NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Archive 75: Dirk Nowitzki

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

The right knee lifts skyward, and the left foot taps the floor, sending Dirk Nowitzki floating above the defender and simultaneously away, as he fires the trademark one-legged fadeaway that helped him join the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Karl Malone as players immortalized in the NBA’s 30,000-point club.

You never know when it’s coming. Could be a post-up, coming out of spin move, or just a simple drive to the hole. But once the shot goes up, it’s almost guaranteed to soon be falling back down through the net as a bucket.

Nowitzki’s signature shot ranks as one of the most influential, and widely imitated moves in NBA history.

Don’t think so?

Well, nearly all your favorite players in today’s game swiped some variation of the iconic move, including current Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic. Bryant, James, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, LaMarcus Aldridge, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook – the list of players utilizing the one-legged fadeaway goes on and on — and will likely continue because it’s virtually unstoppable when properly executed.

Nowitzki used it as the go-to tool in hammering defenses for 21 years, becoming the first European player to win NBA MVP (2006-07).

We all know Michael Jordan’s “Jumpman” logo as well as the Jerry West silhouette emblazoned across all things NBA. In Dallas, the Mavs immortalized Nowitzki’s signature move similarly, painting silhouettes in 2019 of his iconic shot on both ends of the floor at the American Airlines Center.

An unguardable shot that changed the game. Here it is, in all its glory:

Nowitzki earned All-NBA recognition 12 times in addition to 14 trips to the All-Star Game, but we all nearly missed out on the opportunity to witness the forward revolutionize the game.

Surprisingly, as a 20-year-old rookie in 1999, Nowitzki approached former Mavericks coach and general manager Don Nelson about the prospect of calling it quits.

“I’ll never forget he came to me and said, ‘I think I want to go home,’ ” Nelson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Luckily for all of us, he didn’t.

Owners of the No. 6 pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, the Mavericks traded down with the Milwaukee Bucks to land the relatively unknown Nowitzki at No. 9 in a draft class that included Kansas All-American and future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. While Pierce was the known commodity at the time, the Mavs – who finished 20-62 the previous season and hadn’t made the playoffs since 1990 – coveted the silky-shooting 7-footer from Germany, partly because Nelson felt he could revolutionize the game.

Archive 75 Dirk Nowitzki

He would, but not initially. In fact, Nowitzki struggled as a rookie, shooting 40.5% from the floor and 20.6% from deep, averaging 8.2 points trying to adjust to the increased size and athleticism of the NBA, not to mention the pressure associated with being taken ninth overall. Nowitzki played the previous four seasons in Second Bundesliga, the second-tier level league of pro club basketball in Germany. So the NBA served up the ultimate eye-opener.

With Nelson playing Nowitzki at power forward, opponents routinely pummeled the 20-year-old rookie inside, stymying him with superior athleticism.

Even the game announcers struggled to properly pronounce Nowitzki’s name in those early days.

That would all soon change.

What nobody but Nelson knew at the time was that Nowitzki would become one of the league’s first stretch-fours, a role perfectly suited for the big man’s deadly shooting stroke. Knowing coaches preferred to play big men close to the basket, Nelson wanted to keep Nowitzki outside to take advantage of his skillset on the perimeter. Nelson figured Nowitzki would eventually learn to play inside as he matured.

The innovator of the small-ball offense that’s utilized all over the league today, Nelson kept Nowitzki at power forward, where he’d always be guarded by a bigger player that he could cook on the perimeter. Nelson often used Nowitzki in unconventional ways, but he was nearly always well-suited for the tasks.

 

Having idolized Scottie Pippen growing up, Nowitzki possessed most of the small forward’s offensive skills as a passer and shooter (he’d later become a strong rebounder). Perhaps some of that stemmed from Nowitzki’s lineage as the son of elite athletes. His father, Jörg-Werner represented Germany as an international handball player, while his mother, Helga, played professional basketball.

By his third season in the NBA, Nowitzki was starting to draw comparisons to legendary Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird, after leading Dallas to its first playoff appearance since 1990.

But Nowitzki’s rise was a long time in the making. His tireless worth ethic only accelerated the process.

Nowitzki first started playing basketball as a teen in his native Wurzburg, Germany and eventually joined the second-division professional team in his hometown. By the time Nowitzki turned 19, he was starting to generate a little buzz from some college and NBA teams.

That would quickly morph into bullhorn territory, thanks to a brilliant performance at Alamo Stadium Gymnasium in San Antonio during the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit, where a lanky, unheralded Nowitzki would lead an International Select Team upset of a USA Basketball Junior Select Team full of future NBA players.

Nowitzki arrived in Dallas from Germany for practices a week before that legendary showing in San Antonio. He quickly made an impression on Nelson and his son, Donnie, who was then a Mavs assistant as well as an assistant on the International team.

After just a few workouts, the Nelsons were sold on Nowitzki and had already started making plans to draft him. The elder Nelson hoped they could hide Nowitzki from all the scouts set to attend the Nike Hoop Summit, and even tried to convince him to sit out of the game.

No dice.

Nowitzki would play and shock everybody in attendance but the Nelsons by racking up a record 33 points and 14 rebounds in the International team’s 104-99 win. The performance changed Nowitzki’s life forever, greasing the skids for him to become the No. 9 overall pick of the 1998 draft fewer than three months later.

But life as a lottery pick certainly wasn’t easy for Nowitzki during that first season in Dallas. Homesick and missing his parents, Nowitzki also struggled to acclimate to everyday life in America as well as the rigors of the NBA, where the players were bigger and more athletic than he’d faced in Germany.

That’s where Nowitzki’s legendary work ethic came into play. In his second season, Nowitzki more than doubled his scoring average from his rookie season (17.5 points per game), and by Year 3, he averaged 21.8 points in leading Dallas back to the postseason.

Nowitzki played all 21 seasons in Dallas, which registers as an NBA record for any player with one team. The Mavs would advance to the postseason in 15 of those seasons after making it just six times in the previous 20 campaigns.

Meanwhile, teams around the league started to recognize the potential of international players as possible franchise centerpieces.

This 2001 feature from the NBA vault captures Dirk’s transition from raw German teenager to budding NBA star.

Floppy hair and oodles of flair, Dirk Nowitzki dropped a Mavericks postseason franchise record 50 points in the team’s 117-101 win over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the 2006 Western Conference Finals.

The performance served as the lone 50-point postseason outing of Nowitzki’s career, but most importantly, the victory moved Dallas to within one win of reaching its first NBA Finals.

Nowitzki inflicted his Game 5 damage over the course of 43 minutes. Dallas led most of the night, but it trailed by 7 with 3:27 remaining in the third quarter. Nowitzki led a 12-4 run with seven points to close that frame, then singlehandedly outscored Phoenix 22-20 in the fourth, including a burst in which he poured in 15 points in a row.

The box score from this one reads like an NBA2K stat line, almost too good to be true. But it’s real. As you see here in the highlights from that night, the 7-footer was locked in, connecting on 53.8% from the floor (14 of 26), 83.5% from 3-point range (5 of 6) and 94.4% from the free-throw line (17 of 18).

The special players know how to call up something from deep down in their guts when it’s time, regardless of age, physical declination, or fatigue. That’s what we saw from Dirk Nowitzki in the 2011 Western Conference Finals with the Mavericks yearning to return to NBA Finals, five years after advancing to the franchise’s first trip to the game’s biggest stage.

By 2011, Nowitzki’s scoring numbers had been on the decline for two consecutive years. But you’ve seen plenty enough clips by now to know the 32-year-old’s versatile game had aged gracefully.

Still, a feeling of uneasiness hovered. Since Nowitzki’s third season in the NBA, the Mavericks had won 50 games or more for 11 consecutive seasons. But still, no rings. After reaching the NBA Finals in 2006, the Mavs had won only one playoff series until the 2011 postseason.

So, naturally, that here-we-go-again feeling lingered.

“Being opportunistic may have been the greatest single characteristic of this team,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said.

Nowitzki absolutely embodied that against a young, upstart Oklahoma City squad led by two-time scoring champion Kevin Durant and a pair of athletic, future Hall of Fame guards in Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Having gained a reputation for falling short when it mattered most, Nowitzki changed the narrative by absolutely dominating the 2011 postseason, especially the Western Conference Finals. He opened the series with a 48-point outburst to lead Dallas to a win in Game 1, but you knew the young Thunder weren’t going away.

Nowitzki churned out perhaps his finest work in Games 4 and 5 of the series. Led by the German superstar, Dallas rallied from a 15-point deficit as Nowitzki tallied a game-high 40 points with the Mavs outscoring OKC 14-4 down the stretch. In Game 5, Nowitzki cooked the Thunder for nine of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, nailing a straightaway 3-pointer with 1:15 remaining that helped Dallas seal the series 4-1.

Nowitzki finished the 2010-11 regular season averaging 23.0 points on 51.7% from the field. But he cranked up the production in the conference finals, averaging 32.2 points over 40 minutes, knocking down 55.7% on field goals to lead Dallas back where it knew it belonged.

Here’s a look back and that brilliant performance.

The great players never reach the pinnacle of the profession alone. So, when Nowitzki ran face first into a wall of adversity as a rookie learning to play the NBA game, he knew exactly whose number to dial.

Nowitzki first met Holger Geschwindner, a physicist and former captain of the German national team, in 1994 at a youth game.

Geschwinder offered to train Nowitzki, and he accepted, forming a partnership and friendship that shaped the German star on his ascent to the game’s highest level. Once there, Nowitzki struggled as a rookie to adapt to the speed and physicality of the NBA game. So he called up Geschwinder — his shot doctor and mentor — who quickly boarded a flight to Dallas to assist.

Dirk Nowitzki jumper

Known for his unconventional training and coaching methods, Geschwinder refers to his basketball camps in Germany as “The Institute of Applied Nonsense.” Seriously, though, Geschwinder’s tactics work. Given his background as a physicist, Geschwinder had developed formulas when he first started working with Nowitzki in Germany to figure out the optimum arc and release point for jump shots, based on the player’s height and arm length.

Geschwinder devised other strange methods, too, such as making Nowitzki shoot the ball off one leg and after deep lunges and squats, sometimes even after performing pirouettes. The unconventional training stretched to ball handling, too, where Nowitzki learned to move and dribble rhythmically to music played on the court.

Footwork drills morphed into lessons on fencing and ballet.

That holistic experience honed Nowitzki’s improvisational skills, as well as his ability to shoot the ball accurately in a variety of situations.

Nowitzki called the training sessions with Geschwinder “very old-school.”

But throughout his 21 seasons with the Mavericks, Nowitzki received three visits per season from Geschwinder, a man he described as an agent, coach, and friend.

Approaching his 33rd birthday, Nowitzki had finally made it back to the NBA Finals, where he and the Mavericks faced a familiar foe in the Miami Heat, which five years earlier knocked them out of the Finals.

But this Miami team was different than the one in 2006 led by Dwyane Wade. This Heat squad that had lost just three postseason games heading into the Finals was headlined by a three-headed monster in Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh, playing in their first season together.

Dallas wasn’t intimidated, and Nowitzki would later bathe in the championship campaign after becoming the first German player to win NBA Finals MVP.

Leading 1-0, Miami took a commanding 15-point lead in Game 2 with 7:14 left to play on a Wade corner 3-pointer. Wade posed in front of the Dallas bench in celebration after the play, and the Mavs answered with a 22-5 run to close the game with Nowitzki evening up the series 1-1 on the game-winning layup.

Despite a 34-point effort from Nowitzki in Game 3, Miami escaped with an 88-86 victory. But from there on out, it was all Mavericks.

In Game 4, Nowitzki fought through a 101-degree fever and flu symptoms to pour in 10 of his 21 points in the final frame, leading Dallas to an 86-83 victory that tied the series 2-2. In Game 5, Nowitzki lit up the Heat for 29 points and drove for the go-ahead dunk with 2:45 left to play, as Dallas outscored Miami 17-4 over the final 4:23 of the contest and took their first lead of the 2011 NBA Finals.

The Mavericks finished off the Heat in Game 6 behind a 27-point performance from Jason Terry. Nowitzki would chip in 21 points and a game-high 11 rebounds and would be named Finals MVP, capping a remarkable postseason.

Here’s a recap of the series-clinching victory, and the Texas-sized celebration that followed.

Nowitzki retired in 2019 as the fifth-leading scorer in NBA history, and his 31,560 points rank as the most for any foreign-born player in league annals by almost 5,000 points. Of the seven players to score at least 30,000 career points, just Nowitzki, James and Abdul-Jabbar also found a way to get to 10,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists, 1,000 steals and 1,0000 blocks.

Having led Dallas to its only NBA title, Nowitzki owns Mavs franchise career records in points, rebounds (11,489), 3-pointers (1,982), blocks (1,281) field goals (11, 169) and games played (1,522).

So it makes sense that in addition to the stretch of Olive Street in front of the American Airlines Center named Nowitzki Way, the franchise plans to retire Nowitzki’s jersey on Jan. 5, while also at some point erecting a statue in front of the arena.

“The other day, I went to a Mavs game, and I take a right on Nowitzki Way,” he said recently. “It’s surreal to look at that, to look at my own street, and eventually seeing the jersey under the roof, and also one day – I’m not sure when – but see[ing] that statue out front. It makes me super proud of all the work I put in and how many people helped me obviously to get to this point.”

Whether it’s a dunk, a spinning one-legged stepback fadeaway, or one of his 1,982 made 3-pointers, it’s tough to pick a favorite when it comes to Dirk Nowitzki’s top plays. We’ll just let you make your own choice. Sit back and enjoy this ultimate look at the German legend, Dirk Nowitzki.

More on Dirk Nowitzki

+ NBA 75th Anniversary team player page

+ 75 Stories: Dirk Nowitzki

Latest