Longform

Crocodile Nowitzki

Page 4 of 7

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.

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde