The Great Nowitzki

An important new basketball book from Thomas Pletzinger

9

Dirk Nowitzki joined the Dallas Mavericks in 1999, almost exactly when I started covering the NBA full-time. One of the first things I learned about the NBA was, essentially, that the real stuff is behind a closed training room door, a sweaty public relations manager, or on the plane.

One way I knew that: I could see that Dirk often traveled with his personal coach, from Germany, Holger Geschwindner. There was something about how they laughed together, the reverent-but-jokey tone Dirk used, that just didn’t make it into public. Occasionally Holger would emerge, Yodaesque, to share one percent of his knowledge

But it was a tease. I knew enough to know that we didn’t know. And then, starting in 2012, Holger and Dirk would emerge from some car, or head into some restaurant, there would very often be another man with them. Who was that guy? “Some German writer,” I remember the answer.

Clever. Some German writer—Thomas Pletzinger—was in the room and would get the real story. Pletzinger writes that he spent seven years off and on traveling with Dirk “in countless hotel rooms and cars, on locker room benches, terraces, film sets, and in a pasture in the Slovenian Alps. We’ve also sat in doctor’s offices, his daughter’s bedroom in Preston Hollow, and arenas and dusty gyms. We’ve been in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Kranjska Gora, Warsaw, Randersacker, and Shanghai.”

A decade later, as of this week, his book The Great Nowitzki is finally out in English (full disclosure: I am working on a book for the same publisher, W.W. Norton & Company).

Importantly, Pletzinger is not a sports journalist, per se, but, in Dirk’s words, a “real writer,” an accomplished novelist, who’s working on a TV series. Nowitzki was smart to permit access to someone so talented. Pletzinger didn’t just shine a light around in the back rooms of Dirk’s life, he crafted beauty from it.

My friend and colleague David Thorpe is the Geschwindner of Florida, and wrote a book called Basketball is Jazz. When I saw that The Great Nowitzki has a chapter by the same name, it struck me David might feel a tad professionally territorial. Then I read that chapter, which tracks Holger’s thinking about teaching the game, from Geschwindner’s mentor—Jazz musician and basketball player Ernie Butler—to refined thoughts about dosing freedom and joy with discipline and drills. “Rituals,” Pletzinger writes, “are shortcuts to flow.” About 100 pages into the book, ideas from a lifetime watching this game fused in important new ways. “Both groups work in highly regulated systems,” writes Pletzinger, “and both strive toward the highest level of freedom within these confines.” And:

What really makes sense to [Geschwindner] is how mistakes are dealt with. If a musician plays a wrong note, the piece doesn’t pause; you don’t stop and start all over. Nobody scolds a musician; nobody screams at them. Instead, the wrong note is taken as a challenge, it’s integrated and played with, it’s used as a jumping board for the unexpected. “Mistakes are the salt in the soup,” Geschwindner will later write, before quoting Miles Davis: “When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that makes it good or bad.” 

I called Thorpe and read him five straight pages out loud, including the passage Pletzinger reads to Nowitzki in the video above. Thorpe stayed silent. When I finally paused, he said “that’s the greatest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.”

Dirk grew up in a gym where his parents competed on high-level teams, while he and his friends crafted a childhood as imagined by David Epstein’s book Range. 

I was nine, ten, eleven, twelve. The junior games were in the afternoon, and then my dad played—he was still on the third team. Then came the second team, and then he played on the first team between 7 o’clock and 7:30. We’d have ice cream, fries, and soda in between. We played hide-and-seek with ten, fifteen kids in this big old equipment room full of nooks and crannies. We laid these blue mats out on the ground, then jumped from like ten feet up … Saturdays in the gym on Schiesshausstrasse. Those were my favorite days, I'll never forget them.

They’d climb the ropes, leap into the gym mat, and make hours of delight in moving bodies every which way. As he grew, Dirk was a terrible student—he didn’t like sitting still—but he could instantly learn anything about how to move. When Germany’s Boris Becker won Wimbledon, seven-year-old Dirk got a Boris Becker haircut.

Geschwindner, a former German professional player and basketball autodidact saw something in 15-year-old Dirk’s play, and (“Hey Number 14, what’s your name?”) introduced himself. Soon, with Dirk’s parents’ blessing, Dirk had a mountain guide to the peak of basketball:

He’s never seen a player like Dirk Nowitzki. The kid has all the physical and mechanical tools to become one of the greatest of all time. He can hardly believe what he’s seeing after the first few sessions. No matter what he throws at Dirk, the kid immediately integrates it into his game. Mechanical tips, methodical alterations. 

It’s a perfect pairing. A disciplined once-in-a-lifetime learner with an unconventional master teacher. Thus Pletzinger begins unspooling the real story of how a kid from Wurzburg became Dirk Nowitzki (who, by the way, has had his first and last names mispronounced by American fans his entire adult life—it’s an open joke in this book, and even in TV commercials in Germany).

There was the little period, near the end of Dirk’s dismal rookie year, when the Mavericks’ hopes faded sufficiently that coach Don Nelson told Dirk to just go out there and play with joy. He had been playing three minutes here and four minutes there, but in a meaningless game against the Suns Dirk started, played 44 minutes, and scored 29 points.

“I’ll never forget that game,” says Dirk.

“He trained his mental muscle back then,” adds then-teammate Steve Nash.

You know the broad strokes of Nowitzki’s NBA career from there, and now we know what it felt like. The struggle of this book is the grind. The movie that, to Geschwindner, best captures the feeling of being Nowitzki is Free Solo. A man, on a journey alone, making one hard decision after another—a single mistake and it’s all for naught. Geschwindner says that struggle is beyond words, which evidently Pletzinger took as a challenge; The Great Nowitzki is the result.

After losing to the Heat in the Finals at age 28, Dirk made a giant life change he wished he would have made earlier: a total diet overhaul. The diet rules become a stand-in for the many deprivations of professional athletics, the offseason early-morning workouts, playing through injuries, nights drinking water while everyone else drinks. For every dinner, in every restaurant, every season from then on, Pletzinger writes that Dirk ordered something along the lines of “salad, grilled chicken with capers, steamed vegetables, water please. Sauce on the side. Red meat and carbohydrates are avoided, and alcohol and processed foods are forbidden.” Imagine an NBA season without refined sugar. Nowitzki allowed himself carbs only when needed: “I had noodles before every game of my career,” Nowitzki says late in the book. “I don’t think I’ll eat pasta for a very, very long time. And I won’t miss it.”

And then one of the book’s thousand super-cool lines: “His awareness of his body is such that he can feel a glass of lemonade in his joints the next day.” Nowitzki explained in our video interview that he still spends a lot of time thinking about the interplay of diet, inflammation, and the bone spurs in his ankle. Much of the book, in testimony from teammates, coaches, and loved ones, is about the slog of being Dirk, adhering to the long-term in the face of short-term temptation.

Losing teeth or dental work to elbows, biting all the way through his tongue, it’s all taken in stride. When Carl Landry’s teeth were embedded in Nowitzki’s elbow, though Nowitzki tells Pletzinger that one was special. Landry had porcelain prosthetic teeth, so what the doctors pulled out of Nowitzki’s elbow wasn’t one tooth, but something like the zillion shards of a shattered teacup: “The doc had to dig around for half an hour in by bursa, sometimes just with his finger … That was the most pain I ever experienced.” (I am guessing this also stood out for Landry)

The deep reporting is everywhere, from the bar where Nowitzki, Michael Finley, and Nash would drink after hard workouts with Geschwindner, to the firehouse around the corner from Dirk’s house where crews have researched the home’s precise construction, to better douse the flames in case of fire. And while the tone is generally upbeat, The Great Nowitzki avoids the sports-book temptation to gloss over every uncomfortable fact. In a memorable scene, Nowitzki begs his coaches to remove beloved teammate J.J. Barea, screaming “he can’t play in this game” from the court. Chandler Parsons is easily dismissed (“not serious enough” in Pletzinger’s interpretation). Dennis Schroeder has an eye-openingly selfish episode on the German national team.

At times, an outsider’s eye sees the NBA better. After Rick Carlisle inexplicably pulls the starters from a winnable 2018 game in Los Angeles, Pletzinger needs pages to explain tanking:

The worst teams in the league are not relegated to a lower division—instead, the worst teams receive the right to select the best young players … but because the league wants to sell tickets to all games, TV contracts must be fulfilled, and beer needs to be sold, talk of this strategy is strictly forbidden.

The odd substitutions happen again in Oakland; Mark Cuban is interviewed by Dr. J, openly discusses tanking, and is fined half a million dollars by the NBA. There’s a delightful passage about a night at Bob’s Steakhouse as the reality of the Mavericks’ strategy is setting in. Pletzinger writes that Dirk orders a salad, steamed vegetables, and the catch of the day, with sauce on the side, and water to drink—the free solo foods of a champion on the grind. 

But then he hesitates and thinks it over and calls the waiter back. “Whatever” he suddenly says. “I’ll have the creamed corn. And onion rings for everybody. And the jumbo shrimp cocktail. And a glass of red wine.”

A delightful revelation from our in-the-works video with Pletzinger and Nowitzki: When he retired, and finally got to indulge the urges he had been keeping at bay for decades, Nowitzki says he went absolutely wild with … Cabernet? Doughnuts? It turns out this Superman’s kryptonite is Chick-Fil-A. He’s back to eating salads for lunch, in the process of shedding the pounds he gained from his retirement celebration binge.

Too often NBA stars enter and exit the spotlight without us fans ever getting a sense what they were ever really like. Pletzinger has his biases, they’re evident in the title. He’s such a Dirk fan that he mimicked Dirk’s diet and workout regimen for months, just to get a sense of him. But he put in the work, for almost a decade, and may have solved that problem for one star. There’s a line where Pletzinger wonders whether he truly got to know Nowitzki. After reading the book, Dirk told us Pletzinger pretty much got it.


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