NBA 75th Anniversary Season
How Dirk Nowitzki gave basketball meaning in Germany
Rising star Franz Wagner and other German players across the NBA describe Nowitzki's impact on their country.
With 18.8 seconds left and his team ahead comfortably in Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals, Dirk Nowitzki pumped a fist skyward at American Airlines Arena, symbolically lifting hope for young hoopers all over soccer-crazed Germany.
Nowitzki’s 21-point performance, which included 10 points in the final frame, left an indelible impression on a 9-year-old Franz Wagner and his older brother Moe, 14, now teammates for the Orlando Magic and fellow countrymen of the Dallas Mavericks superstar.
“What I’m grateful for is that Dirk kind of taught me what winning could mean to people when he won in 2011,” Moe Wagner told NBA.com.
“The way he did it, I think that’s so Dirk-like,” Franz Wagner added. “And so unique for an NBA player. The way he did it so humble, never kind of forgetting what got him there, I think that’s what Germans can identify with the most. I think that meant a lot for everybody that loves basketball in Germany.”
Certainly, many of them will tune in Wednesday, when the Dallas Mavericks raise Nowitzki’s No. 41 jersey into the rafters in retirement after the team’s matchup against the Golden State Warriors at American Airlines Center. NBA commissioner Adam Silver is expected to attend as the franchise officially retires Nowitzki’s jersey alongside those of former Dallas greats Rolando Blackman (22), Brad Davis (10) and Derek Harper (12), who are also expected to be on the scene for Wednesday’s postgame ceremony.
For fellow Germans such as the Wagner brothers, Nowitzki’s ascension into NBA immortality “is long overdue,” Moe Wagner said. For Franz Wagner, Nowitzki’s incredible career made it possible for a young German player to dream of excelling on the world’s largest basketball stage.
Sixth among the NBA’s career scoring leaders (31,560 points), Nowitzki retired in 2019 just eight years after leading Dallas to its only championship. Nowitzki leads the franchise in points, games, starts, minutes, rebounds, 3-pointers, free throws and blocks. A 14-time NBA All-Star, Nowitzki ranks as the highest-scoring foreign-born player in league history.
“That’s why he’s so important I think for young German players,” Franz Wagner told NBA.com. “He kind of makes it all seem possible.”
Franz Wagner is certainly proving as much. The Orlando Magic rookie wing remains a mainstay in the conversation for Kia NBA Rookie of the Year. Throughout the month of December, Wagner averaged 19.5 points (tops among rookies), connecting on 47.6% from the field and 40.4% from deep while putting together a streak of 20 consecutive double-digit scoring games heading into Wednesday’s matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers.
In addition to producing the single-game scoring high (38) for rookies this season, Wagner has racked up four of the top 10 scoring games among the class.
Credit the 2007 MVP for planting the seed in Franz Wagner’s mind that he could do it in the NBA. He once called Nowitzki the “Michael Jordan for German kids.”
Like Nowitzki, Mavericks power forward Maxi Kleber grew up in Wurzburg, Germany, and admits to idolizing his former Dallas teammate as a youngster.
So, when Nowitzki traveled back home to Germany to celebrate his 2011 NBA Championship, Kleber said he stood among the crowd on a sweltering day in Wurzburg as the NBA Finals MVP sang “We Are The Champions” from a balcony.
Kleber played his first two seasons alongside Nowitzki, who retired after the 2018-19 season.
Nowitzki played all 21 years of his career for one team, an accomplishment unmatched by any other player.
“I remember staying up late with my friends watching [the 2011 NBA Finals],” said Kleber, who was 19 at the time. “The biggest thing for us was when he was doing the parade and the celebration in Wurzburg, we were in the middle of the crowd with everybody else. It was so much fun.”
Born in Salzgitter, Germany, Houston Rockets center Daniel Theis naturally gravitated towards soccer growing up and didn’t start playing basketball until age 15.
“Obviously being from Germany means being a big fan of Dirk Nowitzki,” Theis said. “He had an amazing career. He played his whole career in one franchise. He brought the NBA championship to Dallas. [He’s] definitely a future Hall of Famer. He changed the game for every 7-footer to start shooting 3s, shooting one-legged fadeaways and things.”
In some shape or form, Nowitzki influenced each of the seven German players currently in the league, a list that also includes Dennis Schroder of the Boston Celtics, Isaiah Hartenstein of the LA Clippers and Isaac Bonga of the Toronto Raptors.
Before he could do all that, Nowitzki longed to follow in the footsteps of some of his own idols.
After Nowitzki’s final home game, in which he dropped 30 points, the team ran a postgame video featuring the Mavericks forward discussing the players he idolized as an adolescent. Nowitzki talked about Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Shawn Kemp and Larry Bird in the video. The former MVP also paid homage to his own country, while articulating what Detlef Schrempf meant to him.
A two-time Sixth Man of the Year, Schrempf was born in Leverkusen, Germany and played 16 seasons in the NBA.
“He was a German that made it,” Nowitzki said in the video.
Moments later, the team brought out Pippen, Barkley, Kemp, Bird and Schrempf to pay tribute to Nowitzki in person.
“I wish you all the best in the future because what you meant to basketball, not just in the U.S., but in Germany and globally, it’s been amazing,” Schrempf said, holding a mic at halfcourt. “It’s been a pleasure to watch, and I’m glad you came along when I was finishing because we needed you in Germany. What people don’t know here is [you’ve] done amazing things for not just European basketball, but basketball in Germany.”
The Wagners serve as a living testament to that. The eldest of the Wagner siblings, Moe met Nowitzki when he was in college at the University of Michigan. The university set up a visit with Nowitzki when the Mavs played at Detroit.
Their brief conversation turned into a bond.
“You kind of switch from being starstruck into realizing pretty quickly, ‘OK, this dude is just a normal dude,’” Moe Wagner said. “That’s what makes him special. He just wants to hoop, and he’s very good at it. He’s just a normal person who treats people the right way and stayed the same over the years. That’s something you can really see that he emphasized, and he’s doing it in a very authentic way. That’s where I idolize him the most, honestly.”
The Wagner brothers explained that in Germany, the NBA pales in magnitude compared to soccer.
That’s slowly changing, though, thanks to Nowitzki’s influence.
“People don’t really understand that over here, everybody knows the league really well, even if they don’t really watch it,” Moe Wagner said. “Over there, basketball is growing now. But it’s kind of more hidden. People don’t really watch it as much as they do here. But Dirk kind of surpassed that boundary, kind of broke it open for young players. He gave the sport a name, and it’s still that way. People will always hear that name in Germany and know exactly what it is, that it’s basketball, which isn’t normal or isn’t something you can take for granted in a country where basketball isn’t a primary sport.
“[In Dallas], the way they cherish him there, the way they love him there, I remember going there and they have his little one-legged jumper, where he took it all the time, it’s shadowed on the floor. He deserves every little bit of it. That’s something you can’t even dream of. For him to achieve that, it’s pretty special. When he won [the championship], as a competitor that was something where I could just feel how much winning could mean to a person, and how much work is in that. That’s kind of what Dirk stands for, for me.”
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