside. You’re not ready yet.” That inspired my competitiveness. I had to settle down.
Outside of your old school, there is graffiti with this statement: “All dreams are crazy until you start making them come true.” What does this phrase mean to you?
Nowitzki: When I started basketball, I became a huge fan instantly. I woke up at night, watched all the All-Star Games and the Finals when MJ [Michael Jordan] I was playing. The dream of one day being a part of it was incredibly far away. It seemed crazy to even make it to the NBA. He couldn’t have imagined what would come of that. And now I think it is important that children have a dream and really work towards it.
Obviously, not everyone is going to make it to the NBA; that is why you also need to develop something else. But having a dream is positive. Whatever it is, I was lucky, of course. I met the right people at the right time. If Holger hadn’t come into my life, maybe I would have focused on tennis or handball, maybe I wouldn’t have worked so hard on basketball. Nobody knows. Glad it went the way it did.
Do you remember key moments in the NBA when you met idols and were proud of how far you’ve come?
Nowitzki: Yes, the first game was in Seattle against Detlef Schrempf, of whom he was a huge fan. He gave me his number right away if I needed anything. But the most “amazing” moment was Game 4 when we played Houston. With Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley, they had two of my biggest idols on their team. Hakeem Olajuwon was there too.
A year earlier, I played for Wurzburg in the German second division, now I was there with the best players in the world. He wasn’t sure if he belonged there, if he would make it. The first year was brutal in that sense.
You mentioned that Schrempf gave you his number. You have done it with a lot of young players since then, in particular Dennis Schroder.
Nowitzki: I was impressed by how nice Detlef was to me and wanted to continue that tradition. I was too self-conscious to approach him, which is why we hardly spoke. But it wasn’t that I was too confident to say I didn’t need his help, I just didn’t want to bother him with my little rookie problems. Looking back at him, I should have gotten closer.
But that led me to offer the same for the players who came after me. Today every young German player has my number. I always try to help when something comes up.
You knew Schroder before he came into the league, right?
Nowitzki: Yeah, we had a pretty high pick that year, and he visited Dallas before the draft when I was in town too. I hadn’t seen him play at the time, so I was there for his training and spoke to him afterward. We exchanged numbers and have been in touch ever since, talking about the NBA, the national team and other things.