Lifting the Torch
German leads the global revolution
When Dirk Nowitzki stepped onto the floor at the Nike Hoop Summit March 29, 1998, he was just another player, one of 12 international prospects who made the voyage to San Antonio, Texas to take on a team of American high school stars.
After 30 minutes of playing time on that court, Nowitzki re-wrote the perception NBA scouts had of international players as soft and slow. He was nothing short of dominant in the performance, recording 33 points and 14 rebounds against a team featuring such future NBA talents as Rashard Lewis, Al Harrington, Quentin Richardson and Stromile Swift.
"I thought (at the time), 'Wow, he really is seven feet. If he's not, he's really close,'" Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations Donn Nelson said in the Sporting News. "He had a real good frame, you could see that he would put on weight. You couldn't not be impressed when you saw him. He was a very, very attractive player."
Nelson would make a blockbuster Draft Day trade in June of that year to land Nowtizki, whom the Bucks tabbed with their No. 9 pick. At the time, some questioned the move, but seven years later, Nowitzki is proving the trail blazing performance Nelson based his deal on was more than just a fluke.
In his seventh NBA season this year, Nowitzki set career-highs in scoring (26.1 ppg), blocks (1.53 bpg), assists (3.1 apg) and three-point percentage (.399) while also averaging 9.7 rebounds and 1.24 steals. In May, the 7-foot German became the first player in league history to be named All-NBA First Team who did not attend an American high school or university.
"Do I feel vindicated now? No, I feel relieved," Nelson said in Basketball Digest. "That was a major, major gamble for us. He was a high lottery pick that you don't often get a chance at. We never lost complete faith in Dirk, but when he got off to a slow start, there was a feeling of, `Is this guy going to pan out or not?' Internally, we knew it was just a matter of time."
After a rocky rookie year, Nowitzki has been the gift that keeps giving. Not only to the Mavericks -- who have had four 50-win seasons and one 60-win campaign after achieving just 20 wins the year before his arrival -- but to the game of basketball in general. He's inspired youngsters overseas to work on their games and realize their dreams of playing in the NBA.
As a result, the NBA continues to become a more diverse league. The NBA had a record 81 international players from 35 countries and territories on opening day rosters this season and a record six international All-Stars in each of the last three years.
In the 2003 NBA Draft, a record 21 international players were chosen; in 2004, 20 heard their names called.
"The pool of talent that you're choosing from now is global as opposed to just the local people," New York Knicks Team President Isiah Thomas said on Lottery Day.
"The talent now is so diverse you really got to cover every part of the world because people are playing everywhere and playing basketball at a very high level," he continued.
The first international players ever drafted by the NBA were selected by none other than current NBA Director of Scouting Marty Blake. Then the general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, Blake chose Mexico's Manuel Raga in the 10th round and Italy's Dino Meneghin in the 11th round during the 15 round 1970 Draft.
Neither player was ever signed as the Hawks didn't have the $35,000 to buy them out of their overseas contracts. Blake left the team that summer to become President of the Pittsburgh Condors of the ABA.
Fifteen years later, the 6-10, 260-pound Meneghin was voted the greatest player in the history of International Basketball. He played 28 years in Italy and in the fall of 2003, he was inducted into Naismith Hall of Fame.
If that vote was taken today, undoubtedly, the top choice would be 7-3 Lithuanian center Arvydas Sabonis. Selected with the 24th pick in the 1986 Draft, the Portland Trail Blazers had to wait a decade before they could get Sabonis into uniform.
By that point, at the age of 31, Sabonis' health and athleticism had so deteriorated that he was no longer the player many believed once would have been a superstar in the NBA. Even so, he proved to be still extremely effective, averaging 12.0 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in seven seasons with the team.
Toni Kukoc was considered the next great hope for international players when he was drafted with the 29th selection by the Chicago Bulls in 1990. After a three year waiting period, the Bulls were able to sign him, at which point he became one of just five international players in the NBA.
Kukoc would go on to win three championship rings as a member of Chicago's dynasty teams and holds career averages of 12.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. Still, Kukoc didn't achieve the stardom that many predicted.
Which brings us to Nowitzki, who has become the first international player ever to achieve All-NBA First Team honors. The sharpshooter is playing at a level that no other international player has ever acheived.
"Everybody talks about the new Jordan," Dallas teammate Michael Finley told Basketball Digest, "but Dirk reminds me of Larry Bird."
"He is that good," echoed former teammate Steve Nash in the publication. "Being compared to Bird is not easy, but he certainly deserves it. It's a big honor for Dirk, but it's also a big honor for Bird because Dirk is really special."