A Boy from Wurzburg
Dirk Nowitzki wouldn’t have made it without Holger Geschwindner. A Q + A with a basketball visionary.
by Nima Zarrabi
While doing research for my profile on Dirk Nowitzki for SLAM 136 (Cop it if you haven’t already—best Kobe cover ever) the name Holger Geschwindner kept popping up everywhere. During an interview with Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson, he became more than simply a name associated with Dirk. “If you’re talking about Dirk’s specific game and his development, the guy you need to speak with is Holger Geschwindner,” Nelson explained. “He taught him the fundamentals of basketball. He’s probably the guy who gets overlooked the most and deserves the most credit.”
Following our conversation, Nelson and Mavs PR director Sarah Melton helped put me in touch with Holger, who still lives in Germany. We went on to exchange several emails but could never connect via phone before my deadline for the piece. Prior to All-Star weekend, Holger arrived stateside to visit Dirk and since I was also traveling to the D for the festivities, we arranged a sit down interview on the day of the All-Star game. On a very cold morning in Dallas, we met in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency over some coffee. Holger looked exactly as he was described to me by others: a tall and very fit 64-year-old man with crystal blue eyes and an easy smile. We spoke for a little over an hour and in that time I learned the true story of Dirk, from the beginning. Before he chalked up 20,000 points and became the best European player to play in the NBA, he was a shy 16-year-old boy trying to figure out how to dribble and shoot.
SLAM: Sorry. Before my recorder went out, I had asked you about how you found basketball as a boy in Germany and you mentioned you learned the game from American soldiers after World War II.
Holger Geschwindner: As a young kid going to school, we had a lot of contact with Americans. Germany was pretty much destroyed after World War II, so they brought in housing areas, schools, gyms and all that stuff. We had close connections to those people. As boys, we didn’t get to do anything so we worked for chewing gum in the beginning and then we found a sports and art teacher that gave us a chance to sign up for the gym from time to time. That’s where we more or less started to play basketball. I was pretty lucky when I went to high school because I had a teacher who spent five years in America near Springfield. When he came back to Germany, which was soccer, soccer and more soccer—he started a basketball program. That’s where I started and during my last two years I played for one of the top two teams. Then I started studying Math and Physics at a school near Frankfurt in a city that was pretty much destroyed but had three army bases. I met an art teacher at school that would pick me up from the boarding house and take me to the gym. By the way, he’s here too for All-Star weekend. We invited him. By 1972, I was the captain of the German Olympic team. And I played for fun. In those days we knew you could not make the rest of your life by playing basketball. We were amateurs and students and played for the fun of it. Basketball would have never started up without the support of the American army and the teachers we had. They started army leagues and we would try to sneak in and watch those guys play.
SLAM: What did you love about the game?
HG: What attracted me the most was that the sport was theoretically constructed. There was an idea. It’s not like soccer where the ball is rolling out and everybody is trying to kick it. It’s a sport that goes in three dimensions. Most of the other sports had a pretty natural basis. If something’s rolling on the floor, you kick it. But hanging up a big construction 10 feet above the ground and to try and shoot a ball, it was strange. It was a challenge.
SLAM: The sport challenged your mind?
HG: Yes. I like music a lot and when I looked into the basketball rules it made sense. You only get two steps with the ball—there are limitations. High art has strict limitations or strict rules. Take dances for instance, like the waltz. Basketball was attractive to me. It’s the No. 1 sport for me. I love the game.
SLAM: So even though basketball got you to the Olympics, it was clear to you that the game was not in your future?
HG: Oh yeah. Even though the game was all over the place back then. Basketball was invented in the states and the other guys had to catch up. The game has gotten closer. The NBA has many players from other countries and others are catching up because they like the game.
SLAM: Can you talk about the first time you saw Dirk and how that came about?
HG: I played in the top German basketball division until the age of 41. Then I stopped for 10 years and did nothing and then decided to play for a 3rd division team just for fun. I didn’t even play in the away games. I did it just for fun and wanted to help the kids. I was 30 years older than the kids on the team. The old routines worked pretty good in those days. [laughs] One day we were waiting in the gym and there was a game that went into overtime. The young guys were running around and our old team had to wait. There was this skinny dude I saw, running back and forth. The funny thing was, he was doing pretty much everything a good basketball player had to do—he would go to the right positions on the court and didn’t just follow the ball. But he had no individual skills. He could not really dribble. Nobody had showed him how. When they left the court I walked by him and asked, ‘who is teaching you the basics?’ He said, ‘nobody’. Three weeks later we had a game in his hometown—keep in mind that I did not know him. This game we had was attended by his mother, his dad, his sister and him. They came to watch us and I was a pretty good shooter back then, so I pumped it. [laughs]
SLAM: You put on a show for them, didn’t you?
HG: [Laughs] I did not know! We were just having fun. Dirk’s mom, who was on the national team back then and is in my age group, knew my name. After our game, she came up to me and said that Dirk told her that I would be willing to work with him and she wanted to know if that was still true. I said of course. She asked when we could start and I said tomorrow. Dirk’s hometown was about 80 miles from where I lived, so the next morning I drove up, organized the gym and we started. That was the beginning. I was never trained in physical education and had no idea how to run a practice. I just liked the kid. I had to figure out if I was able to teach him because I had never done it before. So I started figuring out what to do and after three weeks you could tell he was listening. We developed everything together. All the so called professionals and teachers said the work we were doing was garbage. So finally, we started the institute for applied nonsense since everything we were doing was called nonsense. Just to make fun. [laughs]
SLAM: Donnie had mentioned that Dirk was a great tennis player at that time.
HG: His father was a high class handball player and back then Boris Becker was the guy. There was a huge tennis boom in Germany. Everyone played tennis.
SLAM: How did you get Dirk’s dad to—
HG: No, I didn’t have to do it. Dirk had played tennis as a young boy but didn’t like it too much. Now I know why. Dirk’s more of a team guy. His dad was a pretty good handball player and played in the top leagues and like many handball players, he started his own team. Dirk was on his team. It must have been tough, but one day Dirk came to his dad and told him that he was switching to basketball. That was before I met him. That was already done and how I met him on the basketball court. I can’t imagine how his dad felt. He probably started that team because of his son and now the best guy was leaving! [laughs] But hey, it paid off in the long run.
SLAM: When did you figure out that Dirk could play in the NBA?
HG: After we had practiced for weeks that summer. I told him that we needed to talk to his parents. The schoolboy did not like the idea of an older man talking to his parents. It was dangerous. [laughs] They invited me for coffee and it was our first time getting to really know each other. I had to come up with a statement and it was this: If you want to become the best basketball player in Germany, we can stop right now. But if you want to play with the best players in the world, we need to practice everyday. I told Dirk that I didn’t want to hear that decision from his parents. I wanted to hear it from him. If he didn’t want it, it wasn’t going to work. He decided to show me his room and there were Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan posters. That’s when I said, wait a minute—this is his dream.
SLAM: Talk about how you drilled him. Donnie said you taught him to shoot and dribble in a very unique way.
HG: I studied metaphysics, I come from a different corner. I never studied physical education. I had to find my own way. I looked at the kid and asked myself what is next. How can we improve this? What is our best shot at making the NBA? I knew one thing for sure, you cannot just want to go to the NBA, the NBA must want you. So I wondered what was missing from the game. In those days, the big guys were allowed to shoot from an inch away from the basket. There was never a big guy that could shoot a three-pointer. So I told Dirk that if we wanted to have a chance, we need to catch their attention. Coming from our country, we needed to show them that 7-footers could shoot. People jumped on my back because Dirk was not doing defensive drills and all that. I would tell them that the NBA is different compared to what we do here. They will teach him. We had to go around and collect a bunch of boys in his age group to put together a second division team. We started a totally new program.
SLAM: Talk about Nike Hoop Summit. That is folklore at this point, as far as Dirk’s coming out party.
HG: I found out there was a hoop summit once a year where kids under the age of 19 could play against U.S. boys. In Germany we had no chance at showcasing Dirk. I had been looking for a chance for him. I knew this game was around March Madness and the Final Four—it took place in the middle of our season. So I started speaking with the necessary people to get him a spot and Nike was very supportive in those days. I arranged the dates and got him a spot and we couldn’t make it public because the Hoop Summit was taking place in the middle of our playoffs in Germany. It was a tough decision. I went to him the night before and told him that I was picking him up the next morning and we were going to fly to Dallas to get to San Antonio. He asked me why. I told him it was our only chance because the next year he would be 19. I informed his mom and dad because the family needed to support it as well. Next morning, I picked him up and we drove to the airport, flew out and came here, to this exact hotel. Then we drove to San Antonio for our one chance. He broke all the records that day, I think he still has the records. That was it. Then we came home and got killed by the press. I was the coach that left the team with our best player. They didn’t understand back then, but now they sure do. [laughs] They said that Dirk listened to the wrong guy. They just killed us. At the airport in Dallas, I grabbed the paper and one of the headlines said ‘German kills U.S. team’. You know who was on that U.S. team, right? We took the paper back to Germany but it didn’t help us.
SLAM: Talk about the draft. Did you have a pretty good idea Dirk was a first-round lock?
HG: After San Antonio we had come out of nowhere. So now, many college schools were interested. The year before, since Dirk had never left the country, we had done a tour to show him what was going on. I’m not a guy who is just going to put someone in cold water. I needed to have a feeling. If we were going to risk it, we needed a chance to survive. So we had looked at colleges. We had an offer from Cal and Kansas. We flew to San Francisco and looked around Berkeley. We also went to Stanford. We went to Arizona and I showed him the Grand Canyon. I knew physically he would be fine because we had been conditioning. From the top I told him to look down at the Colorado River. I told him the next morning we would be down there at sunrise and we would be back up here at sunset. He really liked it. It was more or less a test and he did it. Then we went to Kentucky. Tubby Smith was the coach those days and had made him an offer. We took all the paperwork with us back to Germany and had to make a decision. By then, NBA scouts were in touch with us and so were European teams, making crazy offers. So I said to Dirk, ‘Listen, put your name in the draft. In the states they have a list and if you make that list, you can help determine your market value, more or less.’ So we did that because I found out he could always withdraw his name 10 days before the draft and he had an exemption because he needed to go to the German army. Three weeks before the draft, his name suddenly showed up among the first 10 prospects. We said, wait a minute. We still had the idea that Dirk was going to go to one of those colleges for a year or two. But the top 10 changed everything. Do you really want to wait until you get injured and go in the second round? So we went in this direction and he was at my house for the draft. It was three o’clock in the morning and we didn’t get it. I was on the phone with a friend who was watching it. Then pick No. 9 comes and he gets drafted and traded right away by Milwaukee. They’re still killing them about that. [laughs]
SLAM: So you guys had no idea the trade was coming. Were you pretty nervous going into the draft?
HG: We were nervous, but we also knew that if he was drafted he didn’t have to go right away. Our plan was more development time. We were planning on Dirk staying in Germany until the Sydney Olympics and then we would go to the NBA. That was the plan the night he was drafted. We knew his market value and what we could discuss with the European teams. Three hours later the phone rings, Donnie Nelson and Nellie were on the phone. We had underestimated everything and didn’t really know how the system worked. We didn’t know how bad it would look if a coach and GM like Don Nelson drafts a guy in the top 10 and that guy doesn’t plan on showing up right away. They would have killed him. We didn’t understand the situation in Dallas back in those days. While they were on the phone, they said ‘we’re on our way to Germany’. They had probably figured out that we were staying. They flew in the next day with the owner Ross Perot, who was in Venice. We were caught by surprise and I had to organize. It was summer and nobody was playing basketball and I had the owner, Nellie and Donnie coming! I had to call all the guys and get them to come to the gym. [laughs]
SLAM: So you wanted to roll out the red carpet for them?
HG: Yes. They didn’t want to go to the hotel. They stayed at my house, probably because Nellie found out I lived in an old castle and they stayed there for three days. Nellie convinced us how important it was to come to Dallas right away. Dirk said he wouldn’t go unless I came with him so we all flew to Dallas and they had organized all the media. We had to make a decision because the lockout was coming and no coach or GM could speak the players. We had to fly back to Germany but they wanted a decision before we went. So we spent the night by Nellie’s pool, thinking about all the options back and forth. We decided to try and we knew the lockout could shorten the season which would be good for Dirk because he was not used to an 82-game season. The first year was all about survival.
SLAM: Donnie said Dirk was very tough but the transition was difficult.
HG: We ran into a thousand little problems. First of all, there was the culture difference. Dirk had only learned school English. He was 19-years-old. He could not rent a car, could not rent an apartment. I had to put everything under my name. He had no furniture. They tried their best for him, but they were coming from an entirely different perspective. We had to start from scratch. Nellie tried everything. He played him with the first five, benched him. We had a few days where he was close to giving up but he didn’t come to give up.
SLAM: What do you think kept him from leaving?
HG: Probably the basic idea. I tell all the young kids, if we make the decision to do it, we stick to the idea. We’re not fair weather sailors. If there’s a storm you still have to go through. In the early days, I gave him a book, Typhoon by Joseph Conrad. That was pretty much the attitude. The season was short. He came home at the end of April and we had time to recover. We knew the problems and worked hard to solve them.
SLAM: Dirk’s shooting touch is beautiful. Do you agree?
HG: When he’s in good shape and in a good mood, he technically has one of the best shots. Not only for the tall guys. His stroke is pretty close to the theoretical optimum.
SLAM: That is about the elbow being in the optimum position, correct?
HG: The theory is pretty simple. Most people think it has something to do with talent. First of all, physics has nothing to do with talent. Even if you have the most talent like Kobe or LeBron, you can’t beat physics. You can have your own individual philosophies but you cannot beat physics. If you don’t want to do it, you make it harder for yourself. If you want to reduce practice time, you better listen.
SLAM: Do you train other basketball players in Germany today?
HG: Yes. Everyday on my lunch break I go to the gym and the kids can come. It doesn’t cost anything. We’ve been doing it for 16 years. It’s better than going to a fitness studio for me, because I get to talk and work with the young kids. Anybody can show up. Some guys come once a week, but Dirk came everyday.
SLAM: Talk about Dirk as a person. It seems like he is comfortable with who he is. He’s the last guy out there talking about free agency or brining attention to himself.
HG: Dirk is a humble guy, pretty straightforward. He’s not playing a role or portraying an image that he is not. We’ve never tried to jump on any hype or the bandwagon. He is who he is. In the long run, people have recognized that. Dirk does not fit the basic American mentality of the leader that’s making big speeches or jumping over cars. He tries to lead by example everyday by going to the gym and working hard. He’s doing it his way and doing pretty good.
SLAM: Through it all, it seems that you and Dirk have developed a very strong friendship through your basketball teachings.
HG: Yeah, I believe so. Because we went through all the highs and lows together [smiles].