Nestled in the northern folds of Bavaria alongside the Main River, W�rzburg is the picture of European charm. It's a quaint town dotted with medieval castles and some of the world's most stunning Baroque architecture. Scenic and serene, W�rzburg has one other claim to international fame: Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the X-ray there in 1895. "It's not a tourist town, but people come from all over to visit," Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki says wistfully. "It's just a beautiful, beautiful place."
Forgive the 21-year-old Nowitzki his longing for home. In this, his second NBA season, he has quickly come to a bittersweet realization: He won't be returning to W�rzburg for more than an off-season visit for the next, say, 15 years. After a shaky rookie season that at times left him wondering whether he wasn't better suited to the European leagues, he is emerging as an NBA folk hero worthy of the Brothers Grimm, a multitasking 7-foot 250-pounder who is as cozy shooting threes and dribbling upcourt as he is banging underneath. Well on his way to eclipsing Detlef Schrempf as Germany's best basketball export, Nowitzki has been abusing defenders of all shapes and sizes this season: At week's end he was scoring 18.1 points per game on 48.6% shooting from seemingly every spot on the floor. In the Mavericks' 108-106 road loss to the Lakers on Dec. 27, Nowitzki poured in 19 fourth-quarter points—as many as the Clippers tallied against the Lakers in a half last month—en route to a 30-point night. He followed that up with a career-high 32 points, along with six rebounds and six assists, in a 109-104 home loss to Toronto last Thursday. "He sure is something, isn't he?" says forward Antonio Davis, one of four Raptors who tried to guard Nowitzki. "Shooting, passing, rebounding, he can do it all. And he's big. I'm surprised because we didn't know much about him."
That's nothing new for Nowitzki, a late bloomer who was 13 before he touched a basketball and until last year wasn't even the best-known athlete in his own haw. His father, Joerg, played team handball for West Germany; his mother, Helga, starred for the women's national basketball team; and his big sister, Silke, plays pro hoops in Germany. "I was always playing soccer, tennis and team handball, but not at such a high level as the rest of my family," Dirk says. "When I finally discovered basketball, I didn't know how to play, but it became my favorite right away."
By the time he was 16, Nowitzki was 6'7" and good enough to make the W�rzburg X-Rays, a second-division pro team that played weekly in a small amphitheater. When he wasn't playing basketball or going to class at Roentgen Gymnasium—the German equivalent of high school—he was helping out in the family's 40-employee house-painting business or hanging with his girlfriend, Sybille. "I was having a simple, happy life there," he says with only slight traces of an accent. "I wasn't even thinking about the NBA."
His Weltanschauung, so to speak, changed in March 1998. At the Nike Hoop Summit, an exhibition during Final Four weekend that pits an under-19 international team against the top U.S. high school players, Nowitzki led the world stars to an astonishing upset, racking up 33 points and 14 rebounds. Within a few weeks he had received more than 30 Division I scholarship offers and piqued the interest of NBA front offices. "That game was really an unveiling," says Mavs assistant coach Donn Nelson. "With his size and skill level it was pretty obvious he could make a quick transition to the NBA."
A few days before he completed a mandatory nine-month stint in the German army, Nowitzki was drafted ninth by the Milwaukee Bucks, who—as part of a prearranged deal with Dallas—traded him and No. 19 pick Pat Garrity to the Mavs for No. 6 selection Robert Traylor. There was brief rejoicing in the Nowitzki household over Dirk's high draft position, followed by an earnest family discussion. While Joerg encouraged his son to try the NBA and test his mettle against the best, Helga lobbied for him to play in Europe for a year or two and develop his skills. "What mother doesn't want her son to be close by?" she says. "He had never even lived away from home before." In the end the family deferred to Dirk's coach and agent, Holger Geschwindner, West Germany's 1972 Olympic basketball captain, who declared Dirk ready for the big time.
Trumpeted in the preseason by Mavericks general manager and coach Don Nelson as the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year, Nowitzki gave a reasonable accounting of himself in the first few games but then had a hard time adjusting to the warp speed of the NBA—"I still can't believe how fast the point guards are," he says—as well as to Nelson's idiosyncratic style. By midseason he was so far down the Dallas bench that the coaching staff had no reservations about putting him through exhausting pregame workouts stressing footwork, defense and shot creation. In the Mavs' final 14 games Nowitzki returned to the rotation and showed glimpses of his talent, averaging 13.6 points and 5.2 rebounds, but he never felt comfortable. "Usually with international players the first year is a throwaway," says Donn Nelson. "Last season was NBA 101 for Dirk."
After sharpening his game on the Mavericks' summer-league team, he returned for his second season in superior shape and better attuned to the rhythms of the NBA. Nowitzki has a range of skills that have him matching up against 5'3" Muggsy Bogues in one game and 7-foot Patrick Ewing in the next. His natural position is small forward, where he can shoot over most opponents and hold his own defensively, yet when power forward Gary Trent missed the first 22 games this season with a torn left hamstring, Nowitzki filled in ably on the blocks. Don Nelson is quick to add that while his roster is stacked with shooting guards, including potential All-Star Michael Finley, Nowitzki can easily fill that slot as well, making him something of a Teutonic two tonic.
It's Nowitzki's shooting touch, in fact, that earns him the highest praise. Not unlike a housepainter doing a ceiling back in W�rzburg, he extends fully before commencing the smoothest of strokes. Nowitzki was shooting 44.9% from three-point range through Sunday—seventh best in the league—and had made nine of his last 10 treys, but he's equally comfortable taking a few dribbles and shooting a medium-range jumper over a smaller defender. "Dirk's just a world-class shooter, and I don't qualify it by saying 'for a guy his size,' " says point guard Steve Nash, Nowitzki's best friend on the team. "His stroke makes him seem quicker because you can't play off him."
Nowitzki's emergence is vindication of sorts for Don Nelson, who built his draft strategy around him rather than a known quantity like Paul Pierce. The Mavericks haven't been to the postseason in a decade and finished the 1990s with a .281 winning percentage, which makes them a team in desperate need of an uptick. When Nowitzki languished last season, it seemed to be additional evidence that the franchise was simply doomed and that Nelson's ways—the wacky tactics, the notions that 7'7" Manute Bol could be a three-point shooter and that an unknown German was lottery material—were horribly misguided. Though the Mavericks were only 9-21 at week's end, Nowitzki may single-handedly salvage Nelson's job. "To be honest, what we're seeing this year from Dirk," says Nelson, "I thought we'd see last year."