BERLIN — Germans love the Dirk Nowitzki story: the young local man who travels halfway around the world to play among giants, in a city known mainly as a nighttime TV soap opera, to conquer in a game few Germans care about.
But although he’s the NBA's returning most valuable player, the Dallas Mavericks’ 7-foot forward remains a story Germans love but don't really understand.
“To understand Nowitzki's profile here, you have to understand that he is probably the single most popular athlete still active in Germany, but that very few people see him play,” said Marcus Nick, the editor of Basket Magazine, Germany's most popular basketball publication. “Nowitzki is basketball in Germany, but the three most popular sports are soccer, soccer and soccer.”
Still, the Nowitzki story has great appeal.
“He makes his way in America, becomes a star at their own game, then returns here and is unchanged, a typical German who lives in the bedroom he grew up in and loves his mother,” said Christoph Bertling, a sports researcher at the German Sport College in Cologne.
He's not the only German sport star these days, though most of the biggest names have retired, including former Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher, former tennis stars Steffi Graf and Boris Becker and the great German soccer player Franz Beckenbauer.
But he’s the most likable.
Friends, coaches and media watchers note that while he earns $14 million a year, he doesn't travel with an entourage, insist on special foods or complain about being paired with a roommate while playing with the German National Team, which he does every summer after the long NBA season.
He's known for being soft-spoken, for helping children and for understanding the obligation to society that Germans believe athletes owe. In German, he's “bodenstaendig,” or down-to-earth. And, especially coming from the often flamboyant NBA, it's the key to his popularity.
“He could earn much more money as a spokesman, but his appeal here is that he doesn't,” Bertling said.
Nowitzki isn’t a constant presence in German society — athletes aren't. Film actors are preferred as spokespeople. In a recent poll, no more than 8 percent of Germans associated any active player with the product he or she advertised, although Nowitzki was at the top of the list.
Many top athletes never make the jump from sport star to cultural star. When German athletes do gain fame, they tend to come from soccer. Far more Germans have watched Michael Ballack (who plays for London-based Chelsea), or even Lukas Podolski, an occasional starter for German soccer giant Bayern Munich, play for their clubs than have seen Nowitzki play for Dallas.
The Mavericks and the NBA are barely an afterthought on the German sport scene, featured on the satellite Premiere system, which has an estimated 4.5 million subscribers (for movies, sports, news and children's programming), in this nation of 82 million.
A Premiere spokesman said the company doesn’t disclose viewer numbers, but added that it’s happy with NBA viewership. NBA games often come on in the early hours of the morning (7:30 p.m. in Dallas is 2:30 a.m. in Berlin). When those games are on, they feature Dallas more often than not.
Dirk Bauerman, the coach of the German national team and nine-time coaching champion of the German Basketball League, said that millions tune in whenever Nowitzki is playing for Germany. In contrast, the German league isn’t televised here.
There have been German NBA players before: Uwe Blab and Detlef Schrempf, though neither had near Nowitzki's popularity, and neither won the NBA's most valuable player award.
Nowitzki has become an icon. Since Schumacher's retirement last year, he’s considered Germany's highest profile athlete.
“At this point in his career, after long, draining seasons, maybe the best thing for him would be to rest over the summers,” said German national team coach Dirk Bauerman. “But he knows how important he is to the sport in Germany, so he's always here, always ready to help, to play, to give us as much time as he has.”
This summer, Nowitzki did take what he called his first break in 10 years: “I backpacked through Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti, and returned completely rested.”
Still, he returned to the national team in August “ready for basketball again.” He played in basketball's European Championships, where he led the team to a fifth place finish.
Nowitzki is a constant nominee for German Sportsman of the Year, an award he’s expected to win this December, which would make him the first basketball player to win the honor.
Outside basketball, Nowitzki is the face of Sprite, Nike and Diba, short for Direct Bank, an Internet bank of ING, the Dutch banking giant.
When he discovered basketball at 13, Nowitzki was a promising young tennis player (he'd been the second-ranked German in his age group). He'd met Holger Geschwindner, a former German national team player, who became his mentor, and taught him the game.
Famously, Geschwindner took an 18-year-old Nowitzki to a Nike Hoops Summit in San Antonio, which got him noticed by NBA scouts. To this day, the two often spend summers working on the game or sometimes hiking. The superstar returning to his old coach adds to Nowitzki's “down-to-earth” image.
“You cannot overstate his importance in Germany,” said German Basketball Federation spokesman Christoph Bueker. “He's a star here despite the sport he plays. But with him, German kids want to be basketball stars. Without him, nobody ever talks about us.”
ON THE WEB
Nowitski's profile on the Dallas Mavericks Web site.