Now three years removed from his retirement from the Dallas Mavericks, where he spent 21 years, Nowitzki is the subject of a book by Thomas Pletzinger, The Great Nowitzki: Basketball and the Meaning of Life, out now.
Pletzinger’s account of Nowitzk’s life story is not a cut-and-dry biography. Its focus on the subject matter is not omniscient or objective. It is a tale of appreciation – not just of Nowitzki, but of the game of basketball as a whole – through Pletzinger’s eyes. It’s a humanizing account of the man who helped the Dallas Mavericks win their only championship to date in 2011 and the seemingly superhuman player who revolutionized the game and was recently named the 21st greatest NBA player of all-time by The Athletic. In Pletzinger’s book, Nowitzki is not superhuman. He’s just “Dirk.”
“We didn't want a biography,” Nowitzki says as he and Pletzinger sit in his office. “We wanted something a little higher level.”
“I'm not a biographer, I'm a storyteller,” Pletzinger says. “These people have stories. So, they gave me their stories, and I'd try to write them down to the best of my ability.”
Pletzinger’s unconventional narrative, a mostly first-person narrative that traces seven years of his own experiences with Nowitzki from the Mavericks’ playoff elimination in 2012 to Nowitzki’s final game before retirement against the San Antonio Spurs in 2019. Occasional leaps back in time via accounts by Nowitzki’s family, friends, teammates, and associates – all of whom become characters in a Citizen Kane-esque narrative – attempt to make sense of Nowitzki’s extraordinary successes. None of them loom larger than his personal trainer Holger Geschwidner, the physics-obsessed, Nietzsche-quoting, globe-trotting, fearless German polymath who is frequently referred to as a “mad scientist.”
Geschwidner’s presence in the book is one of constant background and occasional foreground. In nearly every conversation that takes place in the book between Pletzinger and an interviewee, Geschwidner comes up almost as much as Nowitzki. Even in our conversation, Nowitzki and Pletzinger recall various adventures with Geschwidner that were omitted from The Great Nowitzki.
“I actually went to see an NBA game in London once,” Pletzinger begins. “In the morning [Geschwidner] wakes me up. He's like, ‘We going to Cambridge to see Charles Darwin’s desk!’ So suddenly we were on a train going to the university to see the desk. He doesn't want to see the Tower Bridge or [other sights], he wants to sit at Darwin's desk.”
One story that likely spirals out into a fractal of other stories involving Geschwidner is initiated by Nowitzki: After the Mavericks’ first-round elimination in 2007 – the year he was crowned MVP – Nowitzki says he felt a compulsion to embark on a hegira to clear his mind. “That was so gut-wrenching,” Nowitzki says. “I was embarrassed. I didn't want to see or hear anything about basketball, and I just wanted to get as far away as possible. So, Holger and I traveled through Australia for six weeks, we backpacked some, we slept in the car, went to Ayers Rock for outside camping. We basically toured the entire eastern side of Australia, and it was fantastic. Is that in the book?”
“It’s mentioned,” Pletzinger says.
In what is possibly the book’s defining chapter, “B-Ball Is Jazz,” a conversation between Pletzinger and Geschwidner’s friend and former teammate-turned saxophonist Ernie Butler reaches an intellectual climax of titillating proportions, comparing the fiercely improvisational nature of jazz music with the organized chaos that takes place on a basketball court. During their early years together, Butler’s comparisons were felt deep by Geschwidner, who took the “B-Ball is jazz” notion and applied it to an MVP-winning NBA champion and future Hall-of-Famer.
The Great Nowitzki was originally published in German in 2019, almost immediately after Nowitzki’s retirement, but Pletzinger and translator Shane Anderson spent the next two-and-a-half years making slight alterations to the book for an American audience. “Sports culture in Germany is a little different from the United States,” Pletzinger says. “The knowledge that Americans have about basketball is much bigger and it comes more natural to them than it does for Germans. I think Germans play basketball like they learn a second language. When I talk about Ernie Butler and Americans like that, it's more innate to grow up with that. So, we tried to adapt the text to that different audience. It's a different book. I would actually almost say it's the better book.”
"He’s a competitor. He always respected his teammates, his coaches. He’s undoubtedly one of the greatest of all-time.” - Mavericks coach Jason Kidd
“Oh wow, really?” Nowitzki says. “You didn’t tell me that!”
“Yes!” Pletzinger replies. “Because we made it a little tighter here and there; cut out a little explanation on the basketball side. Added a little more on the on the cultural side to explain more of the German-ness of Dirk.”
The book’s greatest success is perhaps what is omitted rather than what is contained. It is not packed with stats or technical descriptions of the game. An actual basketball game is not described in detail until 259 pages in, when the book recounts the 2011 NBA Championship. Its portrayal of Nowitzki is neither one of glowing admiration by a fan as many biographies are or ego-driven as many autobiographies are. The Great Nowitzki (importantly subtitled Basketball and the Meaning of Life) is an attempt to understand what makes Dirk Nowitzki so great, never diving too deeply into his personal life, as such a violation would be extraneous. Nowitzki’s greatness is portrayed as being the sum of his own determination and humbleness along with the support of those around him.
The adoration for Nowitzki from those people never seems to fade away, either. Before the Mavericks’ final regular season game this year at home against the San Antonio Spurs, Nowitzki’s former teammate and current Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd told us that Nowitzki’s story has affected him and the NBA in immeasurable ways.
“When you talk about Dirk, it’s his leadership and love for the game,” Kidd said. “The way he changed the game for big men. He’s a competitor. He always respected his teammates, his coaches. He’s undoubtedly one of the greatest of all-time.”
When asked how Nowitzki’s story has affected his own, longtime rival, Spurs head coach and loveable curmudgeon Gregg Popovich had a much more succinct and Pop-like answer: “I have not read the book, but I’m in love with Dirk.”
Obviously, the people of Dallas love Dirk; the wide-open skies above the rolling hills of North Texas even bear his jersey’s color. The same can be said of Nowitzki’s love for the city that adopted him (he’s even a fan of local musical stalwart Jonathan Tyler). What made him stick with Dallas for 21 years? “I wanted to make it work,”’ he says. “I have great relationships with the people here. And, you know, Mark [Cuban] as the owner was great to me and super loyal. When I first got to Dallas, I didn't know much about it, but the way people rallied around me, were super sweet to me and wanted to make me comfortable – I never forgot that. This is where I wanted to be and my family wanted to be. It's been an amazing ride. I'm from a small town in Wurzburg, and coming here was perfect for me to stay in one place and be comfortable and spend my entire career here. I wouldn't wish it any other way.”