The NBA’s European Invasion
After Years of Growing Talent, Nowitzki Is New Standard-Bearer
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.