Timo Boll. Pascal Hens. Georg Hackl. It is a rare occurrence, but every so often in Germany, soccer stars do not grace the front pages of the nation's sports sections. And in recent years, whenever the "beautiful game" has been shunted aside, it has been for a rather odd menagerie of second-tier sports. Boll, for example, is a household name for his pingpong excellence. Hens excels in team handball. Hackl? Olympic luge. Martin Kaymer, who has made a splash in the US recently, is the next big thing in golf.
Germany's most recently crowned sports star, however, is different. Dubbed "Dirkules" by the gushing German media, Dirk Nowitzki -- together with his Dallas Mavericks teammates -- managed to become an NBA champion on Sunday evening in Miami after 10 straight fruitless trips to the playoffs. By vanquishing the detested Miami Heat -- and their star, LeBron James, one of America's most hated figures in sports -- Nowitzki became a bona fide American hero.
In doing so, Nowitzki arguably joined the pantheon of the best players ever to play the game -- and certainly became the best European ever. Perhaps more importantly, Nowitzki, as an undisputed team leader in a US-dominated sport, which often values individual attitude and toughness over the collective, fulfilled a uniquely German sporting dream. He made it popular to love a German.
There have, of course, been other cuddly German sports stars. Both tennis greats Steffi Graf and Boris Becker had legions of admirers in their day. Formula One driver Michael Schumacher likewise had plenty of fans. And Detlef Schrempf paved Nowitzki's way to the NBA.
A Bit of Pride and Flag Waving
Nowitzki-mania, though, is different. He is the most recent example of a national awakening which began during the 2006 World Cup. It was an event that proved to the world -- but more importantly, to the Germans themselves -- that a bit of pride and flag-waving was acceptable. It showed that Germany, after decades of striving to remain in the background and to be the perfect European team player in atonement for its past, was ready to tentatively and constructively assert itself.
Even better, whereas the German national football team has gained sympathy points for being young, precocious and an accurate reflection of Germany's multi-cultural diversity, Nowitzki did it by imposing his brand of German middle-class reserve and perfectionist preparation on a game full of egos.
"I just think this is a win for team basketball," Nowitzki said in a post-game interview. "This is a win for playing as a team on both ends of the floor, for sharing the ball, for passing the ball."
Such platitudes, of course, could easily be discounted as being typical sporting fare. Yet coming from Nowitzki, they ring true. While the entire basketball world was focused on LeBron James' massively hyped decision last summer as to where he would "take his talents," choosing the Miami Heat over the Cleveland Cavaliers, where he starred for seven seasons, Nowitzki quietly signed a contract extension with the only NBA team he has ever played for. His father Jörg-Werner, who still lives in Dirk's Bavarian hometown of Würzburg, didn't even make the trip to the finals because a co-worker was on vacation and his painting company couldn't do without him.
Nowitzki's own career has been a reflection of that ethic. When he first arrived in Dallas in 1998, he was a gangly player with a deadly accurate shot and admirable ball-handling skills for a seven-footer. But he was not the kind of explosive athlete that generally excels in the NBA, and he was easily pushed around by more muscular American players. Indeed, despite establishing the Mavericks as one of the best teams in the league over the last decade, Nowitzki was labeled "soft" by his detractors. His team's loss to the Miami Heat in the 2006 finals seemed to cement that image among American sports writers.
The Ultimate Success
But Nowitzki continued to work. When his shot wasn't falling, he would call in his personal trainer Holger Geschwinder from Germany for late night shooting sessions. He worked hard on his passing and on his defense. And he stayed modest. He became, in short, exactly the kind of sports star that Americans love -- except that his team never quite managed to achieve the ultimate success.
Germany's 2006 World Cup effort, of course, also fell short -- as did the 2010 campaign last year. One wonders if the team, had it won, would have been quite as universally liked as Nowitzki is now. Germany, after all, has a history of imposing its will on global football. But the domestic and international popularity of the German national team surely testified to a country slowly leaving decades of soul-searching behind.
Dirk Nowitzki now represents the culmination of that development. He had plenty of help, to be sure. LeBron James' pre-season boasting combined with his triumphantly celebrated arrival in Miami last year made him into arguably the most hated figure in American sports. By vanquishing him, Nowitzki instantly became America's favorite player. The toughness, leadership and exquisite play he displayed on the court didn't hurt either.
And Germany finally has what it has wanted for so long: an indisputable global sports star as popular in America and internationally as he is at home. An admired representative of the new, post-World Cup Germany. A legitimate hero. The country can now leave the lugers alone.