Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks put the final touch on a 60-game winning regular season on Wednesday this week, rounding out their final game against the L.A. Clippers in preparation for the upcoming NBA play-offs.
While the focus was very much on the play-offs, Dirk received a rousing reception from the fans when presented with the FIBA Europe Player of the Year award, just before tip-off by Secretary General Nar Zanolin (pictured).
Fibaeurope.com caught up with Dirk a couple of days later to talk about his peformance in 2005, his commitment to the national team and life after basketball.
FIBA Europe: You’ve won a lot of individual awards in your career. Do they still mean something to you and where does the European Player of the Year trophy rank among the rest?
Nowitzki: It’s a great honour, especially to be player of the year in Europe because there are so many great European players, not only in the NBA but internationally too. We had a great EuroBasket with a lot of great athletes and players. It’s a great honour, but obviously I'm in a team sport. I don’t approach games saying I want to win certain awards. I want to help the team win in the first place. If I do that and have a great year, then awards are great but that’s not how I approach the game.
||I think playing for my country was big in my development over the years
FIBA Europe: Does it mean something to you to be recognised by the European fans?
Nowitzki: It's been great really all over the world. When I come home in Europe, in Germany, they’re all over me and really respect and accept what I do over here and the performance that I give all season long. At the beginning when I came back in my first couple of years it kind of picked up but since then it's been amazing. People know me all over the world. I was on vacation a couple of years ago in the Caribbean and people knew me, so it's great that we have fans all over the world and the sport of basketball is getting bigger every year. It's been a pleasure just being around the sport of basketball.
FIBA Europe: You’ve played a huge role in the popularity of basketball in Europe and this season you are in serious consideration for NBA MVP honours, something that no European player has ever achieved. Do you feel as if you are a pioneer?
Nowitzki: You know I don’t really see myself as if I’m representing Europe or Germany, not at all. Once I go on the court, to me it doesn’t matter where you're from. We have players here from Africa, Mexico, China. For me once you step on the court we’re one unit and we're trying to get the job done. Obviously we have to communicate in English but other than that, it doesn’t really matter where you’re from. That’s always how I've approached it. I don’t put pressure on myself saying, you know, I have to represent Germany or my continent. I don’t do that at all. I play for the love of the game, really, it sounds stupid but I love my job, I love to compete every night and you know, sometimes it doesn’t matter where you’re from as long as you get the job done.
FIBA Europe: You’ve proved your commitment to play for the German national team time and time again. Where does this commitment come from?
Nowitzki: Well I love the sport. If I wouldn’t have fun doing it over the summer, I wouldn’t be doing it. If that would be a hassle for me and my body was hurting I wouldn’t do it. First of all I love to do it, second, a lot of the players I’ve been playing with since I was a junior and a lot of my teammates I’ve been with for over 10 years, so for me to go back and be successful with my old friends, it's just a blast. The German national team gave me a lot when I was young. I was 12, 13, 14, traveling to European competitions and my classmates hadn’t been out of Würzburg yet, and I'd been to almost every country in Europe. It just got me around so much that I really feel I owe the German federation so much because they gave me opportunities to travel in Europe and perform and it's been fun. But like I said, once you get older and your body is feeling sore after a long NBA season, I don’t know how long I’m gonna do it. I’ve made a commitment to try to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games, after that we’ll take it year by year.
FIBA Europe: Your commitment has also been financial, in terms of helping the German Federation to cover your insurance costs. How did that situation come about?
Nowitzki: The problem is that a couple of years ago I had surgery on my left foot and the insurance company made an exclusion, so every time we have to get an insurance over the summer I have to insure my left foot because it is not insured over the NBA. So it’s a big deal every time and it costs, I mean, so much money. I have to give credit to the German federation every year, they try to come up with it, they battle, they really do. I helped them out that one year, but for some reason they found the money later, so we’ve been working together on that and really just trying to get the job done together, and so far we have got it done and hopefully will do in the next couple of years.
FIBA Europe: What can playing for the national team do for you in terms of your development as a player?
Nowitzki: Well really I think every summer I come back better for the next season and the national team is a big part of that. I work on my game in the summer and then I have a chance to play on a very high level in Europe and kind of work on things and help my country as well. I think if I hadn’t have played for Germany all those summers, I wouldn’t have come back as a better player. You need competition in the summer to push you, you need that pressure on you I think, and kind of push you forwards, and I think playing for my country was big in my development over the years.
|Dirk acknowledges the fans in Belgrade at EuroBasket 2005|
FIBA Europe: Europe has a great reputation right now for producing world class players. Have you noticed that rise in quality in national team play at the last few EuroBaskets?
Nowitzki: I think so. I always talk about the one in Turkey in 2001 where it was so much fun. Every game was hard fought, there was no country you could just blow by. You had to compete from round one and in the crossover elimination game we were down 20 and had to fight back , and in the quarters, every game was hard fought (Editor's note: Germany beat Greece 80-75 after going down 10-29 in the first quarter. Dirk finished with 25 points and 15 rebounds in the win). Ever since then the level has been so high, every country is there to compete. In Sweden we almost lost to Israel in the first game. Every country there is bringing players over ready to play and if you’re not on top of your game, like we weren’t in Sweden, we weren’t ready to compete and we got beat.
FIBA Europe: During EuroBasket 2005 you received an extraordinary standing ovation from the crowd when you were subbed out towards the end of the final against Greece. How did that feel?
Nowitzki: That was one of the best moments of my career. It wasn’t in Germany in front of German fans, it was just basketball people. Greeks, Serbians, it didn’t really matter who was in the gym, they gave me an unbelievable applause and even when the game kept going and I sat down, and they were still standing up. In my career that was probably one of my proudest moments to know that they knew that I'd left it all out there for my country and the sport of basketball, that was special. I really had a warm feeling and I just had to hug everyone from teammates to the doctors, who did a great job, the coaches. That was just unbelievable, an indescribable feeling.
FIBA Europe: You have won bronze and silver medals with the German national team. Is it realistic for Germany to win title in the next few years?
Nowitzki: Everything is realistic. Really I think every team right now is so close and anything is possible. Looking back in Belgrade we could have lost in the semis, we could have lost in the quarter-finals, we could have lost to Turkey in the cross elimination game, we could have lost to Russia in the group game and then would have had to travel somewhere. So everything is so close and one shot or one stop, one rebound can mean you go to the final or you lose in the cross elimination game so, I think really anything is possible these days. If you are playing well in the tournament your confidence goes up then you play better as a team and that’s always a big factor, but really everything is possible.
FIBA Europe: There is a lot of talk right now about the future of German basketball, particularly when you step down from the national team. There is also concern that no new players are coming through the system. Is that something that people talk to you about?
Nowitzki: Yeah I think our youth programme is not really working and that has been a concern over the past couple of years. Now they have opened the borders in the first division, anybody can play and the German youth really gets no chance to sniff even a couple of minutes of playing time and I think that is a bad situation (Editor's note: As of this season, German Bundesliga teams are now allowed to play with an unlimited amount of foreigners). We are trying to build something and to be a basketball country and it's kind of hard that way. We have a players association that’s trying to force the Germans to play a little bit more and we’ll see how that works in the next couple of years, but obviously we need a lot more talent. If you look at our national team, besides one or two youngsters, we really haven’t had anybody come in and be a factor so that’s a little disappointing, no question.
FIBA Europe: How do you see your career when you stop playing. Do you think you will stay in basketball in some capacity?
Nowitzki: I get asked that a lot what I will do and I have no idea what I will do. I guess it depends where I have family if they are from here or Europe, but you know, probably I’ll stick around basketball because I’m so connected to the sport and I love the sport so much, but I really don’t know yet. Maybe I’ll be a coach, or more like an individual coach, I can’t really say, but I’m sure I’ll be around basketball somehow.