Op-Ed: Germany is abuzz over the exploits of native son Dirk Nowitzki, who led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA championship. One German sportswriter says Nowitzki is proof that European-style team ball has eclipsed the star-driven approach Michael Jordan
BERLIN - Coach Rick Carlisle seemed almost a bit angry when he celebrated the biggest triumph of his career, the victory of his Dallas Mavericks over the star-studded Miami Heat.
The gaunt man, looking a bit puritan with his close-cropped hair, deep wrinkles, and grim countenance, described this year's National Basketball Association championship series as a contest not just between two franchises, but between two systems – two fundamentally different basketball philosophies. The Dallas win, Carlisle lectured reporters after Sunday's match, set an example of how the game should be played: with trust in players, team spirit, and a clear sense of common will and struggle. It was not a victory by individual players.
For the United States and its star-studded NBA, this kind of talk is quite unusual. Since the era of Michael Jordan, focus has centered on the gifted individual player. This new ideal was born on the outdoor basketball courts of the inner-city and grew to larger-than-life proportions on the talent of basketball geniuses: the dazzling dribbling of an Allan Iverson, the spectacular passes of Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant's artistic shots, and Dwight Howard's thunderous slam dunks.
Somewhere along the line, the team game – as the sport was originally conceived – faded into the background.
Carlisle isn't the only basketball figure to celebrate the sport's team-first origins. His Italian colleague, Ettore Messina, the most successful European coach in recent years, lamented, "This game isn't about four guys that plow through the other team and make way for a star player to take the shots."
This star-based system has been upended before. The European basketball system, in which the individual is subordinated to the collective, has already shown itself to be superior. Take for example the many defeats the U.S. national team has suffered over the past decade in international competitions. The über-talented squad finished sixth in the 2002 World Championships and an embarrassing third in the 2004 Olympic Games. Again and again, gifted individuals lost to players who were perhaps less talented but more disciplined, and worked as a team. In a team sport, even the best solo artist can't win a championship alone.
European Players To The Rescue
In the United States, the game is beginning to return to its origins. It is no coincidence that the NBA teams with the strongest European influence have been more successful in recent years. The era of individually talented, individualistic "ghetto basketball" is over. Dirk Nowizki played no small part in this shift.
Dallas and Miami are the archetypes of the two contrasting basketball systems. On the one side we have Dirk Nowitzki and a carefully composed ensemble of role players and specialists, assembled over the course of a decade; on the other, an expensive roster of superstars, many of whom were added to the team within the last year.
While Nowitzki is also an extremely gifted individual player, he uses his talents specifically to support his team and their success. Nowitzki takes fewer shots than he used to, he has been working on his defensive skills, and he continues to add new facets to his game every day. All of that work has now earned Nowitzki a coveted NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award.
Miami is the opposite. The team's system is based mainly on the outstanding athletic abilities of Lebron James and Dwayne Wade. Many of its other players are mediocre at best. James, whose nickname "The Chosen One" is even tattooed on his body, may be the greatest marketing machine in the history of professional basketball. He may also be one of the most talented players in the world. But he has yet to win a title.
In the final, James failed in crucial moments. Wade also disappointed. Dallas forced the two superstars out of their comfort zones, and in doing so, revealed key tactical weaknesses.
Both stars suffer from the same shortcoming: they are rather average shooters. This also fits the theory that the neat jump shot isn't heavily valued in today's fast-paced, open court basketball. Outside shooting is taught at colleges, where U.S. basketball players learn to be team players, and where the game continues to be played as an organized team sport. Nowadays, the most gifted players often don't go to college. Instead they jump straight from high school into the NBA. Lebron James is a case in point. U.S. analysts have long since agreed that most U.S. basketball players with outstanding talent have a training and education deficit.
The European club system seems to have an advantage here. The Dallas roster already includes four players who first earned their stripes playing in the team-oriented Old World leagues: two Frenchman, one Serb, and of course Dirk Nowitzki.
The league recognized years ago that street ball, rap, and ghetto chic also threaten the commercial success of the sport. For a time players came to games and press conferences wearing gold chains and sporting a gangsta look: baseball caps, baggy pants, long T-shirts and sneakers were standard.
The wider – and majority white – American public associated this type of outfit with street gangs and ghetto rap. This bothered the NBA, which wanted to market basketball as a family sport. In 2005 the league enforced a dress code. NBA players must arrive for games wearing a suit and tie.
Some American analysts note that skin color was a primary reason for increased public interest in this year's championship series. The fact that it featured such a successful white star was certainly good for the commercial success of the games, writes columnist Bill Reiter of Fox Sports. Sadly, skin color seems to still be a major issue in America.
Nowitzki is someone the average American would gladly invite into his living room. He is humble, his manners are cultivated. His opponents Lebron James and Dwayne Wade made fun of him on camera moments before game five, mimicking the cough that plagued him in the previous contest. Their actions came off as childish, arrogant and egocentric.
They underestimated Nowitzki. As Fox Sports expert Bill Reiter explained, the world has seen that Dirk Nowitzki is a better basketball player than Lebron James. Maybe not as talented, athletic, or marketable, but better.
Dirk has played for the Mavericks for over a decade. Lebron James, the Chosen One, joined Miami just last summer – following an elaborate and theatrical move from Cleveland that alienated many of his fans in the process.
Former all-star and NBA analyst Charles Barkley sees James as weak in character: "If you're the best player in the world, you don't go somewhere else. The others must come to you." Just look at Dirk Nowitzki.
Success can't be built on the shaky foundation that Lebron James built for himself in Miami. It can be built on a stable, German-designed industry product. With Nowitzki's help, basketball is becoming a team sport again, a long-awaited return to its origins.
Read the original article in German
Photo – Keith Allison