- Wayne Drehs
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WUERZBURG, Germany -- It's a few minutes past 3 o'clock in the morning in this charming college town and life is nowhere in sight. The roads are without cars, the sidewalks without people, the streetlights without power. Every creature is asleep.
Yet make your way down Muenzstrasse, a winding road of bars and cafes not far from the city center and walk through the door of the Chelsea American Diner and Sports Bar. There, in the black of night, 20 men and one woman have gathered to smoke cigarettes, chug coffee and cheer on the biggest sports star their city has ever produced: Dirk Nowitzki.
Six time zones and some 5,000 miles away, the hometown hero, who will celebrate his 28th birthday the next morning, is hoping to lead his Dallas Mavericks to a Game 5 NBA Finals victory over the Miami Heat. And these diehards are here to see it. Live. At 3:15 in the morning.
"We like basketball," says 26-year-old Damien Beldycke. "And we like Dirk Nowitzki. We want to see him do well for our country. So here we come to watch."
Only a few basketball courts away from the Chelsea, just at the end of the block, is Roentgen School, where it all began. Here, in an ultra-cramped gym, a room with wood-paneled floors, a boomerang-shaped parquet floor and enough room for only one row of benches on one side of the floor, is where Nowitzki honed his craft, laying the groundwork for becoming the NBA star he is today.
Yet not everyone back home has taken notice. Drive into this town of about 130,000 and there are no "Birthplace of Dirk Nowitzki" signs. Walk into a downtown sporting goods store and there are no Mavericks T-shirts. "Only Fussball," the clerk explains. Even in the hallways of Roentgen, there is no mention of the city's second-favorite son behind Wilhelm Roentgen, the inventor of the X-ray.
"Yeah, Dirk Nowitzki," says eighth-grader Max Laumer, standing in a Roentgen hallway wearing a pair of Air Jordan sneakers and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers T-shirt. "I know him. I'm pretty sure he played here. People don't talk about it that much. They're more interested in football."
A little thing called the World Cup, or the Weltmeisterschaft as the locals like to call it, has overshadowed Nowitzki's feats the past few weeks. Cup fever has spread like the plague in this soccer-crazed country, with soccer balls popping up everywhere from the bottom of babies' shoes to the top of beer steins.
For every single match, be it Germany versus Poland or Japan versus Croatia, people line the streets, gathering at cafes, bars, restaurants, beer gardens -- anywhere they can to watch. For NBA Finals Game 5, Mavericks-Heat, two bars in the city have stayed open to show the game, the Chelsea and the Linie 3.
The Chelsea has to be Ground Zero for American sports in Wuerzburg, if not all of Germany. There are murals of baseball and football players on its walls. There are pictures of Walter Payton, Ted Williams, Bob Feller, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus.
Then there are the randoms. Pictures of Pedro Guerrero, Joe Magrane and Kevin Mitchell. Pennants from the Arizona Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers. A Quebec Nordiques jersey. Yet amidst all this North American sports memorabilia, there is not one single picture, poster, T-shirt, hat, pennant or button honoring Nowitzki. Or the Mavs.
The same is true everywhere you go in this city. At the Roentgen, at S. Oliver Arena, where Nowitzki played for DJK Wuerzburg. Everywhere. The only symbol of anything Nowitzki is spray-painted on an underpass just beyond S. Oliver, a building that looks more like an office complex than an arena. There, in big, black paint are three letters: NBA.
"He's somebody for the younger generation to look up to," said 22-year-old Timo Giesswein, who played on the same Bavarian select team as Nowitzki. "It isn't something the older generation can understand or appreciate. They're just into soccer. If it wasn't for this World Cup, I think Nowitzki in the Finals would be a much bigger deal."
But as much as the World Cup has been a curse, overshadowing Nowitzki's stateside accomplishments (he could become the first German to win an NBA championship), it's also been a blessing. Without a World Cup regulation allowing German bars to determine their own hours during the Cup, the Chelsea never would have been able to show middle-of-the-night Finals games, meaning the only way Dirk fans could have watched was through Pay-Per-View cable television.
Instead, 15-20 fans have gathered at the Chelsea for every Finals game. Tonight's group is typical: all in their 20s. One guy wears a Robert Horry L.A. Lakers jersey. Another an Air Jordan Nike T-shirt. It's an entertaining group. Led by the boisterous Beldycke, they ride the ups and downs of the night in a colorful dialect that is a mix of German/English basketball speak.
When Antoine Walker hits an early three: "NEIN!!"
When Jason Terry swishes his answer: "NET, NET."
When Nowitzki backs down a Miami defender: "BASELINE, BASELINE, TAKE HIM BASELINE!"
But the best lines are reserved for Shaquille O'Neal and his inability to make free throws. The group refers to Shaq as "Bricklayer" and as the game rolls on, every time the Heat come down the floor they chant, "Hack-a-Shaq, Hack-a-Shaq."
With a tip-off of 3:15 a.m. local time, caffeine is a must. Some drink coffee, others milkshakes and others Coca-Cola. Beldycke, whose girlfriend, Katrine Graf, is the lone female of the group, has an 8 a.m. class this morning. He took a two-hour nap before showing up at the Chelsea and has but one request: "No overtime."
The Mavs take an eight-point lead into the half and things look promising. Outside, at 20 minutes to 5, something strange is taking place. The sun is starting to rise. Just as the second half begins, a delivery boy tosses the morning paper on the Chelsea's doorstep.
The Heat erase Dallas' lead in the second half and Dirk's supporters begin to wilt. They slouch on their barstools, lie down on their booths and continue to throw coffee down their throats like water. It's becoming a battle of attrition.
Just as the clock strikes 6 a.m., with 10 seconds left in the game, Nowitzki finds Erick Dampier for an easy dunk. "Genius!!" Beldycke yells. But Wade answers with a layup of his own, sending the game into -- gasp -- overtime.
While Beldycke looks at his watch, the two guys next to him order another pint. Twenty minutes later, steins empty, Nowitzki again looks like he's going to be the hero, burying a fadeaway jumper over Shaq. The Chelsea erupts. Silverware and glasses bounce up and down on the table, while German bodies bounce up and down on the tile floor. A businessman on his way to work peeks his head in the door wondering what the noise is all about. He sticks around just long enough to watch Wade bury two late free throws that give the Heat a 101-100 lead.
After a Devin Harris desperation heave misses, the final buzzer sounds. Nowitzki and the Mavs lose. It's 6:31 in the morning. The sun is blazing outside. A nearby fruit stand is already stocked and serving customers. The bar empties quickly, with everyone going his or her separate way, except for Beldycke. He stands on the sidewalk in front of the bar, pacing back and forth while holding his head in his hands. Eventually, his girlfriend nudges him so they can head home. But not before he turns to say goodbye to the Chelsea's front door.
"See you Tuesday," he says.
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Wayne Drehs heads to Germany amidst World Cup fever and takes in a game with locals to watch Dirk and the NBA Finals.