Before stepping foot on American soil, 19-year-old Dirk Nowitzki played on a second-division team in his German hometown of Wurzburg that occasionally canceled practices to work on a farm owned by a teammate.
Sure, Nowitzki had managed to play his way onto the radar of some NBA teams and college programs. But he was far from a phenom.
That all changed during the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit in San Antonio’s Alamo Stadium, when the lanky kid, who was so unheralded that his surname was misspelled “Nowitzski” repeatedly on the ESPN broadcast, blew up for 33 points and 14 rebounds to lead the World team to an upset over the U.S. in a matchup against future NBA stars.
More than two decades later, with Nowitzki likely in his final days of a legendary NBA career, we take a look back through the eyes of those who witnessed the big German’s introduction to America and world-class basketball.
‘Ahh, we’ll just sneak out.’
Never mind facing world-class competition for the first time. Just getting out of Germany was a challenge for Nowitzki due to unfortunate timing. The Wurzburg X-Rays were in the middle of the playoffs with a chance to be promoted to the first division for the first time, putting Nowitzki in the uncomfortable dilemma of having to decide between loyalty to his hometown team and chasing his personal dream.
Dirk Nowitzki: I was invited [to the Hoop Summit] I think the year before, maybe even two years before. It’s always a bad time, because at that time [the Wurzburg X-Rays] were in relegation to get moved up. Our dream was with the home team to go to the first division, get promoted, and we fell short every year. That year, again, we were in the promotion zone and we had big games.
Holger Geschwindner, Nowitzki’s longtime mentor and then X-Rays assistant coach: We played really a risky game [leaving Germany]. We had been a second-division team and Dirk was a top guy.
Nowitzki: So Holger came out to me and said, “Hey, I think that’s a really, really good opportunity to measure yourself against some of the best in the world at your age.” I was like, “Are you crazy? This is what we dreamed for, what we played for the last couple of years.”
Geschwindner: I knew one thing for sure: The Hoop Summit was the only chance to perform on the international high level because we had no idea how [good] he really was.
Nowitzki: So we had to ask permission from the Army, because I was still in the Army, and I don’t think you can travel out of the country unless you ask and it’s for a big tournament or something. We had permission to go. Then we kind of had to ask the team. But Holger was kind of like, “Ahhh, we’ll just sneak out.” So I played the game Sunday night, and I think Monday morning we flew out of Frankfurt without really telling anyone. Holger might have talked to a manager or something, but I didn’t say anything. So we snuck out.
Geschwindner: [Nowitzki’s] dad did not know. I talked to the mom, and she said, “You have to tell his dad.” The next morning I came in and said, “Did you tell him?” [Nowitzki] said, “I will tell him now.” I said, “Listen, we have to drive two hours from Wurzburg to [the airport in] Frankfurt. We do not go onto the plane if he does not know.”
Donnie Nelson, then Mavericks and World team assistant coach, now president of basketball ops: They were looking haggard when they finally got to Dallas. What was supposed to be a two-leg journey had turned into something like four legs. I was an assistant coach, so my job was to fetch coffee and get Germans when they arrived. I met them in the lobby of [Reunion Tower], and Holger was wearing the same jeans he’s had since 1973 and still wears today. And, of course, the flannel shirt and leather jacket I’m sure he still has.
‘My concern was that he was too nice of a kid to be a killer’
The World team had already practiced a couple of times in Dallas by the time Nowitzki arrived. It did not take the German long to make a strong impression.
Donnie Nelson: I had only seen [Nowitzki] on bad, grainy tape. A lot of international players tended to shrink six inches on the flight over. I looked at him and said, “Wow. He didn’t shrink.”
Geschwindner: On Wednesday afternoon, [the World team] had a scrimmage game where they decided who of those guys would go to the San Antonio game. We had to really get serious. The key thing was to get him in the first five.
Nowitzki: In [Don Nelson’s] office you could peek through the blinds [and see the practice court]. I guess he did that, which I didn’t know at the time. Apparently, they really liked what they saw.
Don Nelson, former Mavericks head coach and GM: Actually, Donnie got the team to work out the week before they went down to San Antonio at the YMCA in Dallas, the one downtown. It was closed, of course, to anybody except Donnie and I.
Donnie Nelson: You could tell [Dirk had] good footwork, handwork, could shoot it. We went through just intrasquad stuff.
Don Nelson: He was one of the most gifted young players I’d ever seen, and besides all that, the guy was 7 feet tall. I mean, he was just an incredible basketball player!
George Raveling, former Nike director of international basketball: I knew more about Dirk than most people because of my relationship with Holger, so he had already painted the picture for me mentally. Then when I saw the picture hanging up in the Louvre, I was like, “Wow!” All this stuff that Holger was telling me started to manifest in Dirk’s play.
Donnie Nelson: My concern was that he was too nice of a kid to be a killer. He’s such a kind, big-hearted guy. Most of the guys that go into those forums are guys that would just as soon rip your heart out and show it to you. He didn’t strike me as that kind of human being, so my concern was, “Is he tough enough?” He certainly had the work ethic — you could tell.
Nowitzki: At the time, I was kind of a less swag guy. I’m a little nervous and not sure if this is going to work and how good the kids are going to be. So I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Don Nelson: We made a commitment after a few practices that we would hide him the best way we could from anybody seeing him. We committed to drafting him with whatever pick we had. We couldn’t convince him not to play in that game.
Donnie Nelson: I think we saw the true tiger come out in San Antonio.
‘They’re going to blow them out. This isn’t even going to be a game.’
The U.S. team was considered heavy favorites entering the game on March 29, 1998. The Americans jumped out to an early nine-point lead, overwhelming the international players with their quickness and athleticism — they tallied a record 20 steals for the game — and causing concern that the game wouldn’t be competitive.
Geschwindner: The game in those days was on the Saturday between the Final Four.
Dan Shulman, ESPN play-by-play announcer: I remember knowing more about the American kids than the World team, and I remember thinking, “Boy, this team’s stacked.” I remember some size on it. Stromile Swift was on the team. Rashard Lewis was on the team. Al Harrington was on the team. And these were serious big-name guys coming out of high school.
Geschwindner: The only thing we talked with Dirk over was, “They cannot get the courage out of you. If you get the ball, drive to the basket. Try to dunk it. If they smash you down, keep going.”
Nowitzki: I knew all of these guys are obviously some of the best that we have in the world at this age, so there was a respect level, but in Germany I’d never heard of any of their names.
Donnie Nelson: The first half of the game, the U.S. came out and put on this killer full-court press, and let’s just say that our frontcourt was a lot better than our backcourt. And I think maybe in the entire first half, my recollection is we got the ball over half court a total of 10 times. We were in trouble!
Shulman: The U.S. got off to a hot start. I remember us thinking, “They’re going to blow them out. This isn’t even going to be a game.”
Nowitzki: I figured they were going to be super-athletic. I figured they were going to press us the whole game and we were going to turn the ball over 100 times.
Raveling: Alessandro Gamba was coaching the team, and he was a legendary international coach from Italy. They’re probably about 10 minutes into the game and there’s a timeout. I’m sitting right by their bench at the scorer’s table, and he comes over and he whispers in my ear, “George, who in the eff is that guy sitting behind the bench telling me how to coach my team?” I knew he was talking about Holger. He said, “I need you to get his ass out from behind my bench and stop trying to coach my team.” So Dirk had two head coaches, and the most familiar voice was Holger’s.
Donnie Nelson: Of course, going into halftime, we looked like we were going to get drilled by 100, and Dirk made his own adjustment going into the third quarter.
Shulman: Then the skinny kid from Germany started fouling everybody out of the game. About six U.S. guys fouled out of the game.
Donnie Nelson: After the first couple of possessions were like the first half, Dirk was in when they put the press back on by the top of the key, so then he starts going up over half court and tall as an oak tree. The poor guy taking the ball out was 5-10, just trying to get the ball in, and then he sees a German oak. And he’s like, “Oh, thank goodness,” and just throws it up there.
Nowitzki: We actually held up OK.
‘We didn’t know how to guard him. We had never seen him before.’
Nowitzki dominated the second half, scoring 19 points after the break. He finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds in the World team’s 104-99 win, setting Hoop Summit records that would stand for more than a decade.
Shulman: The World made a comeback, and Dirk was the reason, because they couldn’t stop him, whether he was shooting from the outside or shot fake and driving.
Donnie Nelson: Dirk does nothing less than the very thing that Holger taught him for years. That is, catch the ball, coast-to-coast like a guard, shoot 3s.
Darius Songaila, World team forward who played eight NBA seasons: It was like that game was created for him to show off to the whole world what he was capable of.
Al Harrington, U.S. team forward who played 16 NBA seasons: He was just impressive. Seeing a tall, lanky white kid that you never heard of coming out there with all that skill was just amazing. He just surprised us.
Raveling: I think he mesmerized the players on the other team, because he was doing things that they’d never seen a big guy do. They didn’t think he could shoot that far out, and Dirk was active handling the ball. This was his coming-out, so-called party.
Donnie Nelson: A 6-11 guy taking the ball, throwing it left and right, shooting 3s, and we ended up making a game out of it. That’s when you really saw the true Dirk coming out.
Don Nelson: Oh, the skills. I couldn’t call him a great passer because the game was so easy to score for him. He just dominated. The game was so easy for him, and he was so fluid.
Songaila: Obviously he ended up with ridiculous numbers, so after the game there was a lot of hype that the guy was going to be a really good player. I don’t think anybody thought that he was going to be that good.
Harrington: What really pissed me off about that day was that they won the game. I don’t know how we lost that game.
Nowitzki: We hung in there and ended up stealing the game at the end. It was the first time the World team had won. We were hyped! We were hyped in the locker room! That was good times.
Harrington: We didn’t know how to guard him. We had never seen him before. I hadn’t heard of him until during the game. I had never heard of him, but I knew about him after the game. That’s what’s up.
Shulman: At the end of the night, all we were talking about was Nowitzki, who I think I called “No-WIT-ski” then because we didn’t even know [the proper pronunciation]. He was an unknown at the beginning of the game, and he was the main attraction by the end.
A young Dirk Nowitzki details how his World team defeated the USA team at the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit.
‘I knew everybody was going to want to have him’
Nowitzki’s Hoop Summit performance established his status as a rising star in NBA circles — he became the No. 9 overall pick two and a half months later — but he didn’t quite return home to Germany as a conquering hero.
Donnie Nelson: That was really the first unveiling, when Dirk did it against world-class talent and athleticism in that age group on a big stage. There was every team in spades that was there that saw all the same stuff that we did. That was when it was, “Holy cow, this can be a pretty good player.”
Geschwindner: After the game, we had to fly immediately home. I thought I would be smart, and I got the newspaper from San Antonio in the airport. “International team beats U.S. boys” or whatever. I thought it would be more or less an excuse coming home.
Nowitzki: The team was kind of pissed. But they ended up winning the game that I missed. Then I was able to play the following game, and we won that. And that year we actually got promoted.
Geschwindner: They killed us [in Germany]. They killed us badly. Dirk was not at the [Wurzburg X-Rays] game. The boys won it anyway, but it doesn’t matter. They were really mad. I was the guy that misleads youngsters. They really killed us. The press killed us in Germany.
Nowitzki: I think the most pissed was one of our foreign players, because he had a promotion bonus in his contract. It was a nice sum of money, I think, at the time for us playing over there. So he’s basically saying, “You’re playing with my money.”
Donnie Nelson: That [Hoop Summit] was really, in a lot of respects, Dirk’s “American Idol,” the basketball version, where he crushed it. After that game, Dirk’s life got a lot more complicated in a good way.
Raveling: The guy who really foresaw all of this was Donnie Nelson. He was more certain than anybody that Dirk was going to be a superstar, so he went to work doing his due diligence to make sure the Mavericks got him.
Don Nelson: I knew everybody was going to want to have him work out and do the circuit [before the draft]. That’s when Donnie and I figured out a way to kind of have him disappear in Donnie’s basement. [Laughs.] It just so happened Donnie had a little cot down there.
Nowitzki: Through Holger and hearing from international agents, I was the talk of NBA circles and scouts. That came out of nowhere to me. I guess I didn’t realize how big that game was and what it meant until I came back home and all these agents came up to me and were like, “Hey, you’re projected in the lottery now.” I was like, “What?! That’s insane.”
Don Nelson: I knew then he’d be an All-Star for many, many years. I knew he had the skills to be one of the best. He fulfilled all those dreams and many, many more.