The game, which came during an NBA lockout season, took on a different flavor of hype because it pitted two native sons from Germany — Seattle’s Detlef Schrempf and the Mavericks’ Nowitzki — going against each other.
Schrempf was entering his 14th season, while Nowitzki was in his first and had been touted by Mavericks coach Don Nelson as the player who would win the 1998-99 season’s rookie of the year award. But after the SuperSonics won 92-86 in overtime, it was clear that Nowitzki wasn’t ready for prime time.
Nowitzki finished the game with two points, no rebounds and four assists, and was 0 of 5 from the field. In the locker room at the Key Center afterward, he also looked like he’d seen a ghost.
“I still remember it was one of the worst games I’ve ever played,” said Nowitzki, now 38 years old. “It was tough, and there was all this German media there.
“We’d never had media in the locker room (in Germany), so I’m getting undressed and all of a sudden there’s people standing there looking at you. It was bizarre.”
So bizarre that Mark Cuban, a Mavericks’ season ticker holder at the time who eventually bought the franchise on Jan. 4, 2000, remembers the innate struggles Nowitzki endured earlier in his career.
“Honestly, before I bought the team when I started watching him and paying attention, I thought he was just another big white guy from Europe that (Don Nelson) brought in,” Cuban said. “And then you start watching him and you realized he was something special.”
But before becoming a “special” part of the NBA fabric, at least Nowitzki — in his first NBA game — was afforded an opportunity to hob-knob with Schrempf.
“We took a picture at the middle circle with Detlef before the game,” Nowitzki said. “I got to meet him, I got to meet his family after the game, and he was really nice to me.
“But I was in awe — it was too much. But looking back at it now it was a great memory, but it was one of the worst games I’ve ever played.”
That was then, and this is now. And now nearly 19 seasons, 1,376 games and a few questionable haircuts later, Nowitzki is considered one of the most iconic players in sports history.
When the Mavericks (26-36) entertain the Los Angeles Lakers (19-44) at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at American Airlines Center, Nowitzki will need 20 points to join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928), Kobe Bryant (33,643), Michael Jordan (32,292) and Wilt Chamberlain (31,419) as the only players in NBA history to score at least 30,000 points.
Players such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony have all copied Nowitzki’s famous one-legged fallaway jump shot. But the early years were so tough for Nowitzki that he thought about bailing out and going back home.
“I’ll never forget, he came to me and said I think I want to go home,’’ Nelson said. “So we just had to convince him to weather the storm, it’s going to be great.
“We loved him and said just don’t worry about making mistakes or whatever was bothering him. I guess he was home sick more than anything.”
Michael Finley saw Nowitzki's struggles.
“I felt bad for the kid, for one,” said Finley, a teammate of Nowitzki from 1998-2005. “Coach at the time put a lot of added pressure on him, calling him the rookie of the year. “That goes around the league for everybody out there to prove Nellie wrong and to go at Dirk.”
Nowitzki eventually silenced his critics to the point where he became a 13-time All-Star while leading the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title. The only world title the city of Dallas has won this century — among the four North American pro sports — is the one Nowitzki led the Mavericks to nearly six years ago.
“I think the most important thing that he means to the city of Dallas is that he gave them a championship,” Finley said. “No matter what you saw, the bad days in the 1990s or the pretty good days in the ’80s, at the end of the day he brought Dallas a championship.
“And because of Dirk’s willingness to sacrifice whatever it takes for the team to be a champion, he will always be remembered as the player that brought Dallas its first NBA championship.”
Along Nowitzki’s way to greatness, there were those constant comparisons to Boston legend Larry Bird. The comparisons infuriated those who followed the Celtics closely.
“Early on my recollection is there were a lot of comparisons to Bird, because they’re both great shooters, they both have blond hair and there were similarities,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who played with Bird from 1984-87. “I remember I was on TV (as an analyst) for the Sonics one year and it was Dirk’s second or third year, and in one of our openings we were talking about some of the comparisons and my comment at the time was we’ll see how this plays out over time — this kid’s got some terrific tools.
“It was right around the time he was really starting to show signs of taking the first quantum leap. Today we’re in a different millennium and his accomplishments are gigantic, extraordinary.”
So extraordinary that few remember he averaged 8.2 points per game as a wide-eyed rookie.
“I think it’s important to note that it’s never easy for a rookie to come in and dominate,” Carlisle said. “Very few guys have done that, and so Dirk went through some growing pains, but the great ones adjust.
“They have a level of resourcefulness that allows them to tailor their skills to their environment. His career is one of the most amazing in the history of sports.”
The gym rat
The NBA journey for Nowitzki started at the Alamodome in San Antonio in 1998 when he was playing for the international juniors team against the USA juniors team in the Nike Hoop Summit during Final Four weekend. The heavily favored USA juniors team were led by Rashard Lewis and Al Harrington.
Nowitzki, however, poured in 33 points and collected 14 rebounds and three steals in his team’s upset victory. From there, the Mavericks went about the business of trying to lure Nowitzki to Dallas.
Legend has it that the Mavericks hid Nowitzki from other NBA teams so he couldn’t work out for them leading up to the draft. A 7-footer with exceptional raw skills, Nowitzki was the man who the Mavericks figured could help turn their franchise around.
Eventually, the Mavericks executed a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks on the day of the 1998 NBA Draft. Dallas used the sixth pick of the draft to select the player the Bucks wanted — Robert “Tractor” Traylor — and the Bucks used the ninth pick to draft Nowitzki for the Mavericks.
The Mavericks passed up Kansas All-American Paul Pierce so they could get Nowitzki.
Dominique Wilkins, who is 13th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 26,668 points, describes Nowitzki as one of the most “lethal” scorers he’s ever seen.
“He was one of the first big men, especially of this era, to score the ball from outside,” Wilkins said. “Once he went out on the perimeter, and the way he shot the jump shot in traffic, was amazing.
“Then he expanded his game to the 3-point line. He’s just a helluva scorer, period, and he was probably one of the first guys to shoot from the outside consistently for a whole career.”
Nowitzki captured his first playoff series with the Mavericks in 2001. They fell behind Utah 2-0, but won the ensuing three games to win the best-of-five series 3-2 with Calvin Booth sinking the series-clinching shot.
“He makes the game so much easier for everybody else because he commands so much attention,” Booth said. “He’s definitely one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever played with.
“I remember times when the coaching staff had to threaten to fine him if he didn’t get out of the gym. He was definitely a gym rat.”
That humble “gym rat” is on the brink of becoming a member of a very exclusive club.
“Like I always say,” Nowitzki said, “those things will be unbelievable when my career is over and looking back and showing my grandchildren maybe one day, showing them some YouTube clips of what Papa did.”
Here’s a look at some of Dirk Nowitzki’s scoring milestones:
1,000 points: at Portland on Jan. 10, 2000
5,000 points: vs. Toronton on March 7, 2002
10,000 points: vs. Washington on Jan. 18, 2005
20,000 points: vs. Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 13, 2010
25,000 points at New Orleans on April 14, 2013
Top 10 scorers
The top 10 all-time leading scorers in NBA history:
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 38,387
2. Karl Malone, 36,928
3. Kobe Bryant, 33,643
4. Michael Jordan, 32,292
5. Wilt Chamberlain, 31,419
#6. Dirk Nowitzki, 29,980
7. Shaquille O’Neal, 28,596
#8. LeBron James, 28,286
9. Moses Malone, 27.409
10. Elvin Hayes, 27,313