- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Unlike the Olympic qualifying tournament Team USA just won, in which the starry hosts saw few familiar faces and even less competition, Eurobasket 2007 is teeming with tough teams and famous names.
Pau Gasol leads a four-man NBA contingent for the heavily favored hosts from Spain. Finals MVP Tony Parker and Boris Diaw headline the French roster. Russia (Andrei Kirilenko) and Turkey (Mehmet Okur) also have NBA All-Stars in their lineups.
Yet it seems safe to pinpoint Germany's Dirk Nowitzki as the prime recipient of scrutiny in a field featuring 16 countries, since the Spaniards have already qualified for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing by winning the 2006 World Championship and since the reigning NBA MVP is returning to the floor for the first time since his 67-win Dallas Mavericks were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Golden State.
The following is our phone conversation with Nowitzki from Mallorca on the eve of the tournament, which runs Monday through Sept. 16:
Q: We've been reading German press reports over here about your recent trip Down Under to search for "the meaning of life." Is that what you were actually doing?
A: It wasn't really about that. First of all, I always wanted to see Australia. But I really just wanted to get away [after the Golden State series]. Hopefully, our season is never going to be that short again, so this was my chance to get away for a good four or five weeks. It seemed like Australia was the best spot to go. Nobody cares about the MVP down there. It wasn't hard at all [traveling] around. It was great, actually.
Q: Give us some highlights from the trip.
A: First we flew from Frankfurt to Dubai, which is nuts. They have everything there. We stayed in a seven-star hotel, craziest hotel I've even seen. It's 120 degrees outside and you can ski in a skiing arena. But I can't ski because of my contract, so we only stayed there for two nights. I wanted to get to Australia anyway.
We did a lot of camping and went everywhere: Great Barrier Reef, Melbourne, Adelaide. Obviously, it's winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so we didn't see the sun for three weeks. We went old school and rented like a four-wheel drive and slept some nights in the car.
Q: You slept where?
A: You could set it up where the whole roof of the car turns into a [tent and] bed. So I slept upstairs and [longtime mentor] Holger [Geschwindner] slept downstairs. It's pretty smart.
Q: Sounds like you really did get away from the game.
A: You never see any basketball where we were. I think I saw one half of one game of the Finals. It was at like 10 in the morning. But [the series] was so brutal that I couldn't watch it.
Q: All that time traveling with your personal shot doctor and basketball never came up?
A: Obviously, we talked about the playoffs and my career and how far I've come and what I have to do [after the disappointment of the playoffs]. But some days we wouldn't say two words to each other. Some days you talk for eight hours. It just depends.
Q: Any other highlights from the trip?
A: I grew a full beard. I shaved the night before we left and then I said that I'm not even going to take a razor. After about three weeks, I had a full beard and I couldn't even look at myself. But I had to keep it until I got back to Germany. I wanted everybody [in the family] to see it.
Q: Since you've been back in the gym, what have you been working on?
A: I've worked hard these last two months. I don't think I can get in better shape than I am right now. But I want to keep trying to be more athletic. I know I'm never going to jump higher. But I can work on my first step, trying to make it quicker.
Q: Are you ready to go back under the microscope of playing games, albeit with Germany instead of the Mavs?
A: I've been under the microscope already for the last couple years. I don't think it's going to change too much.
Q: You said from the start of your NBA career that getting to the Olympics with Germany is your dream. Does that finally happen this summer?
A: I hope so, but it's going to be pretty tough. We have to finish in the top two or three [at Eurobasket] to qualify [for the Olympics]. I've been saying that Spain and Greece are the heavy favorites, but after that, I think the field is wide open. Since we finished second [in Eurobasket 2005], I think we've got a shot.
Q: How many more summers will you play for your country?
A: I'm committed until the 2008 Olympics, then I'll probably take a break. I didn't say I will retire forever, but it will be time for a break. How long that break will be, nobody knows. I never know what the future is going to bring.
Q: Have you gone back yet and watched any of the Golden State series?
A: I can't see myself doing that any time soon. Maybe I should. Once I get back [to the States], maybe I'll ask our video guys to put together [clips from] some of my offensive [possessions]. But I don't really need to watch it again. I already know what they did to me. They played me with a smaller guy, they fronted me, they crowded me.
Q: Losing to Miami in the Finals after taking the 2-0 lead or losing to Don Nelson and the Warriors in the first round -- which hurts worse?
A: I still put them on the same level frustrationwise. That one year when we went to the Finals, we weren't the heavy favorites [in the playoffs] even though we should have won the Finals. This time, we were the heavy favorites and we said from the beginning that anything but a championship would be a huge disappointment. I rank them both on a high level of frustration. But you gotta keep going.
Q: Your buddy Steve Nash keeps saying that winning the MVP trophy will actually help you get over the playoff disappointment as opposed to putting more pressure on you. Is he right?
A: It's an unbelievable honor that I'll never forget. But I consider this a team game, not an individual game. If you don't win it all the toughest thing is that it's always going to combine with our [first-round exit].
When I think back on the season, I don't think of the MVP. I think of the playoffs. I've always taken losses hard. I think I take losses harder probably than anyone else in this league.
Q: So how hard on yourself are you four months later?
A: Actually, I feel pretty good right now. I think I got over the worst of it. The two months I took off were the longest I haven't touched a ball in 10 years or more.
Q: But is it fair to say that you might have squandered two of your best chances to win a championship?
A: I know I'm almost 30, but I feel like I still have a lot of good years left in me. I don't think [last season] was the last chance.
Q: After the last two playoff endings, some of us find it surprising that the Mavs will go into next season with no major roster changes. Do you?
A: We had trouble with one team, not 29. We still have a good team. I don't think it's time to panic because we had trouble with one team over three years. To win 67 games was very, very special. We just met a hot team. I don't want to think that everything we're doing in Dallas is wrong because we lost to one hot team. I still believe we have some great pieces, with a great coach and a great owner and a great organization that will hopefully win it all one day.
Q: So you disagree with armchair psychologists like me who say that the roster needed more of a shake-up because the Miami and Golden State endings inflicted long-lasting scars that won't just go away?
A: You're asking some hypothetical questions. Nobody knows. You [media] guys are the experts. You guys all talk, but nobody really knows if we can [bounce back] or we can't. We're just going to have to go out and get over it. None of us are saying, 'No, we can't.' I think The General [coach Avery Johnson] is going to get everybody ready.
Q: OK, then. Here's a nonhypothetical question: Where are you going to keep your MVP trophy?
A: It's in Germany, mate. I gave it to my mom.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
Marc Stein catches up with NBA MVP Dirk Nowitzki, who spent weeks in Australia, grew a full beard and got away from the game this summer.