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NBA PM: The Time Dirk Doubted Himself

Dirk Nowitzki is a legend these days, but he once seriously doubted he’d succeed in the NBA.



With 113 international players representing 41 countries, steadily, over the past 30 years, the NBA has come to feature the best and brightest stars from across the globe. But when it’s all said and done, Dirk Nowitzki just might be the greatest of them all.

With Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett having retired, it would appear that Nowitzki is the next 1990s-drafted superstar whose end is nigh. What’s more amazing to consider, though, is that—according to one of his former teammates—both Nowitzki and his father once had doubts about whether he truly belonged in the NBA.

“I can remember his rookie year, after his rookie year, his father and himself doubted that he could even survive in the NBA,” former Dallas Maverick Michael Finley told Basketball Insiders.

“With the way the game was played, how physical it was, he was doubting if he made a mistake to come over at such an early age,” Finley explained.

Finley, a 15-year NBA veteran who spent seven years as Nowitzki’s teammate in Dallas, was around from the very beginning. These days, the former All-Star and NBA champion is busy serving as an Assistant Vice President in the Mavericks front office. But having helped introduce Nowitzki to the rigors of the NBA, he has a unique perspective.

“[Dirk] has been doing something right,” Finley said with a smile when asked how the once-scrawny German kid managed to become the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history. “The longevity, staying as healthy as possible—all that combined with the talent to go with it, helps him and helps his case as being one of the best to ever play the game.”

As for his rookie year, Nowitzki was a little-known prospect who the Mavericks were able to acquire after completing a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks that resulted in the German teenager relocating to Dallas on a permanent basis.

The Bucks had eyes for Robert “Tractor” Traylor, a bruising power forward who was coming off of a highly-regarded three-year career at the University of Michigan. In theory, had the Bucks kept the pick, they could have ended up with the man who is arguably the greatest international basketball player of all-time. Still, at this point, it’s just as much water under the bridge as wondering how things would have been different if the Charlotte Hornets had managed to walk away from the 1996 draft with Kobe Bryant.

Like many European prospects before him, Nowitzki struggled to adapt to the faster pace and stronger players he faced in the NBA. In 20.4 minutes per game, he averaged just 8.2 points. He shot just 40 percent from the field, 20 percent from three-point territory and managed to commit 2.7 turnovers per 36 minutes.

Fortunately, his career didn’t end there.

Seeing his potential, Mark Cuban and his front office built around Nowitzki and quickly embarked upon the franchise’s golden age. Cuban recently called his Mavericks the “house that Dirk built,” but Finley thinks it was a mutually beneficial relationship.

“It helps that he’s been with one organization for the entirety of his career,” Finley said after pointing out that all successful players need stability and an organization that believes in them. “Like I said, combine that with the talent to go along with it, the work ethic, and a system that truly fits his game—that’s worked for him.”

This season, Nowitzki has only managed to appear in three games for the 2-9 Mavericks, as he has been limited by illness and a bout with a sore Achilles tendon. As the basketball world still recovers from the departures of Bryant, Duncan and Garnett, one can’t help but to want to see Nowitzki working up a sweat and drilling his patented one-foot jumpers without wondering just how much longer NBA fans will continue to be graced by his presence.

It’s been 19 long years, and during that time, Nowitzki has accomplished quite a bit. From the 13 All-Star selections to the 12 All-NBA team selections, the 2011 NBA Finals MVP, interestingly enough, once doubted whether he belonged.

“In hindsight, it actually helped him out to make him the player that he is today,” Finley said of those doubts. “But that was pretty funny. Looking back on it that, at one point, he doubted if he even belonged in this league… I don’t think he would change anything.”

On that, everyone can agree.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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