In ’92, Schrempf played for Germany in the Olympics, then returned to Indiana on fire, averaging 19.1, 9.5 and 6, making him the only player in the League to be in the top 25 in all three categories. Coach Bob Hill, now Schrempf’s boss in Seattle, moved him into the starting lineup and played him almost exclusively at small forward. “A lot of the offense that year became geared around getting me the ball in the post where I usually had a height advantage,” says Schrempf. “I got to the line a lot and I was often doubled, so I passed out and my assists went up.”
Staying at the three also lightened Schrempf’s defensive load; before that, he might guard Michael Jordan one night and Karl Malone the next. He laughs loud and hard when asked which players were particularly tough covers.
“I did not possess great quickness or the most powerful body, so I could have a tough time anywhere,” he says. “If someone was really hurting me, I tried to make it as tough
or tougher for them at the other end, where I usually had a size advantage over quicker guys and a quick advantage over bigger guys. There really wasn’t anyone whose defense I feared. Some teams just do a good job of taking away things you like. Team defense was more of a factor to me than any individual matchups.”
In Indiana, Schrempf also began to find the stroke that would turn him into one of the game’s best three-point shooters. Working out with Reggie Miller all those years couldn’t have hurt. Up close, Schrempf marveled at his teammate’s tenacity and work ethic. “Reggie was, of course, a great shooter,” says Schrempf. “But he tried to expand his game, and he worked hard at becoming a better penetrator and passer, which did not come naturally to him and that’s what made him an All-Star. I worked out with Reggie a lot in the offseason and I saw the work that he put into transforming himself from a great shooter to a great player.”
In ’93, Schrempf made the first of his three All-Star teams, becoming the first European player to be so honored. Following that season, he was traded to Seattle and helped the Sonics, led by on-the-rise stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, roll to a League-best 63-19 record. They then lost to the Nuggets in the first round in one of the greatest playoff upsets ever.
“There was no team unity,” Schrempf recalls with a shake of his head. “We had a great season, then guys are complaining about shots during the playoffs, which was really disappointing. There were guys fighting on the team, which was awful after having such a great year. We still should have won the series, but things like that take their toll slowly and eat away at you.”
The following season, the Sonics dipped to 57 wins, but a year later, they went 64-18 and made it to the Finals, where they took MJ’s 72-win Bulls team to six games.
“We had a really good team for about four years, and I really didn’t feel that our Finals team was the best of them,” says Schrempf. “But we held it together and fought through some tough times and got on a good roll. By the Finals, we were a little drained from a very tough [seven-game] Utah series. We had a chance to win the first two games in Chicago and then got blown out in the third game at home, which was horrible. We rebounded and won two to make it respectable. But we coulda-shoulda taken one of the first two games, which would have changed the whole series.”
Schrempf’s outside shooting blossomed in Seattle, as he took almost three times as many threes as he ever had in ’94-95, nailing a remarkable 51.4 percent. For the next several years he was one of the League’s most lethal outside shooters.
“I never viewed the three as a first option,” he says. “People always rush the three-point shooter, and I wanted to take the ball to the basket. Often, the coach would be yelling at me to shoot it and I’d drive for a 15-footer. I didn’t grow up with a three-point line and I always considered it primarily a means of spreading the court. Games are won in the paint, especially in the playoffs, and going inside gets you to the line. That was always my focus. I didn’t want to jack it up. I don’t think I ever shot more than four or five in a game.”
Schrempf’s other anomaly is that he seemed to get better as his career wore on, peaking in his 10th season, an age when many players are winding down. “I was a late bloomer who didn’t start playing basketball until I was 13,” he says. “I also got stronger, and I was a lot more athletic at 32 than I was at 25, thanks to better training. You know what it takes to get better when you get older, so your training is more focused.”
Schrempf still knows what it takes, and now he’s sharing that knowledge not only with the Sonics, but also with kids all over the world.
“When Detlef comes to camp, he’s anything but a figurehead,” says adidas camp director Kay Blumel. “He’s leading and instructing, working with kids one on one and teaching them fundamentals, and he’s perfect for that. He was talented but not super athletic. He made himself into a great player by working really hard and excelling in fundamentals.”
Adds Sascha Janzen, adidas’ global marketing chief, “Kids look up to him because they know he was the first foreign player to make an NBA All-Star Game. He showed it could be done.”