In the summer of 2011, a wide-eyed, tall, lanky German kid stood amongst several thousand of his countrymen and celebrated the Dallas Mavericks NBA title as hometown hero Dirk Nowitzki sang from the balcony of the Wurzburg Residence Palace.
“I get goosebumps thinking about it right now,” Maxi Kleber said. “What are the chances?”
From a victory parade in the town square to now residing five lockers over from Nowitzki as a rotating starter for the Mavericks, the probability was and is astronomical.
Kleber, a 6-foot-11 forward from Wurzburg, Germany, has defied all the odds and according to the hometown hero, it isn’t by accident.
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“He’s earned that spot in the rotation,” Nowitzki said. “I think he didn’t really know what to expect from the league, from the NBA and living over here.
“Early in the season, he didn’t play much. But he didn’t put his head down, he kept working, kept showing up early and taking extra shots.”
With Dallas starting the season 2-13 and floundering in the frontcourt, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle inserted Kleber into the starting lineup last November with the idea of taking the perimeter workload off of Nowitzki and playing him at center.
Eventually, the idea paid off in numerous ways. But the bottom line is that Kleber has started 34 games this season and a future in some capacity with the team looks probable.
While some might assume Kleber was motivated to play the game by Nowitzki’s success, in fact, the young German said he has a hard time remembering any of his thoughts prior to meeting the Mavericks superstar in a Würzburg gym.
“I can’t actually remember my first memory of Dirk,” he said. “But the first thing that comes to mind is that picture we took. “I was like 12 and had only played for about 4 years before I started to even watch NBA highlights or understand pro ball. I probably realized a couple of years earlier that I did understand who he was, but that picture is kind of where everything started.”
By most accounts, Würzburg wasn’t much on basketball prior to Nowitzki’s superstar status. But Kleber simply points to that as the launching pad for what his hometown has become.
“I’m not sure what it was like before obviously, but it’s a basketball city now,” he said. “They play first league with a new team, but the biggest impact is what Dirk and his generation brought there.”
Despite all of that, Kleber ending up in basketball defied the odds.
“My parents were not really into basketball,” Kleber said. “My dad played soccer, my mom didn’t play at all and it was my older brother that started playing when we were young.
“We tried everything and I stuck with this. But it’s not like this was a family thing before.”
Kleber had a strong amateur career and then the Nowitzki celebration back in the town square is where the rocket started to light.
He made his professional debut in the German Bundesliga for the hometown Oliver Baskets in 2010-11 before bouncing around between the Spanish League and Germany. Kleber played two seasons with Bayern Munich before the big call came from the Mavericks.
“There are times I still can’t believe it,” he said. “All along, this is where I wanted to be and there were times I thought it might not happen.”
Kleber had tried to catch the eye of an NBA team twice, withdrawing from draft consideration in 2012 and going undrafted in 2014.
But his biggest and most life-altering moments might have come prior to that. It was at a local gym in Würzburg where a 12-year-old Kleber met Nowitzki for the first time.
“I had never met him before aside from the one time in the gym and of course I don’t remember that at all,” Nowitzki said. “He was like 12 or something and I was 25 so that was a long time ago.
“Meeting him here was truly the first time, because whenever I played with the national team, either I was hurt or he was hurt and we never got to be around each other. We always exchanged text messages and kept in touch, but never met until he came here.”
Getting to the NBA didn’t happen with flashy numbers.
Kleber’s size and mobility, while adequate, wasn’t always enough to get the big man a shot in the U.S. He never averaged in double-figures while in Munich, but showed a penchant for defense and rebounding.
Whatever the case, with some intangibles and the prospect of growth, Carlisle and the Mavericks took a shot at another wunderkind from Dirk’s hometown.
With the expected minimal playing time for a long-shot rookie early in the season and with Nerlens Noel struggling and injured at the time, Kleber got his first start on Nov. 11. The promotion hadn’t come as much from the production side, though, as the practical one.
“What makes him so valuable to us is that he can guard multiple positions, he’s a great defender and shot-blocker for his size,” Nowitzki said. “He rolls well on the offensive end and can stretch out the defense and play the 3 as a good, all-around player”
So far, it’s meant getting starts and major playing time at forward, allowing Nowitzki to slide over at center. The results have been mixed for Dallas, which has played more than 30-plus games to within one possession with just 5 minutes remaining. But it’s hard to argue with the rotation, considering Nowitzki’s played every game except one (swollen ankle) this season and how the organization might have found a way to extend the life of its aging veteran, who recently reached the 31,000 career points milestone.
On offense, the production’s been harder to come by for Kleber.
He scored a season-high 21 points in December against San Antonio and has had four other games in double figures. In total, Kleber’s averaged 5.4 points per game and 3.4 rebounds this season, which is hardly a line that indicates the Mavericks are closer to a title-contending team in the frontcourt.
“A big part of why I’m playing is that I can switch on the defensive side and match-up against different players,” Kleber said. “That helps guys like Dirk have fresh legs and while it’s not great on the offensive side, it’s big for a guy that scores a lot and brings that energy we need."
But does the 82-game season grind on the young German, considering in total, most European leagues complete both regular and postseasons in around 45 games?
“When I’m shooting in practice, I’m feeling confident,” Kleber said. “And most of my shots in games feel good too.
“But there have been a lot of in and outs, balls that hit inside the rim and just don’t go. If you let it, that can become a mental thing and then you’re thinking about your shot and that you may want to change it. But then you’re stuck doing something in the middle of the season and that’s something you should be doing in the summer time.”
Working technically is something where Kleber has found himself in the right place. Nowitzki, in his 20th season, still routinely puts in extra hours to perfect his shooting.
“The summer will be when I really have a first time to evaluate and work on my shot,” Kleber said. “Honestly, I’m shooting a flat ball so that decreases the chances of the ball going in and it just means over the summer, I’ll work on changes, but for right now, I’m staying confident with what I have.”
But has Kleber come to believe that he belongs in the NBA?
“I think as a player, I was confident when I came here, but I think the first time I really knew was the extra playing time against (Houston) Rockets earlier this season,” he said. “I came in and played the 3 and switched after that.
“But what I saw, was my ability to keep up with the guards in front of me and I realized it wasn’t a mismatch.”