Nowitzki emerges using mentor's game plan
One look at Dirk Nowitzki and it's easy to write off his emergence as an NBA star, at 24, to one thing: The dude is a genetic freak. Seven-footers simply don't make that many 3-pointers.
Closer examination leads you to another reason: the tutelage of Holger Geschwindner, whose name you won't recognize but who ought to have his own wing in the Hall of Fame for personal trainers.
Geschwindner, 57, is a 6-4 former center and captain of the 1972 German Olympic team. For nearly eight years, he has served as Nowitzki's coach and mentor, devoting countless hours toward his development as an athlete and as a person.
'Without Holger, I wouldn't be where I am,' says Nowitzki, who will lead the Dallas Mavericks against the Trail Blazers in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series tonight at the Rose Garden. 'He taught me how to shoot, how to move, how to play. I owe him everything. He's like a second dad.'
Geschwindner was in Dallas this week on one of the rare visits he makes from Germany during the NBA season. The coaching is now left to the Mavericks' staff. Once summer begins, Geschwindner's work with his prize pupil will recommence in Germany.
While Geschwindner obviously has covered the fundamentals, it is the depth of his endeavors that separates him from other basketball gurus. Geschwindner is part academician, part Anthony Robbins, maybe even a little Andy Warhol as he tests Nowitzki's cerebral capacity along with expanding the physical talents of his prodigy.
They met on a court in Germany in 1995, when Nowitzki was a towering 17-year-old with already considerable talents and Geschwindner an aging but still capable player who was watching Nowitzki play while waiting for his own team's game to begin. When Nowitzki's game ended, Geschwindner introduced himself and asked, 'Who is teaching you the details?'
'No one,' Nowitzki replied.
'OK, we can start if you wish,' Geschwindner said.
Three weeks later, Geschwindner had a game in Wurzburg, Nowitzki's hometown. Dirk was there along with the rest of his family Ñ father Joerg, once a star handball player in Germany; mother Helga, once a member of the German Olympic basketball team; and older sister Silke, who also played for the German national basketball team.
'You offered to practice with Dirk,' Helga told Geschwindner. 'Is it still valid?'
Geschwindner, a successful businessman who serves as project manager for a company that's involved with 'computer work, designing and system analysis,' began making the one-hour drive to Wurzburg from his home in Bad Nauheim several days a week.
Why was it Geschwindner who had to do all the traveling? 'Dirk had no driver's license,' he says with a shrug.
After three or four practices, Geschwindner met again with the parents.
'You have to make a decision,' he told them. 'If you want Dirk to be the best player in Germany, which he can be, we have to do practice every day.'
Since then, Geschwindner has devoted much of his life to developing Nowitzki. He has received virtually no financial remuneration beyond expenses, even with Nowitzki making millions. Why?
'I have a good job,' he says. 'Of course I wouldn't accept money from him. I learned basketball from an American soldier, and he was driving back and forth from his city to work with me. I am glad to give something back.'
There's something else: Nowitzki's drive to become the best. Geschwindner has worked with dozens of German youths over the years. None has shown Nowitzki's level of commitment.
'I go to the gym on my lunch break every day, and the kids can show up,' Geschwindner says. 'Most of them, they come one day, and four weeks later, they show up again. You cannot drag a dog to the hunt.
'With Dirk, it is fun to see the progress. Sometimes when you push somebody like this, you have a lot of headaches. Everybody can see he is still enjoying it.'
'He had so much potential'
Geschwindner says when they started, Nowitzki's talents were largely undeveloped.
'Dirk had no tools,' Geschwindner says. 'It was obvious he had so much potential. I could see he was doing things that good players do. He had a good understanding about the game, but I had to show him how to shoot, how to dribble. Be open, take a shot. Penetrate, dribble drive. Things like that. We are still working on it.'
Geschwindner tailored a program to what he saw as Nowitzki's needs. Within a month, his protŽgŽ was a member of the German Junior National team. He also was a disinterested student about ready to drop out of high school. Geschwindner convinced Nowitzki to dedicate himself to getting a degree.
'I told him, 'I will practice with you every day, but you cannot be a bad guy in class,' ' Geschwindner says. 'We worked on his studies while he was shooting free throws. Sometimes when he came to practice and he didn't feel well, we would play chess or do mathematics homework. I gave him Joseph Conrad's book 'The Typhoon' to read.'
After his 18th birthday, Geschwindner saw to it that Nowitzki fulfilled his 15-month obligation with the German army. By the time of his release, Nowitzki was considered his country's top player and already had caught the eye of many American scouts, including Donn Nelson, a Dallas assistant coach and son of head coach Don Nelson.
The Nelsons wound up in full pursuit of Nowitzki, flying to Germany just before the 1998 draft to persuade him to try the NBA, then swinging one of the most one-sided trades in league history. Dallas chose Robert 'Tractor' Traylor with the sixth pick, then sent Traylor and forward Pat Garrity to Milwaukee for Nowitzki, whom the Mavericks had the Bucks select for them with the ninth choice.
Don Nelson predicted that Nowitzki would win Rookie of the Year honors, but it wasn't even close. Nowitzki came in during the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign ill-prepared for the cultural and physical differences in the NBA game. He finished with an 8.2-point scoring average, a shooting percentage of .405 and a 3-point percentage of .206. Vince Carter won the rookie award, and Nowitzki headed to Germany for a summer of work with Geschwindner.
Music is part of training
In his second NBA season, Nowitzki had blossomed into a star, averaging 17.5 points. And each year, he has grown as a player. Every summer, he returns to his routine with Geschwindner. They do the normal things, working on shooting, dribbling and post-up moves. And they explore a different realm.
To improve footwork, Geschwindner brought Nowitzki to a fencing academy and had him spar. For strength and coordination, he has had him row on a lake with champion oarsmen ('much more fun than weightlifting,' Geschwindner says). For balance and flexibility, Nowitzki has gone through sessions of rollerblading.
The Nowitzki family had no musical interests. For Christmas one year, Geschwindner bought Dirk a saxophone. Now he has turned to the guitar.
'I know from experience, music is very helpful,' Geschwindner says. 'Your intelligence is improved.'
They went to the opera together. Nowitzki wound up singing all the chords in 'Figaro.'
'I wanted him to have exposure to all kinds of music,' Geschwindner says. 'The kids today like rap music, but of 100 words, 50 of them are (expletive). You don't have to like (opera), but you cannot reject it before having seen it.'
All of it has seemed to work. Nowitzki's basketball talents are bursting, and those with the Mavericks say he is a fine person.
'Great guy, and totally respectful,' Dallas assistant coach Del Harris says. 'His parents did a wonderful job with him, and so did Holger. Without Holger, maybe there wouldn't be Dirk.'
When he was a youngster, Nowitzki had three basketball posters on his bedroom walls Ñ of Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen. Pippen was his favorite.
'He is a great all-around player,' Nowitzki says of the Blazer veteran. 'Watch him. He is so smooth, how he moves. He can just do everything on the court. He can shoot, he makes plays off the dribble, he is a great passer, he is one of the best defenders in the league. That is why I love to watch him play the game.
'I wish I were the ballhandler and the passer he is. I will work on it. Hopefully, I can get there one day.'
Pippen nods when told of Nowitzki's comments, then laughs.
'He learned a lot from me,' Pippen says. 'Now I wish I could learn a lot from him.
'He definitely has an all-around game. If that's what he wanted to model his game to be, he has done it. Playing at the level he is playing at now at such a young age, with so much confidence, it's pretty scary.'
In the next two years, Geschwindner and Nowitzki want to add 20 pounds of muscle to Nowitzki's 240-pound frame, hoping it will improve his post-up capabilities.
'He already has enough game inside to be very effective,' Pippen says. 'He obviously is not going to be a Karl Malone. That is not his body structure. But if he were built like Malone, then he would not be as great a (an outside) shooter. He's such a great shooter, (a defender) wants him trying to score inside rather than outside.'
Room for improvement
Nowitzki says he doesn't consider himself a candidate for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award.
'I am basically a scorer,' he says. 'There are a lot of guys, like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, who do way more for their team. I don't think I'm in that group, but I certainly hope to get there in a couple of years. That's why I keep working on my game, to be the best I can be.'
Nowitzki says he can better his skills in several areas.
'I have become a a better rebounder the last couple of years, but there's still room to improve,' he says. 'Same with my post moves. I don't move my feet laterally on defense very well. My ballhandling has to get better.
'Nellie wants me to play point forward a little more over the years,' he says of the Dallas head coach. 'I have a long way to go to become a complete player.'
When Geschwindner and Nowitzki began eight years ago, they devised a seven-point plan to make Nowitzki the complete player. Nowitzki, says Geschwindner, is at the beginning of Level 6. How long will it take to get to 7?
'I would say two more years,' he says. 'Dirk is right on schedule.'
And when he gets to that level, will Nowitzki be the best player in the world?
'I don't know,' Geschwindner says with a grin. 'That depends on the other guys.'