|31 January 2006|
By Stephen Creek, PA Sport
Dirk Nowitzki will never forget 2005, the year he travelled to basketball's heartland in Europe with Germany and claimed a silver medal in one of the finest hoops tournaments ever staged on the continent.
A great Greece team won the gold medal in Belgrade but Nowitzki and his team did their part in making the event a true spectacle.
If you were there to watch, you felt the Nowitzki impact. If you saw games on TV, or read the newspapers, you understood. The 213 cm Nowitzki blended in with his team-mates until they needed him to carry them on his broad shoulders.
Nowitzki tried to never be bigger than the German team yet, really, he was.
He averaged a tournament best 26.1 points per game and was second in rebounding (10.6). Not surprisingly, he was voted by international media as the 2005 FIBA Europe Player of the Year.
"The EuroBasket was one of the biggest successes of my career," Nowitzki said in an exclusive interview with PA Sport on behalf of FIBA Europe.
"With the injuries Germany had in the squad, the way we came together and the chemistry of the team was amazing."
|Dirk Nowitzki and the German team celebrated a semi-finals victory over Spain in EuroBasket 2005.|
Injuries robbed Germany of key players and there was also adversity on the floor. In their very first game, Germany suffered an 84-82 overtime defeat to Italy.
"The greatest thing was we didn't keep our heads down for too long after the Italy defeat," he says. "That was the win we had to get and, after we didn't get it, we had a team meeting that night.
"We came out and had a smoking game against Ukraine and then the real turning point came in the next game against Russia. We turned that game around and found a way to win."
Indeed, Russia looked to be in control of that group game with a 33-18 advantage and just 4:41 to go in the third quarter. The Germans staged an impressive comeback and Nowitzki would end up scoring his team's final 11 points, including a three-pointer with 27 seconds in the game, for a 51-50 lead.
Russia missed a shot at the end, and Nowitzki walked off the court having scored 24 points and grabbed 19 rebounds. Victories over Turkey and Slovenia followed in the elimination round and last eight, respectively, to set up a semi-final clash with Spain.
That game will be remembered for a Nowitzki shot that made basketball fans weep from Barcelona to Madrid. After Juan Carlos Navarro's late runner had given Spain a one-point lead, Germany charged up court without calling a timeout. They gave the ball to Nowitzki about 17 feet away from the basket near the top of the key.
He drove left but was guarded closely by Jorge Garbajosa. Despite Garbajosa putting a hand in Nowitzki's face, the seven-footer still managed to make the go-ahead jump shot with 3.9 seconds remaining for a 74-73 lead.
After a timeout, Spain's Jose Manuel Calderon missed a potential game-winning three to preserve victory for Germany.
"I haven't really made a lot of game winning shots in my career and that was the one I will really remember," says Nowitzki. "We were down 57-54 going into the last quarter, then got back into the lead. The next thing I know, we're down again.
"I remember picking up the ball and trying to duck and dive to find the space to shoot and I will always remember that shot. The way the fans reacted afterwards and the way the players were going crazy in the locker room was brilliant.
"That was probably the biggest two points I've scored for Germany. At the Euros in Turkey (2001) we were right there in the semis and didn't make it to the final, so we didn't want that to happen again."
Though Nowitzki couldn't save Germany from defeat against Greece in the gold medal game, the rapturous applause around the stadium when he was substituted near the end of the contest told its own story.
In emotional scenes, he walked off the court hands raised and waving to the crowd. He made a point to embrace everyone in the Germany set-up, from the physios to his team-mates to coach Dirk Bauermann.
||I have made my hobby my job so I am happy to play no matter what the game is, whether it is for Germany, for the (Dallas) Mavericks or just a pick-up game at my home gym."
"It was not planned beforehand at all," Nowitzki says. "At that stage of the game, we were still fighting but Greece were the better team and we didn't really have a chance.
"With a couple of minutes left, the coach brought me off and that is a moment I will always think of. Everybody just jumped up off the bench and the fans were all applauding.
"Even after I had sat down on the bench they were still applauding. I had given my all for my country and I was very proud."
The spontaneous farewell to all in the stands was particularly moving.
"You could see the fans know a lot about basketball," he says. "They turned out in massive numbers for the games and then at practices I had guys coming up to me, telling me what to do on court - they were just crazy about basketball and the game means so much to them.
"At the previous Euros in Sweden, no one cared, whereas in Belgrade every game was televised, everybody was interested and that was a great atmosphere to play in."
Those last moments against Germany also capped a very emotional several weeks for Nowitzki.
"For me, it was a difficult summer, with all the troubles with my coach and I was not a happy person going into the tournament," he says. "I didn't know if I was going to play or not and when everything worked out for me, I was really happy to be there."
The coach Nowitzki was speaking about was also his close friend, Holger Geschwindner, who was detained by authorities on suspicion of tax evasion.
Geschwindner was eventually cleared of all charges enabling Nowitzki to concentrate on playing, and he thrived.
"Dirk Bauermann did a great job in keeping everybody involved and motivated," he says. "We didn't have a lot of options with the injured players but he did a great job. The most important thing was our defence was great. That got us to the final."
Nowitzki always played with a smile on his face.
"I love my job," he says, "and I have made my hobby my job so I am happy to play no matter what the game is, whether it is for Germany, for the (Dallas) Mavericks or just a pick-up game at my home gym."