Prized pupil

Nowitzki’s heroics should make Bucks’ Peterson proud

By Truman Reed

Dirk Nowitzki

“He [Dirk Nowitzki] wasn't good right away,” Bill Peterson said. “His first year or two in the league, he struggled big-time.”

Here is an educated guess:

There is probably no member of the Milwaukee Bucks organization who is more plugged into the 2011 National Basketball Association Playoffs than Bill Peterson, who has spent the past four seasons as the Bucks assistant coach/player development.

Peterson, like the rest of his co-workers, would no doubt prefer to be coaching in the playoffs rather than watching them. At the same time, has to be smiling as he watches them unfold.

Peterson, after all, has a more vested interest in these playoffs than anyone else in the Bucks organization. He served as a player development coach and scout from 1998 through 2000 for the Dallas Mavericks, who are playing in the second NBA Finals in their 31-year history.

The Mavericks ousted the Portland Trail Blazers, four games to two, in their first-round series before making a four-game sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals. They bested the Oklahoma City Thunder, four games to one, in the Western Conference Finals before splitting the first two games of the NBA Finals with the Miami Heat.

Just one player on the current Dallas roster was on board back in 2000, when Peterson left the franchise to pursue other coaching opportunities. That one player, however, remains a pretty integral one in the Mavericks’ grand scheme.

Dirk Nowitzki, participating in the playoffs for the 12th time in his 14-year NBA career, is averaging 28.1 points per game – a figure he has bettered only once in his 11 previous playoff trips.

In leading Dallas’ playoff surge, Nowitzki has staged a shooting display the likes of which the NBA has never witnessed before. Through 17 games, he was hitting .505 from the field, .514 from 3-point range and .935 from the free-throw line.

Mavericks  fans recognize the 33-year-old Nowitzki as a 10-time NBA All-Star, the 2007 NBA Most Valuable Player and the only player in the Mavericks 31-year history to achieve all-NBA status – something Nowitzki has done 11 times.

Peterson, though, can offer a different portrayal of Nowitzki. It is one of a 20-year-old, homesick kid from Germany struggling to find a comfort zone both on and off the court during his first year outside his native Europe.

Peterson might be better qualified to offer such a portrayal because his job was to ease Nowitzki’s transition to the American way of life and NBA basketball.

Nowitzki entered the NBA in 1998. In that year’s draft, the Mavericks drafted Michigan’s Robert Traylor with the sixth pick, the Bucks selected Nowitzki with the ninth choice and Notre Dame’s Pat Garrity with their 19th pick. The Mavericks then traded Traylor to the Bucks for Nowitzki and Garrity, and the Mavs in turn traded Garrity to Phoenix for Nash.

Though Nowitzki had been earmarked to become an international basketball star since the age of 15 in European circles, Dallas’ Don Nelson and Boston’s Rick Pitino were the only NBA coaches who had much familiarity with his game.

So when Nowitzki’s NBA debut arrived, it wasn’t hyped. And it wasn’t a successful one, either.

Peterson can attest to that.

“He wasn't good right away,” Peterson said. “His first year or two in the league, he struggled big-time.”

Peterson soon realized that he wasn’t working with an overnight sensation. He learned, though, that he was working with a extremely bright and willing pupil who possessed a fiery work ethic.

The gym became Nowitzki’s refuge – one of few places that bore any familiarity to his environment back home.

"Dirk spent hours and hours and hours in the gym,” Peterson said. “At night, he'd shoot extra shots and work on his ballhandling. He'd do extra work in the weightroom. It was just a process.”

Peterson’s diligence in helping Nowitzki extended beyond the gym.

“Probably where I helped Dirk more than anything, besides being there with him on those nights (in the gym), is with some of the off-the-floor stuff,” Peterson said. “He had a huge transition. A lot of that was with off-the-court stuff; not that he was in trouble, but say, if you had a son here and he was 19 and you took him to Germany, you got him a job, you stuck him in an apartment, you stayed with him a week and then you left him, well he'd struggle big-time. It's a different culture, different food ... everything's different.

“So many issues Dirk struggled with were things I could handle. I was an ex-college coach and I was used to dealing with players and their problems.”

Some of those issues were ones most of us take for granted in our comfort zones.

“Dirk didn't know how to write a check,” Peterson said. “He'd never written a check in his life. I took him to the grocery store. I shopped with him. I cooked a meal for him one time.

“At night, he still had to go back to his apartment and here he was, by himself, in a country where he'd never been before. He was 19 or 20 years old. It’s not like it is with most of us, where you just pick up the phone and call somebody you know and understand. There’s a lot more emotions to it than people think.”

Peterson was there to pick Nowitzki up when he faltered.

“I can remember one practice in particular,” Peterson said. “He’d had a horrible practice, and ‘Nellie’ was all over him. Everybody was all upset at him. I walked over after practice and asked, ‘What's wrong? What’s going on?’

“He had some issue with some furniture that he’d bought and it didn’t work out. He didn’t know how to deal with it, because he’d never had to deal with anything like that in Germany. I picked the phone up and made the phone call and changed what had to happen and boom, it was over with in no time.

“I said, ‘Why didn't you come and tell me?’ Well, he wasn't going to do that. But I could tell something was wrong.”

Nowitzki averaged only 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 20.4 minutes per game as a rookie. He once said his frustrations became so great that he contemplated going home to Germany, comparing the jump he made from his German league to the NBA to “jumping out of an airplane hoping the parachute would somehow open.”

Thanks in part to Peterson, though, Nowitzki stayed the course and showed flashes of what would follow by posting eight double-digit scoring games in his last 12.

Nowitzki didn’t break through as an NBA player until his third season. Since then, though, he has established himself as a lock for the Hall-of-Fame, yet he hasn’t forgotten the coach who helped steer him in the right direction countless times during his introduction to life in the NBA.

“Oh, man, he had me doing some crazy stuff,” Nowitzki said with a smile at the mention of Peterson’s name. “He was a ballhandling freak.

“He had some interesting drills. Obviously, he's been around. We did all sorts of ballhandling drills and lots of shooting drills. He was great. For me, I was new back then. I didn't really know anybody. He'd meet me at night at the gym and work me out.”

Nowitzki remembers Peterson’s off-the-court assistance as well.

“I think we went and bought some beds together once,” he said. “When you’re young like I was, in a new country, you need a couple of people to help you out. I was in a new place, and I didn’t have any friends there. He was great, though. He was there for me.”

During the years they spent together, Nowitzki never saw Peterson slack.

“No,” Nowitzki said. “He’s 24-7 … all energy. With his drills, he’s always pushing you. He’s great.

“Every organization needs people in the background working hard, and he’s definitely one of the best.”