Jonas Gerstenberger is only 13, but he’s been setting his alarm clock for 2 am for much of the past week.
The young basketball player from Berlin has been waking up to watch Dirk Nowitzki lead his team the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals on German TV.
“If I’m not able to stay up that late, I’ll watch highlights later on my mobile phone,” he told The Local as he prepared to play in a tournament organized by the city’s basketball federation this week. “They are so important.”
With Nowitzki’s team on the verge of a possible NBA championship this year – the 32-year-old has dominated the finals with Dallas leading the best of seven series three games to two against the Miami Heat – thousands of young Germans like Gerstenberger are watching from afar with bated breath.
As this would be the first time a German player dominates the world’s best league, officials from the German Basketball Federation believe a championship ring for Nowitzki could also give a kick-start to the sport in Germany, where football, or soccer to North Americans, still dominates.
To understand Nowitzki’s importance to German basketball, one has to trace his beginnings from the small Bavarian city of Würzburg to his position at the pinnacle of his sport.
An unusually tall boy from a family of athletes, Nowitzki caught the attention of former national team player Holger Geschwinder and the two began training together. After Geschwinder took him under his wing, the young Dirk quickly developed, ending up being drafted into the NBA as a 19-year-old in 1998.
There, Nowitzki slowly became a star and built up a following both in the United States and in Germany.
There have been other German NBA players – super-tall centre Shawn Bradley and Detlef Schrempf, who played forward for the Seattle Supersonics, among others.
But none have reached the stature of Nowitzki.
“When he comes back to Germany in the summers and plays here, the arenas are filled,” said Christoph Büker, a spokesman for the German Basketball Federation. “There’s just no other German player who has had the recognition that he does.”
Players like Schrempf and Nowitzki have played a major part in basketball’s increasing popularity in Germany, Büker said.
Today nearly 200,000 people are members of club basketball teams throughout the country. Twenty years ago, membership was just a fraction of that, Büker said.
The meaning of a title
Büker admitted it was impossible to quantify what an NBA title for Nowitzki would mean for German basketball.
Could it mean more exposure on TV and in newspapers, where basketball is still considered a footnote? Could it mean more people, inspired by Nowitzki’s accomplishments, want to play ball?
“We don’t really know,” Büker said. “We’ll probably get at least a short-term boost from it. We hope we’ll see more people playing.”
But even if the association doesn’t gain new members, a championship for Nowitzki would demonstrate to the sceptics that German basketball has arrived, said Steffen Hamann, a point guard who plays on Germany’s national team.
“In a lot of ways, he represents what German basketball is all about,” told The Local. “He’s a very down to earth person, very hard working and good and what he does.”
Gerstenberger also takes pride in Nowitzki’s basketball accomplishments.
The teenager said his idol’s success had convinced him that he, too, can become a world-class pro baller one day.
“I’m going to make it,” he said as he prepared with teammates for their next game. “That’s my dream.”