A Welcomed Opportunity for Schröder in OKCBy Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1992, Dennis Schröder’s mother arrived in Braunschweig, a small town of 250,000 people located in central Germany, about 150 miles west down highway A2 from Berlin.
Her future NBA point guard son was born in 1993, 61 years after Braunschweig's state infamously granted Adolf Hitler German citizenship to allow him to run in the 1932 German presidential election. As a child, Schröder was asked by the other German kids about why his skin was dirty, and faced racism in his adolescence until he emerged as a basketball prodigy.
A ll his life, Schröder has been put in situations where many would falter. That discrimination he faced as a youth, the death of his father and his skinny, 6-foot-1 frame could have been excuses and roadblocks. Instead, he carried on. He persevered.
His future will always be connected to that past, but now with the clarity of maturation and experience, Schröder’s motivations will have more targeted ends. He looks to the example cast by German basketball legends that entered the stage before him, and now with the Thunder he gets to manifest his skills into more potent production alongside a player he has long admired – Russell Westbrook.
Much like the Thunder’s MVP, Schröder was unheralded as a youth. When he was singled out, it was typically in ways that were very uncomfortable. Schröder now holds dear his hometown of Braunschweig but the city was oft times difficult to navigate for the son of a German father, Axel, and a Gambian mother, Fatou.
“It was tough to be a young black guy in Germany,” Schröder said. “But then when I grew up and got into basketball, people started respecting me – who I was and what I did for the schools and for the teams. Then I got it way easier. Now my city is everything to me.”
It wasn’t until he was 11 years old that the lithe, quick Schröder was noticed by a youth coach, Liviu Calin, who approached him when he playing the park. Calin told Schröder he might have a future in basketball, and their relationship blossomed from there. Over the years, Calin became a second dad to Schröder, a male mentor that at the time the young German had no idea how much he was going to need.
In his teenage years, Schröder was out of the house with his brother Che from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. most summer days. They spent the time skateboarding, playing soccer and playing basketball, developing the necessary footwork to excel at all three.
Skateboarding became a joyous passion that Dennis and Che shared, watching Youtube videos of professionals and emulating what they saw. In fact, they got pretty good at the sport, both receiving sponsorships from skateboarding companies. The boys honed their craft in parks, but it came to a halt when Che crashed and broke his arm. Fatou stepped in and put an end to skateboarding, and helped Dennis focus in more on school and professional skills, in addition to convincing him to put that unique gold streak in his hair.
Photo by Michael Zubach | OKC Thunder
“My mom is an amazing woman,” Schröder said. “She did a lot for us kids and for our family.”
Dennis’ father Axel was his number one supporter as a basketball player, attending every game and practice. He saw the talent, believed in him and encouraged him to try to make the NBA. In down time, Schröder played cards with his father and helped out with one of his favorite past times. The duo performed a now-outdated but fairly popular mid-2000’s practice: expertly cutting out the covers on DVD cases into perfect circles and attaching them to the DVDs themselves, thus eliminating the need for the bulky plastic cases and allowing for tidier organization.
Those were the good, simple times. Sadly, they didn’t last. After battling an illness, Axel died in 2009, when Schröder was just 16 years old.
“It changed my whole life,” Schröder admitted. “I kind of promised him I would make it to the NBA. I was like, ‘okay, I gotta do it for him’.”
Dennis always heard that when people pass away, family and friends around them sometimes do things they regret. He aimed to not fall down that path. As a result, he dove headfirst into basketball, relying on his coach Calin to help him develop a mindset and tenacity to help him not just overcome his slight frame, but to amplify his talents when he shot up to 6-foot-1.
“(Calin) told me every time that you step on the court you just gotta give everything,” Schröder recalled. “You have to be a good teammate and you gotta do everything for your team to win the game.”
That drive and determination sticks with him today. Despite having five NBA years under his belt, Schröder is still hungry and focused on improving himself, both on and off the court. Coming into the Thunder organization, he should have a great chance to accomplish both, considering the organization’s reputation as a haven for both professional and personal development.
“My career is still young. Every day when I get to the gym, I just try to get better and try to get better off the court as well - try to be a better person and try to learn every day,” Schröder explained.
That attitude falls in line with the approach that his fellow German standouts Dirk Nowitzki and Detlef Schrempf displayed throughout their NBA careers, and is a sign of reverence for his predecessors’ impact on the game and German basketball in general. Schröder has built relationships with both German greats. He even recalled that during his rookie year, Nowitzki would respond to Schröder’s texts within five minutes, eager to dole out advice to keep the youngster on the right path.
“(Nowitzki’s) career is just insane,” said Schröder. “He did so much for the German Basketball Federation and for the German national team and even for the German players who are coming up now. He set a tone for everyone. He’s just an amazing guy as well, trying to help wherever he can.”
There’s a real gratitude for Nowitzki and Schrempf within Schröder, and he pays it forward by meeting with German youth when he’s back in Braunschweig. Schröder is always available to compete for the German national team, as he’s done in 2015 and 2017 in Eurobasket competitions. With each German flag he sees in an arena, he’s reminded that fans in his home country stay up until 3 a.m. to watch his NBA games and come all the way across the Atlantic to support him in the United States.
“The Thunder is big in Oklahoma. They support us and we give everything we have to win games.”
Despite the doubters and naysayers that told him he was too small to ever play professionally in Germany, let alone for the national team or in the NBA, Schröder devoted a ton of time to honing his skills and studying up on the NBA’s best. By watching film on the league’s smaller, quick point guards like Allen Iverson, Isaiah Thomas, Tony Parker, Mike Conley and Rajon Rondo, Schröder got a sense of how his game could translate to the pros.
Despite their relative size difference, there’s one player whose film Schröder has actually watched more of than the others: Russell Westbrook.
“I don’t know how he do it, to be honest,” Schröder said of the Thunder’s seven-time NBA All Star. “I watch every game, how he plays. How he approaches the game every game is insane. I want to learn.”
Schröder will get plenty of opportunities to see Westbrook up close and personal this season. For now, the lightning quick new addition is slated to head the Thunder’s second unit at point guard, while also serving as a complementary ballhandler in lineups alongside Westbrook. The playmaking, creating, scoring and distributing at the point guard spot will be a massive boost to the Thunder’s reserves, and Schröder’s presence is an added threat in lineups that already feature two All-Stars in Westbrook and Paul George.
Now the job for Schröder, his new teammates and the Thunder coaches is to find a way to mesh everyone together in the next two months before the 2018-19 season begins. For the highly competitive Schröder, fitting into a passionate, fast-paced, win-now environment is a welcome chance, both to challenge himself as a human being and make a step forward as a player.
“I’m excited that they’re giving me this opportunity to be in this great organization,” Schröder said of this change of scenery with the Thunder. “I just try to be the best person I can be to everyone, the best teammate I can be and the best friend and family member that I can be.”
Photo by Michael Zubach | OKC Thunder
Although it’s still early in his tenure, Schröder has had the opportunity to meet with the Thunder front office and get some on-court time in with Westbrook and others in offseason workouts. Schröder spoke of the organization’s “family” vibe, and has loved the feeling of everyone having each other’s backs. He gets the sense that’s what he should expect from the fan base too, from five battles on the other side in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“The Thunder is the big thing in Oklahoma, what we have, and they embrace it,” Schröder said. “They try to be there. They try to support us and we try to give back to give everything we have to win games.”
Alongside one of his favorite players to watch, with the tutelage of his German forebears in his back pocket and with the huge gulp of oxygen provided by this opportunity in the Thunder organization, Schröder is primed to help this team put up W’s and continue building a legacy.
Nick Gallo has been with the Thunder since 2012 and serves as the team’s Digital Content Reporter for okcthunder.com and Sideline Reporter for Fox Sports Oklahoma.