Dirk Nowitzki was lost. And he was starting to stink.
He had come this far, deep into the Australian Outback, and now that it was dark, he didn't know where he was. Not exactly, anyway. He'd ended up on a patch of wind-swept dirt, surrounded by sagebrush and stiff yellow grass, a place to park the Jeep and build a campfire.
The closest town of any significance was Alice Springs, or the Alice, as the locals called it. It was once a telegraph station so remote it had to be stocked by camel train. Aborigines could still be seen at times on its outskirts, wading shirtless in the muddy Todd River. But that was 250 miles away. Other than the wind, which blew softly through camp, the night was silent.
Nowitzki sat in front of the fire, strumming his guitar and sipping his whiskey straight from the bottle. He had stopped shaving days ago and didn't know when he would bathe next. He had been in Australia for a week and a half, even though it was May, and by all accounts he should have been somewhere else. He should've been on a basketball court, leading the Dallas Mavericks deep into the NBA Playoffs. He should've been winning a championship. But for the second year in a row, the season had ended in disappointment. Once again people were questioning his mental toughness.
He had but one traveling companion on this trip, his mentor Holger Geschwinder, a mostly bald 62-year-old German with puffy bags under his eyes and a big Roman nose that looked like it had been broken in a fistfight, or several fistfights over the years. In the light of the fire, his features looked sharp, as if his head had been cut from granite.
Nowitzki had come to Australia because he didn't want to be recognized. He didn't want to be reminded of his failures, of the places he should have been.
In his haste to leave Dallas, he had failed to consider one thing—it was winter in Australia, meaning darkness would fall early each night of his trip. At the present moment, sitting in front of the fire, there was nothing to do but sit and think, or talk to Geschwinder.
"Why me?" Nowitzki wondered, gazing into the glowing embers. "Why is this happening to me?"
He had just a few weeks to find the answer.
Now entering his 10th NBA season, Dirk Nowitzki is at a crossroads. He is one of the top five players in the NBA, but in the public eye he is defined by his failures of the last two seasons, so much so that just one season removed from winning the MVP trophy, NBA experts and scouts are already beginning to chart his decline. In a recent feature that ran on ESPN.com, NBA insider John Hollinger listed Nowitzki as one of 23 players on the downhill slope of his career.
And it's not just NBA pundits who are proclaiming Nowitzki, who is just 29, washed up. Former players—from Reggie Miller to Greg Anthony—have all recently wondered aloud if Nowitzki can overcome the psychological scars of the last two seasons.
For his part, Nowitzki says he is at the peak of his career and that as a player the improvements from here on out in the physical aspects of his game will only be incremental. The area where Nowitzki can most improve, most NBA experts agree, is mentally.
The knock on Nowitzki is that he is soft and that at crucial moments in key games he disappears, or worse. Two years ago, up 2-0 in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, Nowitzki was standing on the free-throw line to send the game into overtime. A 94 percent free-throw shooter, Nowitzki made the first shot but clanged the second off the rim. It was the turning point in the series and, for armchair psychologists everywhere, proof that Nowitzki doubts himself too much.
But even professional sports psychologists agree that something is going on with Nowitzki. "It's one thing if in the flow of the game you miss a shot, but when you're standing on the free-throw line and you have time to think about what this shot means—if you make it, you win, and if you don't, you lose—if in a moment like that you miss, there's definitely cause for concern," says Paul Baard, a sports psychologist at Fordham University in New York. "I would have to sit down with Nowitzki to know what's going on there, but I would wonder if there's some kind of fear of failure or doubt about his abilities that he hasn't moved past yet."
Nowitzki bounced back from his Finals meltdown to lead the Mavs to a league-best 67 wins last year. The team seemed destined for a title—in the league's history, seven of the eight teams that won 65 or more games went on to win the title—but in the first round of the playoffs, the Mavs drew the red-hot Golden State Warriors, and once again, Nowitzki shrank under pressure, shooting just 38 percent. In the final game of the series he went out like a lamb—finishing the game with more turnovers than field goals. Most tellingly, he didn't take the ball to the hoop even once, settling instead for long-range jumpers, a sign that he may fear the bruising physical contact that goes on under the hoop. It was the biggest upset in NBA playoff history.
If the Mavericks fail to win a championship this season, or at least reach the Finals, there will be pressure to overhaul the roster. Team owner Mark Cuban has said he will never move Nowitzki, but it's hard to see how the team would be drastically improved without trading him for another player. This summer, Lakers star Kobe Bryant, generally regarded as the best player in the league, said he wanted to leave Los Angeles and has since named Dallas as one of his top two destinations. Bryant's contract with Los Angeles runs out in 2009, and if he is available then, or sometime before, there would be tremendous pressure on Cuban to make a run for him, even if it means giving up Nowitzki.
For the first time in his career, Nowitzki did not spend the summer retooling some aspect of his game. Instead, he went on a five-week trip to Australia to clear his head. He slept in youth hostels, he dozed on the beach reading German novels and he let his hair and beard grow long. He drifted out at sea for days. He slept in a car for a week. For Nowitzki, it was a journey of self-discovery—similar to the traditional walkabout Aborigines take in their 16th year as a rite of passage—a time to consider where he had been and where he was going.
Sitting there in front of the fire, with nothing but the stars of the Southern Hemisphere above him, Nowitzki's mind raced through the past several months. The 67-win season. The promise of a championship. Then finally, walking off the court at Golden State, his opponents celebrating their improbable victory as confetti fell around them.
How strange it had been, seeing his former coach, Don Nelson, on the other side of the court. Nellie, who had traded up to draft him, who had proclaimed him Rookie of the Year, who had stood by him even as Mavericks fans booed that first year, now pacing the opposing sideline, exploiting the weaknesses of his one-time protégé.
And it had worked. Somehow it had taken Nowitzki out of his game. After one loss, he threw a trash can against a wall in frustration, but when it was finally over, all he wanted to do was disappear. On the flight home, he asked a team official if he could leave Dallas as soon as possible, but after checking in with the NBA, he was told no—he would have to stick around for another week or so. He could guess why. It was a poorly kept secret that he would win the MVP trophy.
Back in Dallas, he had hunkered down in his 5,500-square-foot Highland Park home, trying to shut out the world. He did his best to ignore sports talk radio and the papers, but he knew what people were saying about him—that he couldn't finish, that he lacked a killer instinct, and that once again, he had come up short when it mattered most. "We got hammered pretty good here in the media," he would later recall. "You know, we got to rip up the team. Dirk can't lead, blah, blah, blah. You know you hear all these things and it kind of pisses you off. I just wanted to get away."
It was easy to forget how far he had come, how far the Dallas Mavericks had come. When he was drafted in 1998, the Mavs were the laughingstock of the NBA. His first couple years they practiced in a facility open to the public, meaning that if he wanted to stay behind for extra work, as he often did, he was relegated to a side hoop. What a sight it had been, to see the 7-foot Nowitzki and the 6-foot-3 guard Steve Nash, each of them million-dollar athletes, chasing after errant shots to make sure they didn't interrupt the pick-up games in progress. Now the Mavs were a model franchise with a billionaire owner who didn't mind spending money on a practice facility.
Nowitzki had also changed. He entered the league a shy 20-year-old with a bowl cut, completely naïve to the world (on his first trip to Dallas, he packed his own towel because he wasn't sure one would be provided) and unsure of his abilities. That first year a salary dispute had delayed the start of the season and privately Nowitzki had hoped it would go unresolved so he could play in Europe one more year. Even when he left, his parents worried he would return of homesickness, as his sister had done after a semester of playing college ball in the United States.
The transition was difficult. During a Christmas visit to his West Village apartment in 1999, his parents discovered he was sleeping on a twin-sized mattress and found a stack of paychecks he hadn't even opened in a corner.
Over the years, he adjusted until America felt like home to him. He often sprinkled hip-hop slang into his accented English, shouting out things like "Warzburg X-Rays are the craziest"—a Wu-Tang Clan-inspired homage to the club team he had played on as a youth, but for the most part, he was the same old Dirk, unaffected by money and fame. Clothes and cars held little interest for him; on one road trip to Seattle in 2001, his shoes were so beat up, Nash dragged him to a store and wouldn't let him leave until he had a new pair.
As a player, he had gotten better each year, returning to Germany each off-season to work with Geschwinder, and now, nine years into his career, he could pretty much do it all—shoot, rebound, pass and even play a bit of defense. But could he carry a team? Early on, this had not been an issue, because the team had belonged to Michael Finley. But then Finley had left and Nash had gone to Phoenix, and like that Nowitzki had become the cornerstone of a franchise talented enough to win a championship. The pressure on him to deliver was now immense.
Had he ever wanted that kind of pressure? Sportswriters made much of the fact that as a boy growing up in Germany, his favorite player had not been Michael Jordan, but Scottie Pippen, an extremely gifted player but one who played a subordinate role. Perhaps Nowitzki wasn't cut out to be the team leader.
He had no choice now; he was the MVP of the league. He could picture himself the day he won the trophy, standing there in his pinstripe suit, his hair plastered with gel. He had planned to crack a couple jokes, to loosen things up, but then Mark Cuban took to the dais and broke down talking about how hard Nowitzki worked. "He's not the guy you have to encourage to get in the gym, he's the guy you have to lock out of the gym," Cuban said, his voice thick with emotion. "He's not the guy who you wonder if he cares, he's the guy who hurts so much when things don't go the way he wants." After Cuban choked up, Nowitzki had no choice but to play it straight, saying what an honor the award was, even though it was hard to accept considering the circumstances.
"For me at this stage right now it's still a little hard for me to be happy 'cause of the way the season ended, with the postseason. But this is an award for the regular season, that's the way I got to look at it," he said almost apologetically.
The next day he flew home to Germany, held a press conference there, then left for Australia. It was Nowitzki's idea to go—he had never been—and Geschwinder agreed that it would be good to forget about basketball for a while and "get back to basics."
They had started the trip in Sydney, taking in Beethoven's Fourth and Seventh symphonies at the Sydney Opera House, and then they hit the road. In Alice Springs, they rented a four-wheel drive Jeep and drove across the Central Plains toward the rock the natives called Uluru. It was the largest rock on the planet, a single chunk of weathered sandstone that rose 1,100 feet in the air and extended like an iceberg another three miles underground. They pulled off the road about 10 miles from the rock that night and found a place to camp in the brush.
As Nowitzki lay there near the fire, the smell of alcohol on his breath, there was one shot he had taken during the Golden State series that he couldn't get out of his mind. Dallas had gone to Golden State down 2-1 heading into Game 4, which most NBA pundits agreed was the most crucial game of the series. Nowitzki felt the same way.
With three minutes to go, he pulled down an offensive rebound. The Mavs were clinging to a narrow lead and needed to milk the clock. But instead of passing the ball, Nowitzki rushed a shot and missed. The Warriors got the rebound, ran to the other side of the court and sunk a three-pointer, taking the lead.
Why had Nowitzki taken that shot? Why hadn't he passed the ball? The decision had been made in an instant, and there was no sense beating himself up over it, but he couldn't help but think that if he hadn't taken that shot, if he had passed the ball instead, the entire series would have been different.
The man sitting on the other side of the fire knew this was nonsense. For 13 years he had been Nowitzki's personal coach, his agent and his mentor. When Nowitzki didn't know what else to do, he turned to Geschwinder, whom he considered a second father.
That night, they slept in the Jeep, which had a pop-off roof and two pullout beds: Nowitzki on the top bunk and Geschwinder on the bed beneath him. The next morning they visited Uluru, where a few tourists recognized Nowitzki, despite his camping garb and the backpack, and then they set off for the Olgas, a cluster of dome-shaped rocks about 13 miles east of Uluru.
Whether Nowitzki realized it or not, he was following in the footsteps of the Aborigine, who had traced similar paths for thousands of years on their ritualistic walkabouts. They were spiritual journeys, a renewing of the Aborigine's relationship with the earth, and a communion with ancestral spirits. In modern times, the walkabout was often seen as a journey back to one's physical homeland, a reminder of who the Aborigine was and of the things most important in life.
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.
A basketball team was like a good jazz band, he told Nowitzki. Some players were virtuosos, and others were specialists, but to make good music they all had to know their parts and play them well. Sooner or later, everyone would have to step up and play a solo, and the others would fade into the background. He had Nowitzki learn to play the saxophone to reinforce this principle.
At times Geschwinder's training methods seemed bizarre, rooted in a bygone era, and in the same way that the Daniel LaRusso character questioned his mentor, Mr. Miyagi, in the 1984 movie The Karate Kid, Nowitzki sometimes was left scratching his head at the drills his coach came up with. To teach Nowitzki balance, for example, Geschwinder had him do walking handstands or ran him around like a wheelbarrow, with his hands on Nowitzki's ankles. To teach defense, he got a former fencing champion to demonstrate to Nowitzki that in fencing, as in all sports, good offense flows out of good defense. Over the years, his training regimen would include rowing, ballet, rollerblading and guitar lessons. To prepare Nowitzki for the added weight his frame would acquire, he made him wear a 22-pound vest as he practiced.
In the years since, Nowitzki's life had been consumed by basketball. As a player, he was nearly fully formed. But there was one final stage of development he had yet to complete. This was stage seven, as Geschwinder called it. It included "emotional intelligence" and "broadband literacy." And just as he had used jazz to teach the concept of teamwork and fencing to teach the importance of defense, he had come to Australia to teach his pupil this final lesson.
Like nomads they roamed, across the flat and arid plains of the Central Basin, which extended from the Great Dividing Range to the Western Plateau. As they traveled they talked. In Geschwinder's mind, many of the so-called truths of America's sports culture were "bullshit." Take positive thinking, for example. "If you put a tightrope over a chasm and ask a man to walk across it who has never done it before, it doesn't matter how much positive thinking he does, he's going to fall."
Pressure isn't real, Geschwinder believed, just like time isn't real. Both are man-made constructs. The Aborigines, for example, didn't believe time was linear. They lived in a state called Dreamtime, in which all of time, the future and the past, was present, and as the two wandered, they also lost track of time. Outside of the cities, they had no cell phone reception, and so they had no idea that back in the United States the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers were both headed for the NBA Finals. Out here, what did those words mean? What did basketball mean? In all likelihood, the Aborigines had also played games, and those games were gone, just like the people who played them were.
What would come after basketball? Nowitzki wondered. He had enough money (he would make $16 million the next season alone), but money wasn't everything. "It helps," Geschwinder would say. "But it's not the point." Nowitzki wanted a family. He had never wanted to be married before 30, but 30 was approaching, and before long he would want to meet a woman and have kids. The Aborigines believed that the Elders bridged the past and the present, teaching important traditions and knowledge through "dreaming stories" about how the land was populated, how birds were given their colors and how sacred rocks and mountains were formed. They told these stories in song while performing the rote tasks of the day—walking down to the waterhole, or while grinding up seeds to make bread. One day, Nowitzki would also want to pass on the knowledge he had gained, whether it was about basketball or something else. He didn't want to stagnate intellectually, to just sit around and play PlayStation with the guys. When he got back to Dallas, he would take piano lessons. He would read good books, to find new ways of thinking, as Geschwinder described it.
They hiked the canyons and mountains of Central Australia, and then they flew back to Sydney, where they spent a few days washing clothes. Whenever they returned to the cities, their cell phones would be jammed with messages, some from friends who wanted to update them on how the NBA playoffs were going. But Nowitzki didn't want to know. They flew back out, to the Great Barrier Reef, and there, for three days, Nowitzki and Geschwinder went sailing, alone except for a cook and captain, taking occasional breaks to snorkel on the reef.
They flew to New Zealand and zigzagged around the country, stopping at geysers and a beach near a volcano. Then on to Tahiti, where they rented a house and did nothing but sleep, swim and doze on the beach. These were all three- to four-day loops, with Sydney as a stop-off in between. Finally, they went to Northern Australia, where they hiked near waterfalls and bathed in streams, even when signs warned them it was the wet season and crocodile danger was high. At times camping in the Outback, their campfires drew visitors. Sometimes these visitors were locals, and sometimes they were fellow tourists. Either way, they didn't recognize Nowitzki, which was just fine with him.
The key experience for Nowitzki, Geschwinder would later say, was to learn how long a day is. "When you're camping you have to get up at sunrise, you might not be totally up, but you're up," he said. "You use daylight to know when you should get up and when you should go to bed. You have to go with the flow of nature, you can't force it."
There was no direct application to basketball, because a basketball team runs a system, Geschwinder said, and "there is no flow." But in life, regardless of your profession and pursuits, you have to learn that in the end, you are not in control.
As the summer wore on, Nowitzki began to see the Golden State series more objectively. It wasn't his fault that they had lost. Simply put, they had caught a hot team. "It seemed like every game they would hit a crazy shot," he would say later. "Like Baron Davis would hit a leaner from half-court or something, bank it off the glass. They were on fire."
He couldn't change who he was as a player—it was too late for that. But he could learn to depend more on others. That summer, he called Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson more than he ever had before. And when he returned to Dallas, he seemed different. He took on Johnson's challenge to become a more vocal leader and a more involved one—talking with teammates more off the court, taking them to dinner. Whether this would make him a better player and lead the Mavs to a championship, only time would tell.
It's a crisp fall morning at Irving's Hackberry Creek Country Club, a few days before the season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Dirk Nowitzki is late. Last night, the Mavs were at Six Flags with season ticket holders, and this morning players and coaches are playing 18 holes with big-money sponsors. Nowitzki is golfing with two Pizza Hut execs who are giddy they have drawn him as a playing partner. They are supposed to tee off in less than 15 minutes.
A few golfers are already on the course when Nowitzki pulls into the parking lot in his Denali. He steps from the car and pushes his blue-tinted sunglasses back on his forehead to keep his hair out of his face. He hasn't cut it since his trip to Australia, and it has grown long and a bit unruly in the time since.
He finds a golf cart and bends down to fit his 7-foot frame behind the wheel. Unlike some of the other Mavs players here, who are dressed in golf spikes and chinos, Nowitzki looks like he's headed to the gym. He's wearing a blue long-sleeved Mavs T-shirt, gray warm-up pants and white Nike sneakers.
While his playing partners get ready to tee off, Nowitzki leans back in his cart and reflects on the past five months and the long season ahead of him. He is asked what he thinks of the common complaint among fans and media types that he lacks a killer instinct. He shrugs his shoulders. "I can't worry about what people say," he says, dodging the question.
"We had a sports psychologist early on, and I went a couple times, but I think it's too late for that."
It is suggested that perhaps he is just misunderstood. Maybe if he dunked more or talked trash, the killer instinct questions would go away. Perhaps American fans are just accustomed to a certain style of play—slashing and dunking—and that as the game becomes increasingly global the perception of what it means to dominate will also change.
"I wish I could do that kind of stuff," he says with a smile. "But that's not me. I'll never be someone who dunks on somebody and then flexes his muscles. I can't change who I am."
Maybe it's asking too much for an athlete to change who he is, especially one as finely calibrated as Nowitzki. Maybe it's asking too much of any man.
And in the end, who Nowitzki already is—a team player who can do it all—may be enough. As he himself says, his career is far from over, and the championship may come this year, or the year after.
The Pizza Hut execs are getting antsy for Nowitzki to join them. He steps to the tee and squints in the autumn sun toward the yellow flag that's waving 300 yards in the distance. And then, without a practice swing, he lets it rip. Except the ball barely goes anywhere. He cuffs the top of it and it squirts off the tee, maybe 10 feet, hopping down the cart path toward a strand of trees. Most beginning golfers would be embarrassed, or would at least want another shot, but Nowitzki hardly seems to care.
There are some things you just can't control.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.