Posted Jan 13 2010 12:44PM
In an age when pre-teen players are scouted from the time they begin filling up hoops in middle school, there are very few surprises when it comes to identifying prospective NBA talent.
Yet on one night in San Antonio, back in March of 1998, the echoes of basketballs bouncing off the walls were mixed with the sound of so many jaws practically hitting the hardwood floors.
Donn Nelson, then a Dallas Mavericks scout and now the team's president of basketball operations, remembers glancing around the stands and wondering how many other NBA bloodhounds were on hand to catch a whiff of what he'd just witnessed. There was the scent of potential in the air.
A tall, skinny, blond-haired teen from Germany had just put on a clinic against the best young talent that America had to offer at the Nike Hoop Summit -- 33 points, 14 rebounds, three steals and more moves than a belly dancer -- and all Nelson could think of was the future.
"A versatile 7-footer who could shoot from out there and run the floor?" Nelson recalled not so long ago. "Imagine the possibilities."
Nearly 12 years later, the promise has been fulfilled as Dirk Nowitzki moves to become the 34th player in NBA history to score 20,000 points in a career. He is averaging 25 points a game this season and needs 16 Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers to reach the plateau.
From the record books, one can see that Nowitzki has been an eight-time All-Star, a four-time All-NBA first team selection and was chosen the 2007 Most Valuable Player. From the video highlights, it's easy to see an ambidextrous, multi-position player who is unique in combining his size with his shooting skills. He's a 7-footer who is a career 47.2 percent shooter from the field and has canned more than 1,100 3-pointer while also grabbing 8.5 rebounds. Nowitzki is a deft ball-handler and nimble enough big man to spin around defenders and finish with slam dunks.
But who sees and understands more than an opposite number in a different color jersey, the player most often regarded as the fiercest competitor in the game today?
"He's tough," said the Lakers' Kobe Bryant. "That's what I like about him. He's not a punk. A lot of superstar players don't like to get touched. They're kind of finicky about how they go about things. Dirk's nasty and that's what I like about him. He'll take the gloves off and go at it."
That's a far cry from the early days of a career that had him labeled as "soft" and had Nowitzki known as Irk -- no D. Over the course of his career, Nowitzki has developed into a solid team defender, become the Mavs' unquestioned team leader and has staked his claim as the best international player to jump straight to the pro ranks in the NBA. Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon spent three years learning the ropes at the University of Houston before stepping into the NBA and Argentine Manu Ginobili honed his game for two years in the Italian League before joining the San Antonio Spurs.
The Americanization of Nowitzki began as a 19-year-old with little more than a sweet jumper and an outsider's tentative grasp of a different culture, coming from the picturesque Bavarian town of Wurzburg, Germany, known for architecture, art and white wine. His career path has been a steady, upward line on a graph that has frequently had Nowitzki playing off the charts.
"It's tough to argue that he's not the best international player ever," said Bryant. "We're gonna try to make a case when it's all said and done for [Spaniard] Pau Gasol years from now. But Dirk is phenomenal right now.
"If you look at some of the games that he's had against great players, it's amazing. I think his coming out party years ago was against [Kevin] Garnett. Garnett is a phenomenal player and Dirk was putting up 35 and 20 rebounds. That's ridiculous. I'm looking at that like, 'Whoa, Garnett's one of the best defensive players ever and [Dirk] torched him.' "
Two nights before, Houston's Tracy McGrady had his legendary 13-points-in-35 seconds finish to defeat the San Antonio Spurs on Dec. 4, 2004, T-Mac dropped 48 points in Dallas. In the same game, Nowitzki hit back and scored 53.
"Dirk's not gonna back down. I like that," Bryant said. "He's not soft. Oh, no."
Though he grew up trying to emulate the all-around skills of Scottie Pippen, because he's blond and tall and white and can shoot with either hand, from the time he entered the league Nowitzki has always drawn the comparisons to the legendary Larry Bird.
"They're very different actually," Bryant said. "The similarity is that they're big guys that can shoot. But I think that's where it ends. Bird with the Celtics, they ran a lot of things through him to facilitate things for others. In Dallas they use Dirk more as a striker.
"Hopefully the fans in Dallas can appreciate what they watch -- a 7-footer that can put the ball on the floor, can shoot it from the outside, can post. Dirk's a rare breed, man. A rare breed."
Who's come a long way to get so far.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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