The NBA’s Euro­pean In­va­sion

Af­ter Years of Grow­ing Tal­ent, Now­itzki Is New Stan­dard-Bearer

The Washington Post Sunday - - Nbasunday - By Michael Lee

Dirk Now­itzki, the fa­vorite to win the NBA’s most valu­able player award as he pushes the Dal­las Mav­er­icks to the league’s best record, could be re­spon­si­ble for a ma­jor turn­ing point in in­ter­na­tional bas­ket­ball, specif­i­cally for play­ers from Europe.

If Now­itzki snatches the MVP tro­phy away from his good friend Steve Nash, he would be­come the first player who wasn’t born or schooled in the United States to win the league’s high­est in­di­vid­ual honor.

The NBA has had non-Amer­i­can-born MVPs, but Nash (Canada) and Hakeem Ola­ju­won (Nige­ria) each played bas­ket­ball at Amer­i­can col­leges — and nei­ther re­ceived their pri­mary train­ing in Europe.

Now­itzki ar­rived in the United States from Wurzburg, Ger­many, in 1998 as a gan­gly 20-year-old kid and got his first taste of Amer­i­can bas­ket­ball dur­ing the Nike Hoops Sum­mit in San An­to­nio. Nine years later, af­ter six all-star ap­pear­ances and twice earn­ing first-team al­lNBA hon­ors, Now­itzki is in po­si­tion to be rec­og­nized with some­thing that other past and present Euro­pean bas­ket­ball stars could have only dreamed of.

“It’s a pro­ce­dure that has taken 20 years and Dirk is the fi­nal step. It would be the ul­ti­mate step of the orig­i­nal baby steps for guys like [Toni] Kukoc, [Drazen] Petro­vic, [Arvy­das] Sabo­nis,” said Mau­r­izio Gher­ar­dini, the Toronto Rap­tors’ vice pres­i­dent and as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager who joined the team be­fore this sea­son af­ter serv­ing as the long­time gen­eral man­ager of Euro­pean power Benet­ton Treviso in Italy. Widely con­sid­ered the best player to ever come out of Europe, the 7-foot Now­itzki has helped rev­o­lu­tion­ize the game with his of­tenim­i­tated, never-du­pli­cated skill set. But the sig­nif­i­cance of his in­di­vid­ual per­for­mance is lost on Now­itzki as he at­tempts to lead the Mav­er­icks to their first NBA ti­tle. “I think for me right now, it’s not some­thing I’m fo­cused on,” the 28-yearold Now­itzki said re­cently. “Ob­vi­ously, in 10, 20 years, it’ll be a very, very great thing to look back and say, ‘Hey, I had a great year and I helped my team a lot.’ It would ob­vi­ously be some­thing re­ally spe­cial and a great honor if I would get it. But as of right now, I don’t worry about what it means to me or Euro­pean play­ers in gen­eral.” Euro­pean play­ers of­ten have been con­sid­ered ex­cel­lent role play­ers and all-star-cal­iber play­ers, but they never had been con­sid­ered ca­pa­ble of lead­ing a team to a cham­pi­onship or win­ning the MVP award. Win­ning one or both this sea­son truly could set Now­itzki apart and change per­cep­tions for in­ter­na­tional play­ers and the sys­tems that cre­ate them. “It’s closer to one bas­ket­ball com­mu­nity now,” Gher­ar­dini said.

But Gher­ar­dini also agreed with Rap­tors Pres­i­dent of Bas­ket­ball Op­er­a­tions Bryan Colan­gelo, who ar­gued that Now­itzki’s de­vel­op­ment into the best player on the league’s best team has come with some Amer­i­can school­ing. “He cut his teeth here in the NBA,” Colan­gelo said.

Mav­er­icks Gen­eral Man­ager Don­nie Nelson ac­quired Now­itzki in the draft af­ter see­ing him at the Hoops Sum­mit and said Now­itzki’s ac­com­plish­ment shouldn’t be marginal­ized if he is for­tu­nate enough to win MVP. “He’s cer­tainly proud of be­ing born and raised in Ger­many, but he’s earned his rights and re­spects in this coun­try, in a way that ev­ery MVP be­fore him earned it — through hard work, ac­com­plish­ments on the court and lead­ing his team to, hope­fully, a spe­cial place,” Nelson said.

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