LOS ANGELES -- Dirk Nowitizki spent the summer of 1999 hoping that the upcoming NBA season would be canceled. Entering a league whose rosters were almost exclusively American, and whose style of play was defined by clearly demarcated positions and skill-sets, Nowitizki’s German accent, and amorphous abilities seemed both out of place and destined to fail.
Overcome with self-doubt over his ability to succeed in the world’s most competitive basketball association so far from home, Dirk found himself wishing that the then-lockout would come to swallow the season; saving him from having to endure the failure that he was certain awaited him in Dallas.
Yet as Ian Thomsen detailed in his tome on the 2010-2011 season, The Soul of Basketball, it would be Holger Geschwindner, the basketball mentor that had guided him thus far, that would step in and refuse to let the homesick 19-year-old quit. Lacking any true role models with insight on how to balance competing with assimilating, Dirk, the first in a trove of incoming foreign players, would be forced to forge his own path in a changing league.
Twenty-one-years and a Hall-of-Fame career later, Nowitzki’s final chapter now includes shepherding a young Luka Doncic through the same balancing act he once endured.
Bypassing the criticisms and suspicions of being 'soft,' and unable to keep up with American players that Dirk would once have to contend with, Doncic instead entered the year as one of the most highly anticipated players of the past decade. Armed with tremendous court vision, and an even silkier touch, Luka entered Staples Center Halloween night to a host of waiting fans and media eager to catch a glimpse of the player already deemed the Maverick’s next generational talent.
Coming on the heels of a 30-point outburst in San Antonio, Doncic’s performance last Thursday was the perfect encapsulation of both the raw talent and potential pitfalls the 19-year-old Slovenian embodies in his journey to become a franchise player. His high basketball IQ that allowed him to read the Lakers’ formation, short-circuited by his lack of athleticism and inability to create space; his penchant for getting to rim, stymied by an LA defense that forced him to shoot.
Yet even as Luka battled through an unimpressive night offensively, the rookie showed his willingness to seize the big moment: taking the assignment of bodying up LeBron late in the fourth quarter, forcing the former MVP into an errant mid-range jumper.
Though the Mavs’ fell 114-113, Doncic found himself waiting patiently outside the LA locker following the conclusion of the match. Speaking of how “special” it was to go against LeBron as a player he once idolized, a Lakers’ staff member finally emerged to provide the former third overall pick with a signed James' jersey.
Written with a note to “continue to strive for greatness,” LeBron told the gathered reporters of his admiration of not just Luka, but of all European players.
“I think European players are developed faster than NBA guys, meaning American players. I don’t think this game is something he hasn’t seen before” James said. “I think that’s the best thing about European basketball, they develop their players so early.”
Missing from the match due to a lingering ankle injury, Dirk’s larger career, consciously or not, played a critical role in developing that reputation. So though it might have been James’ jersey that his young teammate sought, it has been the success of Nowitzki that have made players from the Philippines to Slovenia credible in the NBA.
Thankfully for the global game, 19-year-old Dirk, never gave in to his fears.