The Rookie A German Wunderkind Enters the NBA
German basketball pro Dennis Schröder has made the leap to the NBA. Now the brash young player must prove his worth alongside his more illustrious teammates, but some experts believe he has the potential to become a star.
One hour before the tip-off, LeBron James and Chris Bosh are warming up on the court. The two superstars from the Miami Heat are about to take on the Atlanta Hawks in a preseason game. James is wearing a snow-white jogging suit and a headband -- and the girls squeal in unison with every move he makes.
Dennis Schröder doesn't hear any of this. He's sitting in the dressing room in front of his locker and casually bobbing his head. The support staff of the Atlanta Hawks have folded blankets for the players, and each locker contains Nike flip-flops and hermetically sealed socks with the logo of the National Basketball Association (NBA). Schröder's thoughts are miles away as he listens to music on his iPod: Meek Mill, a rapper from Philadelphia, with tracks like "Dreams and Nightmares," "Young & Gettin' It" and "Believe It."
It could be the soundtrack to Schröder's summer.
Schröder is 20 years old. He played in the third German league and, most recently, for Braunschweig in the Bundesliga -- the highest level of professional basketball in Germany -- before talent scouts invited him to Portland, Oregon last spring to take part in the Nike Hoop Summit, an all-star game with the best junior players in the world. Schröder played for 29 minutes, scoring 18 points and making 6 assists, and weaved his way so elegantly through the other team's defense that he looked like Kobe Bryant in his best years.
Ever since then, Americans have been referring to him as a prodigy and a super talent. Schröder signed a contract with the Hawks in June. Now he's one of the gladiators on the grand stage of the NBA, which last season posted revenues of some $5 billion (3.7 billion). If all goes well, Schröder could become the next Dirk Nowitzki. If things don't work out, though, he'll be passed around from team to team, like an abandoned suitcase, until he returns to Europe completely disillusioned.
Riding Skateboards and Shooting Hoops
Schröder started playing basketball at the age of 11. At the time, he used to hang out with friends at Braunschweig's Prinzenpark. They would ride their skateboards and shoot a few hoops for fun on the local court. A youth coach saw Schröder and convinced him to come to practice.
His talent was obvious. In addition to the regular three practice sessions with the team, the coach worked with him in the school gym three times a week, usually one-on-one. At age 17, Schröder was a junior national player, and his teammates said that he was so arrogant that he wouldn't pass the ball to fellow players who he thought were untalented. "I always wanted to play in the NBA," says Schröder, "and I told my friends that early on."
Once a year, the NBA holds the draft, that magic evening when 30 teams select the best young players and give them an opportunity to play in the world's top basketball league. This year's event was held in June in Brooklyn's newly built Barclays Center. Rapper Jay-Z performed and it was broadcast on TV in over 100 countries.
Schröder, who was among those who had entered the draft, couldn't attend the show because he hadn't received a visa for the US. Instead, he threw a small party at his apartment in downtown Braunschweig. At 1:15 a.m., they tuned into sports channel ESPN and, shortly after three in the morning, the first 16 players had been selected. Schröder was not among them and he started to get a bit nervous. Then it was the Atlanta Hawks' turn and Schröder had a new team.
A Surprise Comparison
"Schröder is like Rajon Rondo, only younger," says Jalen Rose, a TV commentator who is himself a former top player in the NBA. Rondo is the playmaker for the Boston Celtics -- one of the best players in the league -- and has already earned an NBA championship title. Schröder was a bit surprised when Rose compared him with Rondo. "You can't take such praise too literally," he says, "but of course it feels great."
When Schröder was trying out for the German national team at age 16, he made a promise to his father: I'm going to make it into the NBA. Schröder's mother comes from Gambia and runs a hair salon in Braunschweig. His father was German and worked for engineering giant Siemens. He died of a heart attack two and half weeks after his son made his promise.
His father's death changed Schröder's life. He dropped the attitude, buckled down and started training harder. He says he had to keep his promise.
Schröder's life revolves around his family. His sister and her daughter have moved to Atlanta, and his older brother and a friend are coming in a few weeks. "It's important to me to have my family around me when I'm not playing," says Schröder, who adds: "I'm still very young."
He rolls up the sleeve of his Hawks shirt and flexes his muscles. His upper body is an affirmation, a demonstration of his view of the world. He has had "Family over everything" emblazoned on his right arm, plus a basketball with 17 -- the number on his jersey and his father's favorite number. "Rest in peace" is tattooed on his left arm, in memory of his father. He recently had a new tattoo done. "Incha'Allah", God willing, now stands on his ankle. Schröder is a Muslim. He doesn't drink alcohol and he prays every morning and evening.
Toughing It Out As a Rookie
The NBA has an invisible hierarchy dictated by money, age and authority. There are multimillionaires like Al Horford, the star of the Hawks, who is earning $12 million this season. He wears Lacoste sneakers and Calvin Klein jeans, and is always the first player allowed to leave the locker room. There are veterans like Elton Brand, 34, who was once an up-and-coming star in the NBA. Now he's coming to the end of his career and often sits on the bench, but touchingly looks after Schröder during away games. And then there are the rookies like Schröder who have to tough it out.
On the morning of the preseason game against the Miami Heat, Schröder gets up half an hour earlier than usual at the Four Seasons Hotel. He has to sort out the jerseys and lay them in front of the doors of his teammates' rooms. The 0 is for Jeff Teague, the Hawks' top playmaker. The 15 is for Al Horford. The 17 is for himself.
At the end of the morning practice session, when his fellow teammates are still tossing balls at the basket, Schröder walks along the edge of the court. It's his job to collect the substitute shoes. He's soon decked out like a Christmas tree, with three pairs of shoes to the left, three to the right, and two basketballs wedged under his arms. The rookies are supposed to carry the shoes back into the locker room. That's the tradition, just like in football, where newbies have to lug nets filled with soccer balls across the field. Schröder makes a face as if he bit on a chili pepper.
At the end of the season, the experienced players thank the rookies by going shopping with them. A gold chain necklace is nothing to someone like Al Horford, and it's all part of the tradition. It has to do with humility: The new players are expected to serve before they rule and challenge their elders. When Schröder returns from the locker room, he saunters provocatively across the court. Humility is not his strong point.
- Part 1: A German Wunderkind Enters the NBA
- Part 2: 'The Hawks Are Banking On Me'