The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will formally welcome its Class of 2023 on Saturday. This week, Yahoo Sports is highlighting notable names in this class, leading up to the big ceremony.
As he watched Luka Dončić begin his rise to superstardom with the Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki marveled at how his Slovenian rookie teammate carried himself “like a veteran who’s been in the league for 10 years.” Nowitzki remembered his introduction to the association going a little differently.
“When I first came in, I was super worried. [I thought,] ‘Am I gonna make it in the league?’” Nowitzki told Sports Illustrated in 2018. “These kids these days, they just carry themselves differently. They know they’re gonna make it. They know they’re gonna succeed.”
Of course, they do. They never had to grow up in a world where it seemed impossible that a European could succeed at the highest level. They grew up in the one where this happened:
These kids these days have the confidence to walk a little taller as they enter the NBA, in part, because Nowitzki did a hell of a lot more than just “make it.”
Over 21 NBA seasons — every one of them spent in Dallas, where a gangly German teenager became a civic institution — Nowitzki cemented himself as one of the greatest ever to play the game. Few players ever have matched his combination of skill, longevity, and perseverance; only five have scored more than his astonishing 31,560 career points, the preponderance of which came on the sort of jumpers that big men had never before consistently taken, let alone made.
It’s a legacy that will earn him enshrinement this weekend in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — a fitting honor for a player who blazed the trail for so many future stars to follow.
“He’s done so many things for us Europeans in this league that made it much easier for me to come here and for people to believe in me,” said Kristaps Porziņģis — a sweet-shooting 7-foot-3 Latvian who’d later don a Dallas jersey himself — in the 2018 book and documentary series “Basketball: A Love Story.”
The son of two pro athletes — mother Helga played basketball, father Jörg-Werner played handball — Nowitzki didn’t pick up hoops until he was 12 or 13. When he began training seriously a few years later, it was under the, um, experimental tutelage of Holger Geschwindner, a former West German Olympic team captain turned project manager who began working with Nowitzki on his lunch breaks.
Geschwindner eschewed weightlifting and other more traditional techniques, preferring instead to have Nowitzki focus on stuff like fingertip push-ups, walking the length of the gym on your hands, dribbling and shooting to the rhythm of a saxophonist stationed under the basket, and fencing. Like, with the sword. (The explanation: “Fencers always have to be 100% on the defensive before they can go on the offensive.”)
Those unorthodox methods proved perfect for an unconventional talent — the NBA’s first superstar stretch big man, the one whose play presaged an era of unicorns and whose skill set would help change the face of the league.
Nowitzki wasn’t solely responsible for altering the archetype of his position. He came into the league as part of a golden age of power forwards, battling for supremacy (and often All-Star and All-NBA spots) with the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Pau Gasol, who’ll join Nowitzki in a star-studded 2023 Hall class. The added dimension of his shooting touch and all-around offensive game, though, proved revolutionary, opening up new avenues for exploration.
“Dirk is one of the most unique players ever,” best bud and two-man-game soulmate Steve Nash said in “Basketball: A Love Story.” “He was never explosive, but he had great feet. He was agile for his size. With his skill level and his ability to shoot, he got guys too close to him, so he could get around them. He was able to use his height and mobility and skill to create space, and to realize that, ‘If I just step back and lean on one leg, I’m too big for anyone to recover.’”
Together with Nash, Nowitzki fundamentally altered how teams had to defend the pick-and-roll. No longer could you just trap the ball handler and dare the popping big man to shoot; stray too far from Nowitzki, and he’d light you up from deep. Stay too close to him, and Nash would get downhill into the paint to wreak havoc. Duck under the screen or hang back to stave off dribble penetration, and Nash, also one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, pulls up to rain fire.
Switch it, and Nowitzki would just shoot right over the top of smaller defenders who couldn’t do a damn thing to contest his high-arcing release. Or, as he continued to develop his game later in his career — spurred in part by coach Avery Johnson’s challenge to remodel his approach to be a bit more like Duncan — Nowitzki would work them over with the kind of nail post-ups, low-block playmaking, and iconic one-foot fadeaways that made him nearly unguardable.
“When Dirk won that championship that year, the biggest problem we had with him — that Miami and all the other teams had with him — wasn’t his picking and popping,” Kobe Bryant once said. “He could play at the free-throw line and below the free-throw line. For him, that was his biggest growth as a player.”
Nowitzki is one of only seven players with more than 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists, 1,000 steals, and 1,000 blocks, joining Duncan, Garnett, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron James, Karl Malone, and Hakeem Olajuwon. He made 14 All-Star teams and earned 12 All-NBA selections; the only players with as many of both are Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, James, Duncan, Jerry West, Julius Erving, and Shaquille O’Neal.
(Not that his bona fides need any additional burnishing, but Nowitzki also carried the German men’s national team to bronze at the 2002 FIBA World Championship and silver at EuroBasket 2005 before literally bearing Germany’s standard at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He stands as the third-leading scorer in EuroBasket history, behind only fellow 2023 inductees Gasol and Tony Parker.)
Nowitzki was the first European named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, and only the third born outside the United States, after Olajuwon and Nash. And he’s one of just 19 players to win both the regular season and NBA Finals MVP, which he received after serving as the driving force behind the first and only NBA championship in Mavericks history — a sublime 2011 postseason run that saw him average 27.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in 39.3 minutes per game on blistering 49/46/94 shooting splits.
Nowitzki led a four-game sweep of Bryants’s defending back-to-back champion Lakers and a five-game drubbing of the ascendant Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/James Harden Thunder in the Western Conference finals before delivering the coup de grâce in a tough-as-nails performance against the Year 1 Big 3 Miami Heat to finally reach the top of the mountain:
As the final seconds ticked away in the Mavericks’ 105-95 win over the Heat in Game 6 in Miami — the win that made him immortal, untouchable, a permanent resident of the upper echelon in the history of the sport — Nowitzki leaped over the scorer’s table, ran through the tunnel and headed straight back to the visiting locker room, seeking some privacy to let his tears of joy flow in private. (He wound up lying on a bench near the showers. “I’m not sure that was all rational,” he later told Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News. “There wasn’t much planning gone into this.”)
You could understand why he might be overcome by emotion. Nowitzki had played that final through a torn tendon in his left hand — the one he used to hit the scoop layup past Chris Bosh that capped a monster comeback to win Game 2 — and through a bout with the flu and fever that James and Dwyane Wade famously mocked. He’d walked into the championship round as a lone superstar staring down the most heavily hyped constellation the league had to offer. He’d walked out shining brightest of all.
“He was not going to let us lose,” Mavericks guard J.J. Barea told J.J. Redick back in 2021. “The way he prepared the whole year for it. He hated Miami. He hated LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. He’s never going to say that, but he couldn’t stand it.”
Those locker-room tears weren’t just the release of the burden Nowitzki had shouldered during the Mavs’ playoff run, though. That was 13 years’ worth of frustration bursting through the dam.
All the sneering old-head wisdom about Euros being too soft to excel in the NBA — dusty tropes that had somehow survived the flesh-and-blood evidence of dudes like Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Dražen Petrović, Vlade Divac, Detlef Schrempf and Toni Kukoč doing just that. All the struggles of his rocky, lockout-shortened 1998-99 rookie season, where he dealt with the isolation of being a 20-year-old an ocean away from home, still learning a new language, barely playing before the final month and often getting bulldozed when he did.
“I’m going to fight this,” Nowitzki promised Mavericks player development coach Bill Peterson, as Peterson told Jonathan Abrams in his 2016 book, “Boys Among Men.” “You watch. I’m not going to let those guys dunk on me and push me around. They ain’t going to push me around next year. I’m going to spend time in the weight room. I’m going to get after it.”
It’s worth remembering that Nowitzki had already played several seasons of professional ball in Germany before coming to Dallas. “Playing pro at that age means ain’t nobody got time for immature bulls***,” Garnett wrote in his 2021 memoir, “KG: A to Z.” “You’re playing with grown-ass men who need the money to feed their families and ain’t interested in putting up with no prima donnas. That’ll make you grow up quickly.” That’s exactly what Nowitzki did: By Year 2, he was averaging 17.5 points per game and shooting 38% from 3-point range for an exciting young Mavericks team that won 40 games for the first time in a decade.
All the times the pundits took the shine off his remarkable scoring exploits by needling him as “Irk.” (As in, “No D.” Clever!) All the postseason disappointments of the early aughts, when Don Nelson’s Mavs ran aground against Duncan’s Spurs and Webber’s Kings — most notably the 2003 Western Conference finals, when Nowitzki was limited to just three games by a sprained left knee, with Nelson holding him out despite owner Mark Cuban’s insistence that he play, a dispute that eventually helped precipitate the end of Nelson’s tenure in Dallas.
The collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals, where Nowitzki missed a critical free throw in the closing seconds of Game 3 and shot just 2-for-14 from the field in Game 4, allowing Wade and the Heat to take control and seize the series. Coming back from that to win 67 games and MVP in 2007 … only to see old mentor Nelson’s “We Believe” Warriors dismantle and embarrass Dallas in arguably the biggest upset in NBA history.
So devastating was the loss that it prompted Nowitzki to disappear to Australia for a five-week walkabout memorialized by Jesse Hyde in a fantastic feature for the Dallas Observer. The story opens with a bearded Dirk deep in the Outback, drinking whiskey straight from the bottle, staring into a campfire, and asking, “Why me? Why is this happening to me?”
“I’ve always taken losses hard,” Nowitzki later told Marc Stein. “I think I take losses harder probably than anyone else in this league.”
Yet he kept coming back from them. Kept honing his game, and kept developing his voice as a leader. Kept trusting that Dallas’ leadership would surround him with the right talent to contend for a title. Kept believing that, if he got another shot, he’d deliver.
And then he did. And there, on that bench in that visiting locker room in American Airlines Arena, all those slings and arrows just washed away in the flood.
“When you look back on this year, you’re going to look at Dirk Nowitzki’s numbers,” teammate Jason Terry told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated. “But remember what he meant to me, to Shawn Marion, to Tyson Chandler, to J.J. Barea. He made us raise our game to another level. That’s when you have a superstar. That’s when you have a Hall of Famer.”
Nowitzki never got back to the Finals or even won another playoff series. The onset of a new collective bargaining agreement following the 2011 lockout, one promising hefty penalties for teams that routinely spent deep into the luxury tax, led Cuban to let championship contributors go in favor of maintaining financial flexibility. But that flexibility never turned into any second stars who could help propel Nowitzki back to glory through his latter years — no Magic to his Kareem, no Duncan to his David Robinson, no Gasol to his Kobe.
No matter. He was indelibly stamped and irrevocably certified. And when he said goodbye in 2019, just shy of his 41st birthday, he exited a league that had been remade in his image.
You can trace the arc of Nowitzki’s influence in how much more frequently big men play on the perimeter in 2023 than they did in 1998 — and how dramatically the geography of the floor has changed as a result.
When Nowitzki entered the league, virtually every team played “traditional” centers and power forwards who rarely strayed much further than the elbows and half-court sets often resembled rush-hour gridlock. Turn one of those guys into someone you have to guard 25 feet away, and your offense’s traffic starts moving; turn both of them into legit threats, and suddenly you’re bombing down the Autobahn. It wasn’t a coincidence that, according to Basketball-Reference.com, the Mavericks had a top-10 offense every season from 1999-00 (Nowitzki’s sophomore campaign, and first year as a full-time starter) through the 2010-11 championship run, with two more top-five finishes in 2013-14 and 2014-15, before the years and mileage finally started to catch up to Nowitzki. The rest of the basketball world noticed. Suddenly, playmaking stretch 4s weren’t a curiosity or luxury; they were a must.
Before Nowitzki entered the NBA, only 26 power forwards or centers had ever attempted 100 3-pointers in a single season, and only one 7-footer had ever done it. In his second season, Nowitzki put up 306. His high-water mark for attempts in a season was 390; over the last five seasons, 24 different bigs have put up at least that many in a campaign. At the time, a 7-footer averaging 4.5 triple tries per 36 minutes of floor time registered as shocking. Now, if he routinely drained 40% of them, the only shocking part of it would be that he wasn’t taking twice as many.
This was the vision that Nellie and Co. had back in the spring of 1998 when that gangly German teenager hopped on a flight to Texas to play in the Nike Hoop Summit.
Going in, most eyes were on a U.S. squad featuring future NBA players like Al Harrington, Stromile Swift, Quentin Richardson, and Rashard Lewis. Having watched Nowitzki practice in Dallas for a week ahead of the game in San Antonio, though — a now-legendary exhibition in which he exploded for 33 points and 14 rebounds to lead the World team past the Americans, a performance that made Larry freaking Bird say, “If you went by that tape alone, you’d think he was the best“ — Nelson only had eyes for Nowitzki.
“This kid has a chance to revolutionize the game of basketball,” the mad scientist coach told Mavericks minority owner Frank Zaccanelli.
As it turned out, that’s exactly what he did. Not bad for a kid from Würzburg who was worried he wouldn’t make it.