With winter fast approaching, temperatures are beginning to drop rapidly in the heart of the Northern Territory. It’s early May, 2007, about twenty kilometres east of Uluru. A German man, tall and in his late twenties, sits and strums his guitar as he watches the campfire crackle in front of him. To keep himself warm, he drinks whiskey straight from the bottle as he contemplates his future. It’s the second week of his trip and he’s yet to shave — a scruffy beard is developing on his tired face.
Far removed from the plush comforts that he’s accustomed to, his bed tonight will be a rented four-wheel-drive Jeep. “You could set it up where the whole roof of the car turns into a [tent and] bed. It’s pretty smart,” the man said. The advantage of such a vehicle is that you could park it pretty much anywhere and tonight would be no different. This particular evening it was parked on the side of a dirt road — essentially in the middle of nowhere.
His days are filled with simple tasks. Long walks through the chasms of the red desert down to the waterhole for a quick bath and then back to camp to grind seeds to make bread. There is no phone reception out here, no computers and no grasp on what is happening anywhere else in the world. For this German traveller, anonymity is exactly what he craved. It is something that he had not had the luxury of enjoying for a very long time.
He took another swig of whiskey from the bottle. Why was he here? He should have been somewhere else. What turn of events had driven him to one of the most remote parts of the world?
The man is Dirk Nowitzki, power forward for the Dallas Mavericks. Back in May 2007, he should have been playing playoff basketball. But he wasn’t. Instead, he was backpacking across Australia, camping in the outback, trying to get as far away from the game as he could. Trying to find himself.
Just one year removed from making the NBA Finals, the 67-win Dallas Mavericks were bundled out of the first round of the 2007 playoffs by the eighth-seed Golden State Warriors in one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoffs history. Nowitzki had a poor series, shooting just 38% from the field, and in game six, when the Mavericks needed him most, he finished with more turnovers than field goals.
NBA pundits began to speculate about his lack of mental toughness and killer instinct. Some felt that the psychological scars of coming up short in NBA Finals against the Miami Heat one year earlier (after leading the series 2-0), were too great to overcome. The wrath imposed on the team by the media was brutal and calls came for owner Mark Cuban to blow-up the team and start over. The media took no prisoners, but a particularly harsh scolding was saved for Nowitzki, who they said was simply not a good enough leader. “I just wanted to get away,” Nowitzki would later admit.
So, instead of doing what he did every off-season for the previous nine years (returning home to Germany to work on his game with long time mentor and father figure, 62-year-old Holger Geschwindner), he decided that the best thing to do was escape basketball.
After the 111-86 game six loss to Golden State in Oakland, he placed a request with team officials to leave Dallas immediately, but the NBA vetoed his request for reasons they could not yet divulge. A few days later, Nowitzki was named league Most Valuable Player.
At his press conference he planned on reducing the awkwardness of accepting the M.V.P. award after such an embarrassing loss by making some lighthearted, jokey remarks. But those plans went out the window when Mark Cuban, almost reduced to tears, gave an emotional introduction.
"He’s not the guy who you wonder if he cares, he’s the guy who hurts so much when things don’t go the way he wants. And that’s what makes him an M.V.P. of this league," a choked-up Cuban said.
Nowitzki changed his plan and gave a straight-laced speech, admitting that it was disappointing to win the award “because of the way the season ended,” and at frequent intervals referred to the M.V.P. as an “award for the regular season.” A day later, he flew home to Germany to address the local media, before jumping on a plane to head to Australia.
As the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers navigated their way to the 2007 NBA Finals, the seven-foot German was exploring a country that had always fascinated him. The destination for his adventure was validated when he arrived and there was no mention of the NBA anywhere.
“You never see any basketball where we were. I think I saw one half of one game of the Finals. It was at like 10 in the morning. But [the series] was so brutal that I couldn’t watch it,” he later confessed.
With Holger Geschwindner in tow, Nowitzki flew into Sydney and set about doing as much as he could over a 5-week period. In 2007 he made over $15 million (excluding endorsements), yet he insisted on traveling like any normal German backpacker would and stayed in $10-a-night youth hostels. He and Geschwindner visited the Sydney Opera House and took in some Beethoven. Then they hit the road and drove through the centre of Australia in their rented Jeep, sleeping on the side of the road for nights at a time. They took in the wonders of Uluru and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and made a point of learning as much as they could about the Aboriginal people, retracing their footsteps along the way.
From there, they flew back to Sydney, washed their dirt riedden clothes, and went north to Queensland in search of some warmer weather. Nowitzki lay on the beach reading German books that he’d brought with him, before he and Geschwindner set sail on the Great Barrier Reef. With only a chef and a captain on board, they bobbed around on the tropical waters, their days of relaxing broken up only by impromptu snorkeling sessions.
The two visited Melbourne and Adelaide, before finishing in Northern Australia where they ignored the wet season warnings of crocodiles and bathed in the waterfalls and rivers. Nowitzki then returned home to Germany to show off his new beard to his family members.
“After about three weeks, I had a full beard and I couldn’t even look at myself. But I had to keep it until I got back to Germany. I wanted everybody [in the family] to see it,” he said.
To Nowitzki, the isolation of being in a place where nobody recognized him was bliss. He was briefly recognized by some tourists at Uluru, but to most people he was just the enormous goofy German guy at the youth hostel. “Nobody cares about the M.V.P. down there. It wasn’t hard at all [travelling] around. It was great, actually.”
Some days, he and Geschwindner wouldn’t say two words to one another. Other days, they’d talk for hours on end. About what happened in the Golden State series, about life, but mostly about what Nowitzki would do after his NBA career was finished. He was fast approaching his 30th birthday and his goals had changed from when he first entered the league as a 20-year-old. “Planning a family is a very important goal for me. I haven’t found the right woman yet. That’s something I want to pursue in the next few years,” he said afterwards.
He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the ninth pick of the 1998 NBA draft and was immediately traded to the Dallas Mavericks for the sixth pick, Robert Traylor, and the nineteenth pick, Pat Garrity. The trade was masterminded by then-Dallas head coach Don Nelson, who after just obtaining Nowitzki, then proceeded to trade the rights to Pat Garrity (along with Martin Müürsepp, Bubba Wells and a future first-round draft pick) for another future M.V.P., Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash.
Almost immediately, Nowitzki found the going tough. The Mavericks were the laughingstock of the NBA and were coming off another disheartening season in which they finished 20-62. In his first season – the lockout shortened 1998-99 season — the team was regularly booed. Nowitzki, an introverted kid from Germany with a hoop earring and middle-part hairstyle wasn’t totally comfortable with his game or his ability to fit in.
But in his second season, he began to blossom. And despite fears from his parents that he would return to Germany because of homesickness, Nowitzki persisted. By the time the 2000-01 season rolled around, Nowitzki had put it all together. A revolutionary big man who could stretch the floor, he was now being talked about as one of the rising stars of the league. As a team, the Mavericks were finally winning games, finishing 53-29 and making the second round of the playoffs. Built around a core of Nowitzki, Nash and Michael Finley, the team would continue to improve over the next few years, making the Western Conference finals in 2003. Yet, they still struggled to take the next step.
When the team lost 4-1 to the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the 2004 playoffs, changes were inevitable. Steve Nash became a free agent and despite wanting to stay in Dallas, contract negotiations broke down with Mark Cuban and he signed a six-year, $63 million contract to go back to Phoenix. The following season, Mavericks stalwart Michael Finley was allowed to walk as a restricted free agent. What may not have been clear before, was now: This was Dirk Nowitzki’s team for the long run and it’s remained that way ever since.
For 11 consecutive seasons the Mavericks have won 50 or more games, the third-longest streak in NBA history. But Nowitzki shies away from hanging his hat on such an accomplishment. “I’d rather trade it in for a championship,” said Dirk Nowitzki after win number 50 this year. “Really, eleven 50-win seasons don’t mean anything. It shows we’re consistently good and we have a good team and we’ve played well in the regular season.” As they’ve found out time and time again, the regular season means nothing when it comes to the playoffs.
On Monday morning (AEST) the Dallas Mavericks finished off a resounding 4-0 sweep of the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, culminating with a 36-point blowout victory in Dallas. The Mavericks must now wait for the winner of the Oklahoma City Thunder-Memphis Grizzlies series to see who will be their adversary in the Western Conference Finals. For Nowitzki, now in his 13th NBA season, he must know that this opportunity may never come again: He’s only 8 wins away from that illusive NBA Championship.
Since losing to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals and suffering the heartbreak of the Golden State series in 2007, the Mavericks had failed made it out of the second round of the playoffs until now. In the past, these sorts of statistics may have cause Nowitzki to lose sleep, but these days he has shifted his energy into managing what he can control. Over the past four years, he has continued to look at ways that he can improve. As a player on the court, but more importantly, as a teammate off it. Ex-Dallas coach Avery Johnson encouraged him to become a more vocal leader. Nowitzki responded by spending more time with his teammates, regularly taking them out to dinner.
The trip to Australia further galvanized him as a player. He began looking at his failures in a more objective light, realizing that basketball is a team sport and the losses were not all his fault. Growing up, Geschwindner repeatedly made the analogy that basketball is like a jazz band; some players were virtuosos and would play their solos, but to make good music, all members needed to know their parts and execute them.
Nowitzki has also had his challenges off the court. In 2009, he was engaged to a woman called Cristal Taylor. But shortly after buying her a $190,000 ring, Nowitzki hired a private investigator who uncovered her chequered past and she was arrested (right as the Mavericks went down 0-2 to the Denver Nuggets in the 2009 Western Conference semi-finals) for a probation violation in Missouri and theft of service in Texas. After falsely claimed to be pregnant with Nowitzki’s child, she was later discovered that she had up to eight aliases and is now serving five-years in prison. Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last.
But all of these incidents have shaped him as a person and as a leader. He has never been interested in money, clothes, or the material things that come with being a millionaire athlete. So much so, that former teammates have had to insist that he buys new sneakers, as he would constantly wear them until they got holes in the bottom. All he cares about is winning a championship and then settling down to have a family.
When he escaped basketball and fled to the other side of the world to grow his beard out, stay in youth hostels and camp out in a four-wheel-drive Jeep, it was a journey of self-discovery.
As he sat on the red dirt of the Australian outback, drinking whisky from the bottle and staring at the canvas of southern hemisphere stars above him, he reflected on his NBA journey to that point. What would the future hold? Would he get back to the NBA Finals? Would he get one more shot at a ring? How would he be remembered?
Upon returning to the United States in 2007, people wanted to know exactly what he was up to on the other side of the world. To Nowitzki, the answer was simple: “I have been exploring the sense of life,” he said. “I haven’t entirely found it yet, but I will keep looking.”
In 2011, it seems entirely possible that what he’s searching for, is almost within his grasp.