The NBA held its annual All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina Sunday night, pitting the best players in the league against one another. Texas was well represented: all three of the state’s pro clubs had players in the game, including LaMarcus Aldridge of the San Antonio Spurs, James Harden of the Houston Rockets and:
“One of the most prolific scorers in NBA history, a league MVP, a finals MVP, an NBA champion and a 14-time All- Star: from the Dallas Mavericks, Diiiiiirk Nowitzkiiiiii!” yelled an announcer at Sunday’s game.
Nowitzki scored nine points in just four minutes in what may have been his final appearance at an NBA All-Star Game. Nowitzki hasn’t said definitively that this will be his last season, but after 21 seasons in the league, retirement seems to be on its way sooner rather than later for the German 7-footer. Nowitzki will leave the league with an impressive list of accolades, and high on the list – among championship winner, MVP award and record scoring – is another title: international door-opener.
“It’s a massive, just a massive influence on the European – and just, in general, globalization of the – NBA,” says Tim Cato who covers the Dallas Mavericks for The Athletic, a sports news website.
Consider this: when Nowitzki entered the NBA in 1998, only about 5 percent of the players were from abroad. By the start of the current season, that figure jumped to over 20 percent. Nowitzki isn’t solely responsible for diversifying the NBA’s player pool. But Cato says he did make a difference.
“For decades, there was certainly a European stereotype about players who came over. They were just not seen as athletically competent to survive,” Cato says. ” ‘Soft’ is definitely the word that was thrown around a lot. Him being able to succeed with the Mavericks was very important for NBA general managers to look at European players and have much less fear when choosing them, when selecting them, when believing in them.”
For many NBA executives, the risk of bringing in a foreign player whom fans had probably never heard of just wasn’t worth it.
“You know, it wasn’t somebody fans grew up watching in college basketball, hearing their names, especially in the ’80s or ’90s, before the internet,” Cato says. “It was oftentimes that you would have never heard of someone like Dirk Nowitzki, who was drafted by the Mavs in 1998. I would imagine most Dallas Mavericks fans at the time read his name for the first time in the newspapers the next morning.”
But the Mavericks took the risk, and the young German thrived. Then, NBA teams sent scouts across the globe to search for new talent. Now there’s at least one international player on every team in the NBA. For many of them, Nowitzki was their trailblazer. That’s true for stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ star player who hails from Greece.
“He definitely inspired me, and still inspires me,” Antetokounmpo told the German newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine in December. “I watch a lot of Dirk Nowitzki clips, a lot of his documentary. I’ve followed his story. He’s one of the guys who’s set the path for us young players.”
Nowitzki made a similar impression on Dennis Schröder, a German player for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“I think every player, every German player, looks up to him,” Schröder said in a video posted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2013.
And, of course, there’s Nowitzki’s own teammate, Slovenian teenage phenom Luka Dončić, who’s never known an NBA without Nowitzki.
“I mean, he’s amazing, you know? But especially when I first came into Dallas, I was like afraid to talk to him. He’s like the legend, you know?” Dončić told an MSG Networks reporter in January.
He’s seen as a legend for both what he did on the court, and for the opportunities he unlocked for those who followed him. There are surely more players like Nowitzki to come, and not just from Europe: just last week, the NBA announced it would launch a new 12-team league in Africa. Perhaps that’s where the league will find the next Dirk Nowitzki.