Mac Engel

As we say goodbye to Dirk, thank the German Mavs who made him possible: Uwe and Detlef

America’s greatest German import since Pilsner and Black Forest Cake is just about done, and watching Dirk Nowitzki dunk on the first possession of Friday night’s game required a beer to wash down the emotions.

Like anyone with children, we want our Dirk to be young again. Science has yet to create a prevention for aging, so here we are with our favorite Dirk graduating from the NBA.

Watching Dirk run/stumble around the American Airlines Center on Friday night against Memphis in a glorified preseason game was bittersweet, and an ideal reminder there is no Dirk without the two Germans who came long before him.

Mavericks fans, when you thank Dirk, be sure to nod and clap for Uwe Blab and Detlef Schrempf. That duo didn’t make Dirk, but they made what he did possible.

They were the original Big Germans.

“I always heard the, ‘soft European player who can only shoot,’” Schrempf said in a phone interview. “Being the first one, I heard that a lot more than people do now. Times are different.”

When little Dirk — if there ever was such a thing — was about 7 or 8 living in Wurzburg, Germany, Blab and Schrempf were the first two Germans playing for the Mavs, and changing a nation’s view of basketball. Those two guys helped to create the opportunity for a Dirk to ever come to Texas.

In the 1985 NBA Draft, the Mavs’ first two picks were Germans: Schrempf (eighth overall), and Blab (18th).

“When I was a kid growing up in Germany, basketball was not much of a sport,” Schrempf said in a phone interview. “Soccer was 1, 2 and 3.”

“I was 13 and in school they put on this movie in it showed a game of basketball,” Blab said in a phone interview. “It was this game where they threw a ball into a ring; it was weird. The only thing we had was club basketball, and it wasn’t much. Everything was soccer.”

In Mavs’ lore, Schrempf is known as the guy selected over Karl Malone, who went 13th to the Utah Jazz. In Feb. of ‘89, Schrempf was traded to the Indiana Pacers and enjoyed an 18-year NBA career that included two Sixth Man of the Year awards, and being named to all-NBA third team in 1995.

After a solid four-year career at Indiana under Bob Knight, Blab’s pro career never flourished in the NBA. He played four years for the Mavs, and two more in the NBA before he finished up overseas.

Blab, whom coach Indiana Bob Knight called “Blob,” is known more as the starting center for an IU team that ended Michael Jordan’s college career with the Hoosiers’ upset over North Carolina in the 1984 NCAA Tournament.

Their real legacy is in their native Germany, where they helped to elevate the sport to a point where a kid like Dirk would want to play basketball.

“When I was a kid growing up in Germany, I was a complete outcast,” said Blab, who is 57 and lives in Dripping Springs and works in Austin. “I was 7-foot-2, 180 pounds. I was a freak. No girls. Nothing. Many negative comments, and just this general attitude when you walked into a place. I came to America, and it was, ‘Ohhhhhhh — look at that guy.’ I had a new life here. I was totally accepted.”

Both Schrempf and Blab came to the U.S. as foreign exchange students before playing college ball in the U.S.; they didn’t move the needle much back home.

It was not until the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics did basketball begin to gain some traction in Germany; by the U.S.S.R skipping those Games, it created an opening for the West German team to play in the ‘84 Olympics. Both Blab and Schrempf were on that team.

“Where we were really handicapped was not being allowed to play in the Olympics after that,” Schrempf said, noting that the International Olympic Committee did not allow pros to play in the Games until 1992. “It wasn’t until 1992, when they had the Dream team, did it really begin to change back home. That’s what really started it. Once that happened, it really opened up.”

Both Blab and Schrempf played for what was by then a unified Team Germany against the Dream Team in ‘92.

“We did pretty well against them,” Blab said.

The U.S. defeated the Germans, 111-68, which was the routine beating administered by the Dream Team.

By the time Germany was no longer East and West but unified, and a young Dirk had been discovered by German basketball God, Holger Geschwindner, who has been his mentor and personal coach for more than 25 years.

After the ‘92 Games, the international players had started to flow into the U.S., and the NBA.

Six years after the ‘92 Olympics, Dirk was the ninth overall pick of the Milwaukee Bucks and he was sent to the Mavs in exchange for Robert Traylor.

“Every player, not just in Dallas or Texas, or Germany, but all over the world should look at Dirk; he has an amazing work ethic,” Schrempf said. “He is a super example for any player from anywhere in the world who proved that anything is possible. It opened the door for elite players that maybe a tall kid who is from a soccer country can excel in basketball.”

Dirk did it, but there were two guys who made it possible.

When you say thanks to Dirk, be sure to include some applause for Uwe Blab and Detlef Schrempf.

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