(Reuters) – Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki was one of the finest imports to feature in the NBA and became the first European player to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award (MVP) in 2007 before he led the franchise to a maiden championship in 2011.
The towering power forward joined the NBA in 1998 from the wilderness of German basketball, where he played for local club Wurzburg in his hometown before he was selected as a first-round draft pick by the Milwaukee Bucks.
He was traded to the Mavs straight away and spent his entire 21-year career with them before he retired last year with 14 NBA All-Star appearances to his name.
Few people could have imagined Nowitzki would rise to such giddy heights while he was still a teenager playing in Europe.
“He’s like a lot of European players in that he doesn’t like contact,” the then Mavericks assistant coach Donnie Nelson said after watching s 19-year old Nowitzki in action.
“He has a lot of work to do but he is smart and he can handle the ball. He has the kind of potential that leaves you curious.”
Having made steady progress in his early years with the Mavs, Nowitzki first tasted success at international level when he won the bronze medal with Germany at the 2002 World Cup and silver at the 2005 European Championship.
Boasting impressive speed, footwork, long-range shooting and dribbling skills for a man 2.13 metres tall, Nowitzki was always a menace in and outside the paint as well as behind the three-point arc.
He almost single-handedly drove Germany to the EuroBasket 2005 final, where he received a standing ovation from a capacity 20,000 crowd in the Belgrade Arena after they lost to Greece.
He admitted in the latter part of his illustrious career that the fledgling stages were tough.
“I felt when I was 20, I wasn’t quite ready for the physical contact of 82 (regular season NBA) games,” he said.
“Mentally, it was tough. I forgot what city we were in most of the time. I can’t even imagine going through it at the age of 18 or 19.”
In 2007, Nowitzki averaged 24.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game to win the regular season’s MVP award but had to wait another four years to win an elusive championship ring as the Mavs built their title-winning roster.
Having been beaten by traditional Texan rivals San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs three times in four seasons, the Mavericks managed to hold on to Nowitzki who became a free agent in 2010 and signed a four-year $80 million contract extension.
The following season brought glory for the Mavs and Nowitzki as they defied the odds to beat strong favourites Miami Heat 4-2 in the final, with the German winning the 2011 NBA finals MVP award after he outshone Lebron James in the series.
Nowitzki averaged 27.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in the 2011 playoffs as the Mavs won their first and so far only NBA title, having fought back from 2-1 down in the series to sink the Heat.
There was to be no repeat of such joy for Nowitzki and the Mavs in the latter stages of his career but he still averaged solid figures, amassing a career total of 20.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game before he retired at the age of 41.
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris