With Dirk Nowitizki playing incredibly during the 2010-11 Playoffs, we thought it was a good time to look back at the international player who paved the way for the Dirks of today’s NBA. Originally published in SLAM 101 (September 2006), this Detlef Schrempf feature documents the rise of the League’s first legitimate European star. —Ed.

detlef schrempf

by Alan Paul

When you see Dirk, thank Detlef. That’s Detlef Schrempf, who had everything to do with Dirk Nowitzki blossoming into one of the game’s top players, even if he didn’t actually do a single thing first-hand. Schrempf, you see, was the NBA’s first legit European star, and his impact on the game and the rise of international players extends far beyond his own success on the court. Now a Sonics assistant, Schrempf was instrumental in reaching out to, inspiring and setting the example for foreign ballers.

A two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year in Indiana, Schrempf was a 6-10, 225-pound forward versatile enough to play three positions. Coming off his second straight Sixth Man award in ’92, he was also an Avia endorsee being pursued by adidas. As a condition for signing with the German shoe giant, Schrempf demanded the company hold a hoop camp in his homeland. When they agreed, adidas took the first step toward establishing their global Superstar Camps. This year, the company scheduled camps in Beijing, Berlin and Sao Paulo. Schrempf was set to be at all of them, as he has been since the start.

“I really wanted to get a high-level camp into Germany because I thought it could make a difference,” he says. “And I think it has. I think all the camps have helped open the game up to the world.”

Schrempf is sitting courtside at the Beijing Superstar Camp in late May, with Asian teens flying up and down the court in front of him. He occasionally pauses mid-thought to watch the action, viewing it with keenly interested eyes. Schrempf perks up when talking about the camps and the kids, displaying more enthusiasm than he does when discussing his own 16-year NBA career. But it’s the latter that made the former possible.

Schrempf went to the Mavs with the eighth pick of the ’85 Draft, this after a four-year

college run at Washington, where he averaged 11.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 2.3 apg. He came into the League as a 6-10 swingman, backing up All-Stars Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman. “I played the two, three, and a little four, and in front of me were three guys who played over 30 minutes a game,” Schrempf says, adding Roy Tarpley to the mix. “It was hard to get enough minutes to get a feel for the game.”

Still, Schrempf sparkled in his time on the floor and was a key reserve on the excellent ’87-88 team that took the Showtime Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference Finals. The next season, just as he seemed to be coming into his own, and with Aguirre’s trade to Detroit finally opening up floor time, Schrempf was traded to Indiana for Herb Williams. It was a bad trade.

“They traded Aguirre, and I thought I would finally get a chance to play. A week later, I was traded,” recalls Schrempf. “It was really weird timing, and I was disappointed and felt the Mavs had given up on me too early. But it gave me a chance to really play a lot of minutes.”

In Indiana, Schrempf immediately found his niche as a jack-of-all-trades contributor off the bench. His season was split almost exactly between the two teams and his numbers went from 9.5 ppg and 4.5 rpg to 14.8 ppg and 7.2 rpg. It was the start of Schrempf’s career peak, as he was good for about 17 and 7 over the next decade. In ’90-91, his second full season in Indiana, Schrempf won the first of consecutive Sixth Man awards, averaging 16.2 ppg and 7.9 rpg, numbers he bumped up to 17.3 and 9.6 a  year later. And he still didn’t have a position.

“I played the second- or third-most minutes on the team, playing two or three different positions,” he says. “I was really a three, but they wanted me to back up the two and the four. I was just happy to be on the floor. I came in wherever someone had a slow start or foul trouble and changed the tempo of the game, and I was comfortable with that.”