Twenty-five years of covering Dirk Nowitzki
Much has happened on the journey from Würzburg to Springfield and it culminates here with Hall of Fame glory AND some strong support from Toni Kroos for Dirk's case as Germany's finest athlete ever
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — We drove around the hilly and exceedingly green city of Würzburg, Germany, for what felt like an hour. In an old white Volkswagen Golf, his beloved first car, Dirk Nowitzki was doing the driving.
The mission seemed simple to the visiting foreigner. Pick a restaurant, said the food-obsessed sportswriter, where we can sit down and have a meal while I interview you.
The problem we faced in the fall of 1998, on my maiden getting-to-know-Nowitzki excursion, soon become apparent: We were driving around aimlessly because Dirk, even as the star of the local professional basketball team, didn't really have a favorite place to eat out at age 20. He didn't know where to go.
The soon-to-be face of the Dallas Mavericks ate pretty much every meal at home in the only kitchen that mattered to him in those days — owned and operated by his mother Helga.
It was just one of the many modest qualities about the eventual Sweetest Shooting Big Man of All-Time™ that, even after all of Nowitzki's triumphs and accomplishments, makes the ensuing ride all the way to the Basketball Hall of Fame seem so hard to believe sometimes.
September will mark 25 years since I visited Nowitzki's homeland for the first time and discovered that pretty much everything about his surroundings and his story back then felt about a million miles away from the NBA. Fast-forward a quarter-century and Nowitzki and I shared a commercial flight from Dallas to Hartford on Wednesday afternoon, transporting him to Connecticut to be inducted as an absolute headliner in one of the Hall's starriest-ever classes.
I really did believe from the start that he would be an All-Star — and I was one of the few who kept believing it during his rough rookie season — but I would never dare claim that I foresaw No. 41 having the capacity to hush a decade’s worth of skeptics who called him soft to become everything he became: A basketball revolutionary and a German-turned-fully fledged Texan who, on this scorecard, is more synonymous with Dallas sports than any singular Cowboy you wish to name.
It still feels surreal sometimes, even after all these years, how a mere association with Nowitzki — his adopted home city’s modern-day Roger Staubach — can suddenly lead to an exchange with someone like Toni Kroos. How does an American basketball reporter even have a pathway to a conversation with a top-class European footballer who has won pretty much everything you can possibly win in that sport?
It turns out that Kroos has been following a portly scribe in Dallas for years on Twitter because he's quite possibly Nowitzki's No. 1 fan. I nervously DM’ed him for the first time because I hoped to hear Kroos, one of the finest athletes his country has ever produced, assess Nowitki's place in German sports history. He didn’t hesitate.