Crocodile Nowitzki

This summer Dirk Nowitzki went down under to find himself. Can he now lead the Mavs to the promised land?

Geschwinder, a well-read man who had traveled the world, believed there was much to learn from the Aborigines and from nature in general. "You go back 30,000 years, and we think we have progressed so much, that we've fixed things, but have we really advanced?" he said. "Look at global warming to see how much we've screwed things up."

There was no sense in Nowitzki blaming himself for the team's loss, Geschwinder believed. One of the first things he'd taught him as a boy is that basketball was a team sport. "Basketball is not a one-man show," he said. "If you are the star, they put all the glory on you, and if you fail, they put all the shit on you. But it's more complex than that. It's stupid to blame it on one person."

Just a year before, Nowitzki had all the glory when in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs he had driven to the lane with just 30 seconds left, sunk the shot and drawn a foul in the process. He stepped to the line and made the free throw, sending the game into overtime. After that, the American media had proclaimed him a "clutch" player, and now, after the Golden State series, he wasn't. Geschwinder knew Nowitzki couldn't be both things.

In their native Germany, Geschwinder was known primarily as Nowitzki's coach, or as the captain of the 1972 West German National team, if he was known at all. Sports journalists there didn't know what to make of him. Depending on his mood, he could be gracious, charming them with his caustic wit, or truculent, waving them away when they came to ask questions. In America, he was mostly ignored. He sat in the stands at Dallas home games, 20 rows up behind the Mavs bench, and no one paid him attention, even though he—more than anyone else—had engineered Nowitzki into the kind of player he was.

Geschwinder had learned the game of basketball from American soldiers stationed in Germany during World War II and after the '72 Olympics had gone on to have a professional career in Europe. In 1995, he was playing on a third-division pro team, waiting for a youth game to finish up, when he saw a 6-foot-7 beanpole with floppy hair flying down the court. The kid caught his eye. His skills were sloppy, but Geschwinder recognized something special in him, something that couldn't be taught: an innate feel for the game.

"Who's that kid working with?" he asked. "No one," he was told.

He had long hoped to find someone who could steal the headlines from the country's soccer and tennis heroes, and even though he had never coached, he volunteered to work with the young Nowitzki. Geschwinder knew Nowitzki's mother, who had played basketball on the women's national team, and so he went to her and her husband and said: "I can make your son the best basketball player in Germany, and he can play in the NBA if he will commit to working with me."

Nowitzki was from Warzburg, an idyllic Bavarian town surrounded by forests and medieval castles. Nowitzki's father, a house painter, had been an elite handball player, and Nowitzki had followed in his footsteps, playing tennis and handball. Because his mother and older sister played basketball, Nowitzki considered it women's sport and showed no interest in basketball until at the age of 13 he attended a cousin's practice and fell in love with the game.

For the next three years, he played whenever he got a chance, often taking the subway downtown to find someone to play with on the public courts. Depending on who was there, he would play 2-on-2 games, or 3-on-3, and if no one else showed up, he would play alone, working on his shot. He began to idolize NBA players, waking up in the wee hours of the morning to catch live games from America, and like boys his age in the United States, he began plastering his walls with posters of NBA stars of the time such as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. He particularly liked Pippen—because he could pass, shoot and rebound—and Geschwinder encouraged him to become a similar kind of player.

Geschwinder told Nowitzki that he could achieve his dream of playing in the NBA, but it would take a lot of hard work and dedication. He came up with a five-year plan. He believed that the game of basketball was changing, and that if Nowitzki was going to compete in the NBA he would have to become a player who could play any position. So instead of putting him under the basket and teaching him the dunk and the sky hook, the traditional moves of men his size, he dragged him out to the 3-point line and taught him how to shoot.

Geschwinder approached basketball with the frenzy of a mad scientist. Using calculus and physics and factoring in Nowitzki's height, he calculated the "optimal angle" Nowitzki should shoot the ball from, encouraging him to shoot a high-arching rainbow shot, releasing the ball high above his head. Every morning before school, Nowitzki would take 500 of these shots. He also made him do his push-ups from the tips of his fingers so the ball would leave his hands at "sub-optimal" velocity.

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