Monday 5 December 2016

Basketball: A giant in the land of giants

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 19/06/2011 | 05:00

Dirk Nowitzki is the greatest European sportsman you've never heard of. If you have heard of him, my apologies. But unless you're a fan of American basketball chances are you haven't heard very much of him.

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Because there is no greater disproportion between achievement and recognition for any European sportsman, in these islands at least, than there is for the man who over the past month put the Dallas Mavericks up on his back and carried them to an unlikely NBA title.

The Mavericks closed it out with a 105-95 win at hot favourites Miami Heat which gave them a 4-2 win in the best-of-seven NBA finals. Nowitzki had been untypically quiet for the first three quarters but scored 10 points late in the fourth to clinch the game and the title for his team. Throughout the play-offs he displayed an uncanny ability to make the shots when his team needed them the most. Incredibly, Nowitzki's total of 62 fourth-quarter points in the finals equalled the combined total of Miami's Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, the two superstars who had been predicted to sweep the German and his team-mates aside in the finals.

Dirk Nowitzki has been very good for a long time. Having entered the NBA as a 20-year-old in 1998, he has been an All-Star every year from 2002 to 2011. But there remained a question mark over his failure to earn ultimate honours for the Mavericks. In 2006, the team won the first two games of the finals against the Heat and led by 15 points late in the third. They contrived to lose that match and the following three, raising question marks over the big man's ability to deliver on the really big day. The following year, the Mavericks had the best record in the regular season when they lost to the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors, an upset along the lines of Cork getting turned over by Waterford in the Munster Senior Football Championship.

Nowitzki, it appeared, was one of the best, but he wasn't one of the very best. American basketball commentators liked to point out that no European player had ever led a team to finals victory. That whole 'white men can't jump' undercurrent was there too.

But this year Nowitzki made the jump not just to greatness but to immortality. Because this year's play-off line-up was one of the most exciting ever. There were the exciting young Chicago Bulls who had the best record in basketball, hardened contenders San Antonio Spurs who had the second best, the Boston Celtics who'd won the title in 2008 and lost last year's finals 4-3 and the Oklahoma City Thunder, a thrilling young side and everyone's choice for team of the future. Above all there were the Los Angeles Lakers, going for three in a row, and the Miami Heat who had three superstars, James, Wade and Chris Bosh, an unusually packed front line in a league where salary capping normally prevents such an assembly of Galacticos. Oh, and there were the Dallas Mavericks but nobody was passing much heed on them.

They tipped off with a shaky 4-2 win over the unfancied Portland Trail Blazers and looked little more than cannon fodder for the Lakers, apparently bound for a showdown for the ages with the Heat, in the conference semi-finals. The Mavericks crushed the champions 4-0 but all the post-match talk was about the decline of the Lakers.

That we were dealing with a new Dallas, and a new Nowitzki, only became clear in the first game of the conference finals against Oklahoma. Nowitzki scored 48 points as Dallas won 121-112 and set the stage for a classic contest. The ageing Dallas side always looked on the verge of being overwhelmed by Oklahoma's youthful energy but they hung in there with Nowitzki playing the best stuff of his life. In the fourth game, Dallas, leading 2-1, were 15 points down with four minutes left but somehow forced overtime. They came through 112-105 with Nowitzki bagging 40. The Mavericks won the series 4-1 but won no game by more than six points. Every final quarter was almost unbearably tense but that was precisely when the Dallas star seemed to find an extra gear.

All the same the Mavericks' role in the finals was expected to be that of bridesmaids at a coronation. The coronation of King James to be precise. Ever since Lebron James has come into the league, he has been heralded as the heir to Michael Jordan. And he is that gifted. But the one thing missing was an NBA crown with his name on it. That was why last summer James decided to leave the underachieving Cleveland Cavaliers to join the equally talented Dwyane Wade at Miami. That he announced his decision live on a TV show dedicated to the announcement and entitled, 'The Decision', led some to surmise that James was getting too big for his basketball boots. The superb Chris Bosh, six times an All-Star, arrived from the Toronto Raptors to make the Heat the most glamorous side to play in the NBA for a long time.

And now all that stood in their way was Dirk and a gang of old-timers whose best days were behind them. Jason Kidd was 38, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion were 33. All, like Nowitzki, were great players without an NBA title to their name, their best opportunities having come and gone years ago. The Allied football team in Escape To Victory had a sporting chance in comparison.

The Heat duly won the first game 92-84, despite Nowitzki finishing as the game's top scorer with 27 points. Even more significantly, the German tore a tendon in his finger which handicapped him in game two. And when the Heat led by 15 points in the fourth quarter, it looked to be curtains for our geriatric heroes. But once more they pulled it out of the fire. In a hectic finish Nowitzki sank a three-pointer to put Dallas 93-90 ahead, Mario Chalmers levelled for the Heat and Nowitzki took the defence on single-handed to score the winning basket with three seconds left. It was the biggest fourth-quarter finals comeback in 19 years.

In game three it was the Heat's turn to win by two points, though Nowitzki top-scored with 34. A game later, it looked as though the big Bavarian had finally found an opponent who could mark him. Sinusitis. The infection left him with a 101 degree temperature, a fever and was an obvious handicap during the game. It made no difference as the match finished 86-83 for Dallas with the key basket coming from Nowitzki with 14 seconds left. Wade and James' decision to mean spiritedly mimic Nowitzki's cough after the game showed just how rattled they were that the bridesmaids had decided to take over the ceremony.

Our hero starred again in game five with 29 points as the Mavericks won 112-103 to take a 3-2 lead. Yet the smart money was still on the Heat. They had the last two games at home where they had been almost invincible. But on this night last week, or the early hours of Monday morning our time, the Mavericks closed it out. There were dramatic reversals of fortune in the game, Dallas built up a big lead in the first half, blew it and then took the lead again before the break and an unusual bit of squaring up between the players. Nowitzki played his worst stuff of the play-offs but was rescued by his long-time right-hand man Terry who shot 27 points. But when the fat was in the fire the seven-footer from Wurzburg sank the late baskets. Those final minutes mirrored the whole series. It was an exertion of will from a great sportsman who moulded the contest into the shape of his own singular talent.

There is something immensely likeable about Nowitzki. In a sport whose leading stars are obsessed with their image to an extent which makes David Beckham look like John Power, he cuts an unworldly figure. There is a goofiness about the big man which made his commentary on a game he missed due to injury back in December a YouTube sensation. And there will be many million hits on his various renditions of We Are The Champions in the aftermath of Dallas's victory. He's no Joe McDonagh or Pat Delaney but anyone who's ever belted out a few tuneless verses after a feed of pints will empathise with Nowitzki's songcraft.

He is also, like many great sportsmen, sheer pleasure to watch on an aesthetic level. Because, while for the uninitiated the idea of a seven-foot German basketballer may conjure up the spectacle of a giant juggernaut powering his way to the net, the reality is very different. Nowitzki's great skill is his shooting which he executes with the touch and finesse of a much smaller man. Whether he's off balance, the time is running out or he's under pressure, he gets the ball away with apparent ease and it hits nothing but the laces all the way down. He has spent the month in that rare zone only known to the greatest of sportsmen who, once or twice in their career, hit a peak when the goals seem too big to miss, the lines on the court exert a magnetic attraction on the ball, a lifetime of hard work suddenly makes everything look easy.

It was a wonder and made even more wonderful by the necessity of having to watch it in the early hours, fuelling myself with coffee and cheese in an effort to banish sleep. Perhaps it's something to do with the memory of being called from bed as a kid to watch Ali beat Foreman in Kinshasa and Frazier in Manila but there remains something special in my mind about the sporting contest watched in the early hours. Maybe it's the effort you have to put in or the sheer silence of the world outside which gives these nocturnal events a hyper-real quality. Or maybe it's all that coffee and cheese.

But it was special. No European sportsman will match the feats of Dirk Nowitzki this year.

He is the champion my friends.

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