In 1998, when Dirk Nowitzki was opening eyes as a teenager with some sterling performances at The Hoop Summit in San Antonio, Don Nelson was doing his best trying to hide the 7-foot child prodigy from Germany.
Nelson, then the coach and general manager of the Dallas Mavericks, knew he had discovered a gem in Nowitzki. He just didn’t want any of the other general managers around the NBA to know about Nowitzki.
“We had to hide Dirk out and we did a lot of creative things just trying to hide him out and keep him away from everybody else,” Nelson said. “I knew he would be a special player and a great player one day, and we just wanted to make sure he was going to be with the Dallas Mavericks.”
Nowitzki remembers Nelson telling him not to do certain things or talk to certain people.
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“It was a crazy time back then because the Hoop Summit was in San Antonio that year, but we practiced in Dallas for a week,” Nowitzki said. “So Nellie was watching the practice, and Donnie [Nelson] was our assistant coach.
“I think they had their minds made up they were going to draft me, but I wasn’t really quite sure what the plan was.”
The plan shook out like this: The Mavs had the sixth pick in the ’98 draft, but, in a cost-cutting move, worked out a pre-draft trade with the Milwaukee Bucks to secure Nowitzki.
Dallas drafted Robert “Tractor” Traylor for Milwaukee, which used the ninth pick to draft Nowitzki for the Mavs.
“It was a great day for the Mavericks,” Nelson said. “We got our man in Nowitzki and we moved down in the draft and made a million dollars for our owner at the time, Ross Perot Jr.”
That turned out to be the most pivotal day in Mavs history.
Some 16 years later, the 35-year old Nowitzki has turned into a 12-time All-Star and one of the greatest players in NBA history.
“I think it’s amazing what he’s been able to do in his career, and it seems like he can play forever,” Miami Heat superstar LeBron James said. “Being 7-foot and with a jump shot like that, he can play until he’s done.
“The reason is Dirk plays at his own pace. You can’t speed Dirk up — Dirk ain’t going to speed up — and he’s going to shoot over the top of everybody in our league.”
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle credits Don Nelson for having the foresight to play Nowitzki at power forward so he could spread the floor and shoot over everybody in the NBA rather than groom him to use his height as a permanent center.
“He knew to put Dirk at power forward and some at center and let big guys run around the perimeter trying to chase him,” Carlisle said. “And it was tough to do.
“Nellie was the right coach at that time.”
Nowitzki is 16th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list with 26,179 points and is only 217 points away from passing the legendary John Havlicek. Along the way in Nowitzki’s amazing journey to basketball stardom, he helped the Mavs win the 2011 NBA title and also holds the majority of the team’s individual records.
“He’s the great Nowitzki,” Carlisle said. “He’s one of the great players in the history of the game.
“The guy has changed the game the way he plays. A 7-1 guy comes in the league and does what he does, it changes the power forward position forever and it reflects in the modern game now.”
Nowitzki stayed home in Germany during the 1998 draft. And at the time, he didn’t understand why the Mavs took a chance and slid down three spots in the draft if they coveted him so much.
Nowitzki, who will play in his 12th All-Star game at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Smoothie King Arena, said of the ’98 draft: “It was weird, but I’m glad it happened that way.”
It doesn’t surprise Don Nelson that his prized pupil has turned into one of the NBA’s all-time greats.
“I knew Dirk would be a great player one day,” Nelson said. “He’s just a special, special player and a special person.”
And one of the most special pro athletes to come through Dallas, regardless of the sport.
“It’s been a great ride in Dallas, and obviously Nellie, being the great coach that he was, my game kind of played right into his system,” Nowitzki said. “And who knows, for another coach, if I would have ever developed the way I did?
“But under Nellie he let me do my thing and let me play my game.”