In a Zoom interview on Wednesday conducted by the Dallas-based non-profit company Trey Athletes, former Dallas Mavericks superstar forward Dirk Nowitzki acknowledged that in order to get motivated to go to practice, sometimes he had to remind himself that Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan weren’t laying in bed asleep.
Nowitzki, who retired following the 2018-19 season, expounded on that topic and others during a wide-ranging interview that lasted over 45 minutes. Here are some of the highlights from the 14-time All-Star who led the Mavs to the 2011 NBA title.
Question: What was it like for you transitioning to play in the NBA?
Dirk Nowitzki: For me it was super hard. I think nowadays the game has changed so much. It’s a little easier for European players to come over and have an immediate impact. I think the game’s a little more free-flowing. I think back (in 1998) it was still a little physical and the (power forwards) and (centers) were all strong, so the game has changed. But for me I found it really difficult. My body just wasn’t quite ready for the pounding. If I wasn’t comfortable off the floor, for me it was very hard to show or be comfortable on the court, so I had to get adjusted here my first year. Find an apartment, get a dishwasher and a bed, get a car, learn to get around. I think those things for me were very important. And then when my second year came I was more comfortable, I was understanding the lingo more and I was just more comfortable in surroundings and that helped me a lot feel more comfortable on the court. I remember days with (Steve) Nash in my first year or two, we would go back to the gym every night. Sometimes we were shooting after games, sometimes on a day off we were going to gym and running, play horse, play one-on-one top of the key, one-on-one on the block, always shooting drills and always just hard work, because we enjoyed it, and I think that’s how you separate yourself.
Question: How do you stay motivated now that you’re retired, and also during quarantine, how do you stay motivated to do stuff?
Nowitzki: Well, you know now this is a tough time, of course for everybody. And what I’ve tried to do, it’s obviously not easy, but I try to stay positive. You read the news and it brings you down, but I try to just enjoy my family. We have three young children and I try to spend as much time with them as I can. Usually life pulls you in 100 different directions every day, so I try to use this time to be with them and teach them and have them sing the German songs at night before they go to bed and just really enjoying family time. And during my career I always had to find ways to motivate myself. In the summer, every day the same routine, six times, seven times a week. There were obviously times where I wasn’t always motivated, but I always found a way whether you know I’m laying in bed in the morning and I don’t want to get up and I’m saying to myself, ‘Hey, Kevin Garnett is not laying in the bed right now sleeping, and Tim Duncan ain’t laying in the in the bed sleeping, so get your butt up and go to practice.’ Once I get there and once the routine starts, then of course I’m having fun. Sometimes it was just, ‘Oh, get over the hump, get up and get going.’ But always try and find little ways to motivate myself. Sometimes during the season if there’s a Tuesday night somewhere and in a small market and you don’t really have it, but then the jump ball goes up and you see the fans in the stands and you want to perform and that adrenaline rush always got me going. Or somebody talking trash to you or you try to talk trash to your teammates and get you fired up, there’s all sorts of little things that always got me going. I’m not sure if you watched The Last Dance, but that was interesting for me to see how Michael Jordan found his little things, and sometimes even made stuff up in his mind that never happened about the guy that was supposed to have talked trash to him, and the guys were like that never happened. But in MJ’s mind it was something to rally around and get him going and get him motivated. I thought that was fantastic to see. Even the pros sometimes have a tough time motivating themselves and you’ve got to play mind tricks and you’ve got to find little things to get you going.
Question: Who were your role models as a kid?
Nowitzki: Well, as you know, actually I grew up in a sporting family. My dad played handball, my mom played basketball and my sister played basketball, so I grew up in gyms and my first role model, believe it or not, was actually my dad. He was a great handball player in the area, and I used to travel with him on his away games on the weekends and I had my things to make noises — my clappers — and I was always at every one of his games. And when I started playing basketball and handball, I actually started with the number 11, because that was the number that he had when he played, so that was really my first role model. And then obviously as you get older you start watching more and more sports and I was a huge tennis fan. Tennis was actually my first sport I played when I was about four or five years old. That was sort of like the wave when Steffi Graf and Boris Becker made Germany famous in tennis, so of course everybody in Germany loved them. And then when I started playing basketball a little later, when I was about 11 or 12, I became a huge fan of the NBA. Back in Germany back in the days in early 90s, they weren’t showing games live or anything. They would just show maybe one or two games a week, so that was of course the 90’s with the (Chicago) Bulls’ era, so I was a huge diehard Bulls fan. I tried to catch as many games as I can, and just trying to be like them and work hard, and to one day be an NBA player. So I loved Scottie Pippen and of course, loved Michael Jordan, and those kind of basketball-wise, were my idols. I loved Detlef Schrempf. I’m sure you guys have heard of him. He was the first German guy to really make it in the NBA. I was a fan of his and a few others. I was just a huge tennis fan, and then once I shifted to basketball I was all-in on the Bulls in the 90’s.
Question: Who are your role models and mentors today, and what do you look for in them?
Nowitzki: I was really fortunate. I played all sports at the same time and when I was about 15 or 15-and-a-half years old, I met this basketball coach and he was an older coach, his name is Holger (Geschwindner), and I’m sure if you grew up in the Metroplex you’ve heard of him by now. I just started working with him – first, once a week and then twice a week — and then we got more and more. He was my mentor, he was there for me. He not only showed me how to perform on the court and taught me everything I know, but he also tried to push me off the court. Whether every Christmas, every birthday, he was giving me books or stuff to read, or little articles to read. He pushed me to finish schools and finish my high school (in Germany), because I had plans on maybe even coming to high school in the U.S. He kind of pushed me on and off the floor and I’m really thankful that I met him, and I owe him, obviously, everything that I know on and off the floor. And to this day he’s a great friend and a great mentor. Even at the end of my career, just last year and two years ago, he would fly in. So he was really my mentor, and when it comes to basketball and off the court stuff, he was vital for my career and he taught me a lot.
Question: You grew up in Germany, so what was that first NBA season like for you in Dallas?
Nowitzki: I kind of had to grow up here, I had to live by myself, I had to learn the language better to get along. I had to perform obviously on the court, get stronger, get used to that NBA way of playing, so I’m so busy always working out and getting better and then you’re kind of caught up in that. You’re just trying to make it and trying to chase the better players and look up to some of the older players that I was watching on my team and try to learn from them, whether it was Steve Nash or Michael Finley. They taught me a lot how to how to act on and off the floor, and I think it’s very important for younger players to look at the older players. What is their routine like, what do they eat, how do they talk to the media, at fan events and appearances how do they act? You just pick the brain from these older guys and then you kind of find your own routine. Role model-wise I always try to be myself. I try to have fun no matter where I’m at, no matter what situation I’m in, I try to enjoy it, try to really just have fun in everything I do and not take myself too serious. I was trying to make fun of myself and make light of the situation and just enjoy my time. And of course, I try to make make good decisions, but nobody’s perfect.
Question: Who helped you get involved in community service and what was that experience like for you?
Nowitzki: I always credit Steve (Nash) and Michael (Finley). Not only were they great pros on the court, but they were great pros off the floor and they cared about their community and they wanted to make a difference. To this day they both still have their foundations that do great work and they’re both still great friends. So we stay in touch all the time, we try to collaborate on some foundation work. Steve, at the time, we came in the same year here to Dallas (in 1998), but he’d already been up in Phoenix a couple years before that. Mike had obviously been established and was the best player here (in Dallas). So I kind of like hung onto them and tried to learn as much as I could, like I mentioned earlier, and pick their brain all the time. There’s no such thing as a bad question, and I just picked their brain and saw what their routine was like, and then I also learned how to be great in the community and try to help out and establish yourself. You learn pretty quick that it’s very important that the fans and the community come out every night to support you and push you, and you want to pay that back. You want to show the community that you appreciate that, and that you don’t take for granted that the fans come out all year long to support you and spend, of course, their hard earned money on this organization. So I took that very serious and so I found my foundation here in Dallas in 2001 already. It’s been going on almost on 20 years, so it’s been some amazing stuff we were able to do. I think at the beginning I started small. I started to support little local charities that I was able to fund and help grow, and then now to almost two decades later I have two fundraisers. We do a baseball game every year, I do my tennis event every September, and those are two big fundraisers for my foundation. Obviously now we’re able to impact a lot more lives than at the beginning. But yeah, at the beginning it’s so important to kind of learn and see what you’re passionate about and see what you love to do, and then it’s easy to kind of lose yourself in that work. For me and for our foundation it was always about the kids. The kids are, of course, the future generations. And just seeing that there’s a need all over not only the Metroplex. But I have a foundation in Germany that are founded in 2005. My wife is half-Kenyan, so we have a project in Kenya going right now. We do a lot of stuff with a foundation here in the North Texas area, so, I’m just trying to help wherever I can and obviously use my platform for good work.
Question: You mention how kids and working with kids are really your passion. How did you discover your personal passion?
Nowitzki: Well, when I first got here I felt like I was a kid myself. I felt like I was was good with kids, I always wanted kids myself, even though I didn’t have kids until later on in my life when I was over 30. But I always felt like I could be myself with kids, I can have fun. Even if you talk to some of my ex-teammates, I was always the clown in the locker room having fun and enjoying myself and just enjoying company, and the same with kids. I felt like that’s the future generation that we’re going to build on, they’re going to carry this community, and so that’s what we focus on. There’s so many amazing local charities here that’s done amazing work that we supported over the years. Giving back to the community is rewarding. If you’re in that position I think it’s also your responsibility (to give back). Of course I see myself very fortunate. I’ve earned a lot of money doing what I love, doing a hobby if you want. And that’s throwing a little basketball through a hoop. So I see myself very fortunate and very blessed, and I feel like it’s my responsibility to help others that are not as fortunate and not as lucky as I was.
Question: In the 2011 championship run, how did you prepare and what mentality did you have going into the playoffs?
Nowitzki: I always go back to ’06, ’07 with some of the tough playoff losses. I think I learned from that. I learned from the tough losses, and there’ll always be tough losses. You’re never always going to win. So I think what you try to do is at the beginning you’re depressed, you’re sad and you’re embarrassed, and you don’t want to be seen out and you go through this phase and then eventually you get fired up, and the loss motivates you to push harder to become better. And so I try to just learn from these tough losses always and be a better player and a better person. That year in 2010-2011, everything just kind of came together. Of course it’s a team sport, so you can’t win a championship by yourself. You have to have a good, good crew. I felt like the crew that we had here really complemented my skill set. Tyson (Chandler) and Shawn Marion were amazing defenders, Jason Kidd kind of plugged all the holes that I created on defense, and they knew how I like the ball. J-Kidd was a master of giving me the ball in situations I wanted, so I felt like the crew was special. It was a bunch of older veterans that had been around, that had been established. Nobody really tried to go and find selfish things. We just tried to have team success. So everything, all the losses leading up to 10-plus years in the league, for me kind of summed it up in that year. I learned from all those losses and I tried to be the best leader and I used all my experiences and the team was kind of great in supporting me and put me in position to succeed, so of course that was a phenomenal year. The mindset of the players was like, ‘Hey, we’re a good team and let’s just go for it and see what happens.’ And we just started playing better and better from round to round and you just rolled with the flow. It was an unbelievable season for us, and then of course a season I’ll never forget.