Nowitzki on brink of an international incident

Foreign players have won NBA titles. But Dirk Nowitzki has a chance to lead his team to one. The times, they are a changin'.

Updated: June 8, 2006, 1:06 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The foreign invasion's final frontier is here.

Nowitzki by the Numbers
Yr. PPG RPG Mavs' finish
'98-99 8.2 3.5 19-31, missed playoffs
'99-00 17.5 6.4 40-42, missed playoffs
'00-01 21.8 9.2 53-29, lost to San Antonio in West semis
'01-02 23.4 10.0 57-25, Lost to Sacramento in West semis
'02-03 25.1 9.9 60-22, lost to San Antonio in West finals
'03-04 21.8 8.7 52-30, lost to Sacramento in West first round
'04-05 26.1 9.7 58-24, lost to Phoenix in West semis
'05-06 26.6 9.0 60-22, playing Miami in NBA Finals

Sometime later this month, it's entirely possible that the king of American basketball will be, for the first time ever, a complete foreigner.

If Dirk Nowitzki leads the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA title, it won't simply be the first championship for the Mavs. It will be the first championship in which the star player is a certifiable, 100 percent overseas import.

Hakeem Olajuwon, product of Nigeria, learned the game in the funkified frat house of Phi Slama Jama before leading the Houston Rockets to two titles during the NBA's Jordan Baseball Intermission. Tim Duncan, product of the Virgin Islands, was polished at Wake Forest before hanging three banners in San Antonio. Nowitzki, product of Germany, completely circumvented the American system -- no high school, no prep school, no college -- on his way to the NBA.

(Funny thing: There are plenty of people in Texas who want to dispatch the military to the Rio Grande these days to keep out immigrants, but the state has profited athletically by being home to the three greatest immigrant 7-footers in NBA history. Where would basketball in the Lone Star State be if athletic protectionism were in vogue on draft day?)

(Funny thing II: At the very time Germany is playing host to the World Cup, what if it turns out that the soccer-centric country's true star of the roundball is off using his hands in America?)

What pioneers such as Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Arvydas Sabonis and Toni Kukoc began in the '80s and '90s, Nowitzki can complete. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker advanced the invasion last year as Duncan's wing men, and now the stage is set for a wholly foreign-schooled player to hoist the Finals MVP trophy and ride in the lead car in a ticker-tape parade.

Of course, American-made ballers Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal will have plenty to say about that. But the groundbreaking possibility exists, and that provides context and commentary on the state of the game both here and abroad.

America's shameful abdication of proper caretending to basketball's grass roots created a vacuum that foreign players have ably filled. While youth basketball rotted from the inside out in the States, it blossomed overseas. Unscarred by the American shoe wars, unpolluted by the travel-team circuit, unspoiled by the human barnacles who attach themselves to young stars, the kids in Europe and elsewhere actually learned how to play the game.

While players in the States obsessed from adolescence about getting paid, Europeans just played. Creatively. Fundamentally.

The results first came home to roost in international competition. The U.S. has been serially embarrassed, and not just in the Athens Olympics. The list includes a sixth-place finish in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, where a fellow named Nowitzki was the MVP.

And now the results have come home to roost on NBA courts in the dishing, swishing forms of Ginobili, Parker, Pau Gasol, Yao Ming, Peja Stojakovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur and, most of all, Dirk Werner Nowitzki.

Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff saw all this coming a few years ago, when he wrote a book titled "Big Game, Small World." Among other things, the book extolled and heralded the evolution of the European game, and the imports heading America's way.

O'Brien on Nowitzki
ESPN.com Insider Jim O'Brien was on the Boston Celtics' staff in 1998 when the team wanted to draft Dirk Nowitzki. He recalls what happened that night … and how Nowitzki ended up in Dallas rather than Boston … in his blog. Read moreInsider

"… These guys prospered in the NBA not in spite of their having learned the game overseas, but because they learned the game in an environment free of travel-team 'coaches,' no coherent pedagogy for teaching fundamentals, and 'maybe-I-can-lead-the-11-p.m.-SportsCenter' 'tudes," Wolff wrote in an e-mail Sunday.

"When I did the travel for 'Big Game,' Nowitzki was just a whisper, a gawky kid from Wurzburg I'd heard about from the Donnie Nelsons I'd bump into. Never actually saw him. But everything I heard about him -- size plus all-court versatility -- suggested the next stage in an evolution from Sabonis to Detlef Schrempf to Vlade Divac. And suggested that he was precisely what the NBA (at that time) so desperately needed."

The discovery of Dirk began during an NBA promotional tour of Europe in September 1997, when young Nowitzki reportedly crushed a dunk over Charles Barkley's head in Dortmund, Germany. It gained momentum in March 1998, when Nowitzki played in the Nike Hoop Summit at the Final Four and dominated the game, scoring 33 points and grabbing 14 rebounds against a team of young American stars.

Still, only two teams seemed aware of how good Nowitzki could be heading into the '98 draft: Boston and Dallas. Then-Boston coach Rick Pitino was vacationing in Italy that spring when he got a call from his general manager, Chris Wallace, asking him to make time to work out this German kid.

"He could be a sleeper," Pitino recalls Wallace telling him.

Pitino put Nowitzki through a workout in a tennis bubble outside of Rome with his brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, shagging rebounds.

"He put on a 45-minute display unlike anything I'd seen before," Pitino said. "He was the most impressive workout I've had since I've been a coach. I said to myself, 'I found the next Larry Bird.' "

Over lunch, Pitino convinced Nowitzki's agent to play coy, telling teams that his client might do one more year in the German military instead of coming to the United States to play. In return, Pitino guaranteed that he'd take Nowitzki with the 10th pick in the draft.

Only problem is, Dallas got there first. Donn Nelson, the international maven, sold his dad on Nowitzki.

The Mavs worked a trade with Milwaukee, which grabbed Nowitzki at No. 9 and dealt him to Dallas along with No. 19 Pat Garrity for No. 6 pick Robert "Tractor" Traylor. That is known as a "flat-out fleecing." Big D got Big D, Milwaukee got an overweight, under-developed, under-motivated product of the American youth system in Traylor, and Boston was left watching.

"We were crushed," Pitino said. "We were devastated."

Actually, the Celtics did wind up with a pretty fair consolation prize in Paul Pierce. But after a difficult first season, Nowitzki has become an absolute force -- to the point that several teams have struck out in drafting foreign players while searching for The Next Dirk.

This postseason his game has reached its apex. Nowitzki went from talented to overpowering in the pitched seven-game battle with San Antonio. Dropping 50 on Phoenix took his stature to another level.

Along the way, he has shown an added American hard edge that has propelled him to the top of the sport.

Anyone who ever labeled Nowitzki a typical Euro softie has to revise that now. Even from the regular season, his rebounds are up (from 9.0 to 11.9), his free throw attempts are up (from 7.3 per game to 10.2) and his three-point attempts are down (from 3.3 to 2.5). He's willing to go where the hard points are scored.

"The NBA added the toughness he needed …," Wolff said. "But isn't that ironic: Back in the '80s it was Europeans who got derided for being 'mechanical' and 'not natural.' Now brutishness is the province of Americans, and grace, flair and finesse most in evidence from guys with funny names and foreign accents."

And now the opportunity presents itself for one of those guys to deliver an NBA title. The foreign invasion has reached the throne room.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.