The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Mavericks star, Dirk Nowitzki. This Q&A — conducted by SPOX and DAZN host Alex Schluter, appeared on SportingNews.com on Oct. 11, 2019, just as the NBA was ramping up for its first season without Nowitzki since 1998-99.
For the first time in over 20 years, Dirk Nowitzki did not have to prepare for another NBA season this summer.
SPOX and DAZN host Alex Schluter talked to the 41-year-old about his new life at the “Nike Basketball Festival” in Berlin.
After everything I’ve read, I’m quite surprised to see you in decent shape.
Dirk Nowitzki: Being seven feet tall, it’s a bit easier to hide. But the weight went up rather quickly. I didn’t really do anything for three months and didn’t put a lot of thought into my discipline in terms of eating. That’s fun, not thinking about workouts or basketball and just letting loose. It was a nice summer with my family, and to this point, I didn’t have too many moments where I missed basketball. But I’m pretty sure they’ll come eventually.
Training camp has started. After more than 20 years, you don’t take part. Is the body surprised by the lack of action at this point?
Nowitzki: I couldn’t hold up at this point. When you’re over 30, you need to keep a certain level of fitness during the summer, otherwise, you’re behind by too much and it takes too long to get back. That’s why I always worked out during vacation, which I didn’t do this year. Also, my foot wasn’t great this summer. It had to stop. I kept playing through pain, had to take pills, get injections. It just wasn’t as fun as it had been in earlier years.
All of us watched your retirement and your emotions. How did the weeks after that go by for you?
Nowitzki: There were some more celebrations. There were some great speeches by old friends and family, but as soon as everyone left, it got a little quieter. I tried to stay active though. I drove the kids to school, went to some events, did some work for my foundation. Then we went to the beach for two weeks. But it never got to the point where I spent a week in bed watching Netflix. I wanted to stay active and not think too much.
The last couple of weeks, even months were extreme; we never got the impression that you would be a person who wants a farewell tour, like Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade got. You still got one. Was there ever a point where you got a little uncomfortable with it?
Nowitzki: No. The farewell tour was awesome, especially as I didn’t announce anything beforehand. I enjoyed getting standing ovations in other arenas, that was incredible. New York, Boston or the All-Star Game in Charlotte, those are things I’ll never forget, especially because everything happened quite naturally. What the Mavs did in the end, getting my five idols to send me into retirement, was insane as well.
But you had known that this would be it for a while, right?
Nowitzki: Yeah, after the 2017-18 season I had another surgery on my foot, hoping that it would fix some things. I hoped to be able to move better again, to have more fun, but that didn’t work at all. Right at the beginning, I got tendinitis in my foot, which pushed everything back. Being behind like that, it was hard to reach a high level again. My foot kept nagging, and in my head, I quickly got the sense that this would probably be it.
Initially, I wanted to make the final decision on whether to continue well after the season, though. I decided to change that two days before I made my announcement ahead of the final home game. At that point, I’d made a decision with my family, and I think it went perfectly. That whole last week couldn’t have been better.
You mentioned the idols which were present in Dallas: Charles Barkley, Detlef Schrempf, Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp and Larry Bird. You’ve been an idol for a lot of kids for years as well. How do you perceive this role?
Nowitzki: It’s obviously an honor when people respect and value the things you’ve achieved. It is always a great feeling when kids are excited to see you. I obviously hope to inspire them as well. When I visited some camps as a youth and players of the national team showed up, my eyes lit up, and I was excited as well. Twenty years later, I’m standing in their shoes. That’s great, and I hope to pass some things on to the next generation.
You always spoke of yourself as being pessimistic, yet you started early to work for your goals with great determination. When did the dream of making the NBA become tangible for you?
Nowitzki: When I started taking basketball seriously with 14, 15 years, I obviously had the hope to make it. At that point, I started watching everything that was available, even at night. I was such a big NBA fan that for a while I knew every player from every team in the whole league, entire rosters. But I didn’t have a clue where it would lead me.
I played on a select team in Bavaria, and some coaches there said I had the chance to become a good Bundesliga player, perhaps even EuroLeague. But nobody knew what would happen, that I would play in the NBA for 21 years. There were some tough times I had to overcome. You need a certain belief in yourself, that’s for sure.
Which is true for your time in school as well. You almost dropped out, right?
Nowitzki: Yes, some of the years were tough. When you’re a teenager, everything in life is cooler than school, especially sports. In one year I played basketball, tennis and handball. Right after school, I went to tennis, and in the evening there was handball practice. At that point, there just wasn’t a lot of focus on school. My parents told me to drop one sport, and that’s why I stopped playing handball.
It got a little better after that, but it kept being a struggle for me. I thought about dropping out after 10th grade, maybe going to the U.S. for one year of high school. But then Holger Geschwindner [Nowitzki’s mentor] came aboard and said, “No chance, you’ll finish school here.” And I fought through.
Did your parents have certain school conditions to allow you to go to practice?
Nowitzki: No, never. They just thought it important that I didn’t get behind in school. After seeing my grades during 11th grade, they got quite scared and pushed me a bit more. I had to get private tutoring as well. Once I was traveling with the junior national team, I had to bring a tutor with me. We were there to work on our conditioning and between practices, I had to get tutoring in a separate room.
Were you the quiet type in school or more of a class clown?
Nowitzki: I always had my fun with friends. From time to time, I got in trouble for talking too much or disturbing the lessons, but that’s part of it. I was quite popular because I was always the one guy who had bubble gum. That was forbidden and got me in trouble a couple of times as well. But if you erase all of that, I think I was a good pupil.
Without Geschwindner you would’ve dropped out? What do you think about that from today’s perspective?
Nowitzki: I’m not sure if I’d really fought through otherwise. Looking at it now, I have to be thankful that Holger came around and pushed me to do it. He always bought me books, for Christmas, birthdays, to help my development off the court. It was important to develop something aside from basketball. You can always get a knee injury and ruin your dream if you’re unlucky. So it was mandatory for him that I finish school.
Did you always have this almost singular focus on sports?
Nowitzki: I never wanted anything else — sports was my life. Both my parents were athletes. I basically grew up in the gym running after loose balls as soon as I was able to walk.
Did that inspire the will to always improve as well?
Nowitzki: I don’t think so. The main reason is we lived in a large house where I was always the youngest. My sister is four years older, two cousins older than me lived there as well. So I was often too small to play with them. They said, “Sit on the side. You’re not ready yet.” That inspired my competitiveness. I had to establish myself.
Outside of your old school, there is a graffiti with this statement: “All dreams are insane until you start to make them reality.” What does this sentence mean to you?
Nowitzki: When I started with basketball, I became a huge fan instantly. I got up at night, watched every All-Star Game and the Finals when MJ [Michael Jordan] was playing. The dream to one day be part of that was incredibly far away. It seemed insane to even make it to the NBA. I couldn’t have imagined what would come of it. And now I think that it’s important for kids to have a dream and to actually work on achieving that dream.
Obviously, not everyone is going to make it to the NBA; that’s why you need to develop something else as well. But having a dream is positive. Whatever comes of it… I had some luck of course. I met the right people at the right time. If Holger hadn’t come into my life, maybe I’d focused on tennis or handball, maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard on basketball. Nobody knows. I’m glad it went the way it did.
Do you remember key moments in the NBA where you met idols and were proud of how far you’d come?
Nowitzki: Yeah, the first game was in Seattle against Detlef Schrempf, who I was a huge fan of. He gave me his number right away if I needed something. But the biggest “wow” moment was the fourth game when we played Houston. With Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley, they had two of my biggest idols on their team. Hakeem Olajuwon was there as well.
One year earlier, I played for Wurzburg in the second German division — now I was there with the best players in the world. I wasn’t sure I belonged there, if I would make it. The first year was brutal in that regard.
You mentioned Schrempf giving you his number. You’ve done that for a lot of young players ever since, notably Dennis Schroder.
Nowitzki: I was impressed by how nice Detlef was to me, and I wanted to continue that tradition. I was too self-conscious to actually reach out to him, which is why we barely spoke. But that wasn’t me being too confident to say I didn’t need his help — I just didn’t want to bother him with my petty rookie problems. Looking back at it, I should have reached out more.
But that got me to offer the same for players who came after me. Today, every young German player has my number. I always try to help whenever anything comes up.
You knew Schroder before he got into the league, right?
Nowitzki: Yeah, in that year we had a pretty high pick, and he visited Dallas ahead of the draft when I was still in the city as well. I hadn’t watched him play at that point, so I was there for his workout and talked to him afterwards. We exchanged numbers and have been in touch ever since, talking NBA, the national team and other stuff.