'Basketball Is a Dance': Dirk Nowitzki and the Man Who Discovered Him
Basketball star Dirk Nowitzki was but an awkward teenager when Holger Geschwindner first saw him play. But Geschwindner quickly took the young player under his wing and helped turn him into one of the best players the game has ever seen. The two spoke with SPIEGEL about the ups and downs of their relationship.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Geschwindner, you've known Dirk Nowitzki for almost 20 years. You trained him, helped him develop and shaped him into an international star. How much Geschwindner is there in Dirk Nowitzki?
Nowitzki: Oh come on, of course you shaped me.
SPIEGEL: In what sense?
Nowitzki: He was by my side as I was growing up. Without him, I might be a boring businessman or a painter in my parents' company today. And to avoid getting a beer belly, I would play basketball with the guys once a week.
SPIEGEL: Do you still remember the first time you met?
Nowitzki: Holger approached me after a youth league game. He told me that I had a lot of talent, and he wanted to know who was training me. Hotsch, when and where was that exactly?
Geschwindner: It was 1994, in Schweinfurt.
Nowitzki: I couldn't even remember your name, and I thought you were crazy.
Geschwindner: You're not the only one.
Nowitzki: I thought basketball was a game for women. My mother played basketball, and so did my sister. When I told them about the encounter, they explained to me that you were, after all, the captain of the German national basketball team.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Geschwindner, you've always kept yourself in the background. Now a book you've written, "Nowitzki: Die Geschichte," ("Nowitzki: The Story") is being published at the end of October. Why the book?
Geschwindner: I tried to describe everything it takes to pave the way to the top for a very talented young athlete.
SPIEGEL: And what does it take?
Geschwindner: I try to promote the individual strengths of each player. It was clear to me from the start that Dirk, at a height of 2.13 meters (7 feet), wasn't going to become a long-distance runner, weightlifter or a gymnast. He had to take advantage of his physical advantages, and basketball seemed to be the right fit. But physical attributes alone don't make for a good basketball player. Basketball is an offensive game. That's why we focused specifically on shooting technique. As a result, he became one of the first players taller than 2.10 meters to sink more than 50 percent of his shots, at least 40 percent of his three-pointers and more than 90 percent of his free throws over the course of an entire season.
Nowitzki: But that's just part of the success. I'm pretty lazy, and I prefer to take the path of least resistance. Holger pestered me and pushed me from the start.
Geschwindner: You know that giving up isn't an option.
Nowitzki: Oh God. That sentence always reminds me of my military service. I wanted to avoid service, because I was on the road to becoming a professional basketball player. Holger suggested that I complete basic training, and together with my fellow team member and fellow sufferer at the time, Robert Garrett, I went through what were probably the toughest months of my life. Holger also came up with the craziest things during training to keep me in a good mood. Do you remember the expression on my face when your friend Ernie suddenly started playing the saxophone during training, and I was supposed to move in time to the music?
Geschwindner: I didn't want you to see basketball as just a schematic series of moves.
Nowitzki: I know, I know, basketball is a dance. I didn't understand the significance of that type of training at first. I was supposed to read poems
Geschwindner: (quoting) "He who, once free of great madness, stares into the empty eye of the sphinx "
Nowitzki: and I studied physics books.
Geschwindner: Oh, yes. "The History of Nature," by Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker.
Nowitzki: and I learned to play musical instruments, and I went to see "Parsifal" in Bayreuth. At some point I realized that I was supposed to broaden my horizons. By the way, it resulted in my being able to play guitar with the band at my sister's wedding in Las Vegas. So there was something to it.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Geschwindner, did you prevent your foster son from developing independently?
Geschwindner: I've often heard that criticism, along with good advice. Advice can also be detrimental. If we had paid attention to those so-called good tips, we would've split up long ago.
SPIEGEL: Is your relationship like that of a tennis coach with his player, who can no longer get out of a predetermined course, one filled with advice and instructions?
Nowitzki: No, certainly not. We have a very good relationship. I still remember my first few years in the NBA quite clearly. I was really homesick at times. As a newcomer, I was often expected to carry the bags of the older players, or get them burgers. That can make you feel pretty miserable.
SPIEGEL: Do you make younger players wait on you, now that you've been in the NBA for over a decade?
Nowitzki: No, it's not my thing. I would often call Holger and ask him for his advice. Sometimes I was on the verge of giving up. But just as he preached right from the start that sports can't be everything in life, he also taught me to make my own decisions and stand behind them. In a situation like that, it's very helpful to be able to trust someone with lots of experience. It's almost impossible to figure it all out for yourself.
Geschwindner: It wasn't all that easy with such a good-natured guy like Dirk. I always felt it was my job to offer options. But you have to make your own decisions in the end. Should you switch teams, or would you rather stay in Dallas? Do you forfeit your summer break and play for the national team, or would you rather spend the time recovering? And believe me, there were times when I wished that Dirk had decided differently. When it was clear that he was on the wrong track, I argued more forcefully. An athlete should be capable of living an independent life and making his own decisions outside the world of professional sports.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Geschwindner: If you're not careful, you can easily be exploited. You see that in the stars and starlets in Hollywood. One of them is always doing something for a well-meaning cause. I often wonder whether the celebrities are truly behind that cause, or are they just puppets for the interests of others? In the United States, it's not unusual for sports stars and show-business celebrities to campaign for presidential candidates. One of the many inquiries Dirk received was a request to support a candidate in an election.
SPIEGEL: Did you accept it?
Geschwindner: No. It wouldn't have been a good idea, and it didn't fit into his schedule, either.
Nowitzki: I still don't know enough about politics. It wouldn't have been genuine.
SPIEGEL: After you switched to the NBA, did you consider entrusting yourself to a US player's agent?
Geschwindner: There are a couple of funny stories about that.
Nowitzki: Do you know the movie "Jerry Maguire," starring Tom Cruise as an agent? We met a few guys like that for interviews. It was like stand-up comedy. With all of them, it was clear to me after only a few minutes that I didn't want someone like that around me -- and that I'd rather lose one or two endorsement deals for a little more peace and quiet.
SPIEGEL: Where there ever any situations in which your relationship was put to the test?
Geschwindner: We too had our difficult situations, our shipwrecks with lots of witnesses.
SPIEGEL: For example, you were in pretrial detention in 2005 and were given a one-year suspended prison sentence for tax evasion to the tune of several million euros. You, Mr. Nowitzki, alleged posted 15 million in bail for your mentor. Weren't you ever suspicious?
Nowitzki: No. Why?
SPIEGEL: For one thing, the money supposedly stemmed from your working relationship.
Nowitzki: We talked about it, and I realized that there was nothing to the charges.
SPIEGEL: How do you deal with the issue today?
Geschwindner: I can't go into detail about it. But, in retrospect, it wasn't the most difficult moment in our relationship.
SPIEGEL: When was that?
Geschwindner: When I found out that Dirk had been deceived by a woman.
SPIEGEL: You're talking about the scandal surrounding Mr. Nowitzki's then-fiancée, Crystal Taylor, who was using a false identity and was wanted on several charges of fraud. Taylor was arrested in May 2009.
Geschwindner: For legal reasons, we also can't talk about that in detail.
SPIEGEL: How do you tell someone with whom you have a close relationship that his fiancée is cheating him like that?
Geschwindner: Believe me, it wasn't easy. We sat down together, and at some point it just had to come out. We know each other pretty well, but at that moment I really couldn't imagine how he felt or how he would react. You can know everything there is to know about bats, and yet you still have no idea what it's like to be a bat.
SPIEGEL: How did you feel?
Nowitzki: I couldn't believe it at first. But when I realized it was true, I was afraid of how people would react. Until that point, we had tried to reveal as little as possible about my personal life. Suddenly that was no longer an option. I was in the middle of the playoffs, and I had to concentrate. When the season was over, I flew home, talked to my parents and calmly told them what had actually happened.
SPIEGEL: Was your family upset that it took you so long to tell them the details?
Nowitzki: Of course parents want their children to confide in them. But I was in the middle of the playoffs. I had to focus on the games. I wouldn't have been a good idea to withdraw. I made up for it during our family vacation in the summer break. It did me a lot of good. But I felt uneasy at the thought of returning to the United States. I was afraid that everyone would talk to me about it and make fun of me. But exactly the opposite happened. No one joked about it, and people tried to support me. Maybe it was an important lesson in growing up. What do you think?
Geschwindner: I don't know if I would have dealt with it so confidently.
SPIEGEL: Did it take a long time before you were able to trust a woman again?
Nowitzki: I'm not the kind of guy who just goes up to women. Besides, as a star you never know when people are really serious. If someone had told me at the time that I would be happily married three years later, I certainly wouldn't have believed it.
SPIEGEL: How much longer will you be playing basketball?
Nowitzki: There have been some thoughts that go beyond my professional career. My contract with the Mavs runs for another two years.
SPIEGEL: So two more years?
Geschwindner: Then we'll take our time to consider the next step.
Nowitzki: If you had your way, I would play until I fall off the bench, right?
Geschwindner: I just say that so you don't become one of those comeback veterans, who suddenly realize that they quit too early and can't find anything decent to do with their lives. It's been the undoing of many great players.
Nowitzki: That would be a nightmare, a situation I definitely don't want to be in. And if I do hit upon an idea like that, Hotsch will give me an earful.
Geschwindner: Let's be serious. Let go when you're sure that the moment has come. If you have concrete ideas about what happens next, then we'll sit down and talk about it.
SPIEGEL: What options are you suggesting to him for the period after his career as an athlete?
Geschwindner: He's not really interested in politics at the moment. I think going to school isn't a bad idea. Besides, you could devote some time to your two foundations and get the projects going a little further. There's still plenty to do.
SPIEGEL: Can you imagine finishing off your career in the German national basketball league?
Nowitzki: Why not? I don't want to rule it out.
SPIEGEL: Will you support the national team at the European championship in Slovenia next year?
Nowitzki: It's still too early to make a final decision about that. But you know how I feel. Supporting the team is very near and dear to me. Unfortunately, we didn't make it to the Olympics in London. If I can use my experience to help the next basketball generation get to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, I'll give it some careful thought. It's an appealing idea. Is that enough for now?
Geschwindner: I'm not afraid of it. That moment happened a long time ago.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Nowitzki, Mr. Geschwindner, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Cathrin Gilbert
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