A freakish athlete deserves a different kind of book, something that goes against the grain of regionality or idolatry or repetitious recounting of this big game or that. Thomas Pletzinger’s The Great Nowitzki, with its Fitzgeraldian title and novelistic prose, is the place to go if you’re interested in the connection between basketball and jazz, or the particular, earthbound skill set of the “old man game,” or the modern-art tastes of an all-time NBA great. 

Pletzinger brings a sense of curiosity and discovery to the story of his German countryman, the guy who came to the United States as a large, scared kid who spoke imperfect English and became a face of the league he grew up watching thousands of miles and an ocean away. Pletzinger applies a sort of restrained, polite gonzo touch here, a willingness to embed without ever wearing out his welcome. He gains his subject’s trust early and carries it through to the finish, after all the cheers have died out and Dirk Nowitzki assumes his full-time role as down-to-earth dude.

“For some people, Dirk is the nice boy next door; for others, he is the best European who ever touched a basketball,” Pletzinger writes. “An innovator with a very unique way of thinking, a meticulous technician. The creation of a nutty professor. A free spirit. The reinvention of the power forward position and one of the main reasons for there being a major change in the way basketball is played.” Before Dirk, who spent all 21 of his NBA seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, seven-footers were expected to bang away close to the basket. In his wake, few big men retain their jobs if they can’t stroke it from outside.

I had a front-row seat for the Dirk Show. (Okay, so it was usually more of an upper mezzanine seat.) He got to Dallas in 1998, two years after I moved to Texas from California, and he retired in 2019, the year I moved away. My first response when the Mavericks drafted him: really? Don Nelson, who was running the team at the time, had a penchant for overreaching (see: Shawn Bradley), and now he’d drafted some skinny German kid only insiders had heard of.

Nowitzki got pushed around at first. Then they couldn’t help but notice: this guy can really shoot, sometimes off one leg. Then: he’s kinda low-key feisty. And he has amazing court sense, an uncanny ability to find himself in the right place. The Mavericks started making the playoffs, even winning series, and the German kid developed a swagger. Meanwhile, off the court, he quietly slid into a role as ambassador for what was once known as the City of Hate. He exuded no-nonsense decency, a soft-spoken excellence in a town known for gaudy gesture. It was thrilling to watch a genuinely good guy realize just how good he was. When he finally led the Mavericks to a title, in 2011, the joy belonged to the whole city, which had watched Nowitzki grow up in public. I’ve never been happier for a professional athlete.

Pletzinger had the good fortune to get to know Nowitzki personally, and the good taste to not write some hagiographic, worshipful tract. The two have Germany in common, and Pletzinger knows the European game and how it stands apart from the most popular sport on the continent. “Basketball players were different from soccer players; there was always a good vibe and smart jokes,” he writes. “In Europe, soccer was the sport of macho men and tough guys. Basketball was clever, basketball was smart.” 

Like Nowitzki, Pletzinger grew up idolizing former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen, another long-limbed player with an unusual skill set, and, of course, Pippen’s famous teammate. “We ordered Air Jordans from mail-order catalogues, repeatedly watched imported VHS tapes of NBA games, and swapped Topps and Upper Deck trading cards,” he writes. But “the NBA wasn’t something that was real to us; it wasn’t factual or even imaginable. The highest achievable goal was the linoleum at Ischelandhalle” (a storied arena in Hagen, Germany).

Pletzinger played a little pro ball in the German club system as a teen, but he wasn’t good enough to last. His loss, writing’s gain. Anyway, he wasn’t really buying the dominant German style of play. “Deemed ‘the right way,’ we played an antiquated game, calling it ‘old school.’ ” Running was discouraged. Nowitzki helped change this, following in the footsteps of an earlier German star, Holger Geschwindner. 

Best known as Nowitzki’s unconventional mentor and personal coach, Geschwindner, in another life, was a wild, run-and-gun guard with big, curly hair and serious hops. His backstory marks the richest rabbit hole in The Great Nowitzki. He’s a freethinker fond of comparing basketball to jazz, an observation he picked up from his longtime friend Ernie Butler. Butler was a young Black man from Indiana when he found himself in Germany in the early sixties, teaching at the American Junior High. Butler quickly joined a league and found himself observing the young Geschwindner, who would become his teammate. “He notices that Geschwindner only uses his strength in small doses,” Pletzinger writes. “He gets better when the level of play increases. He’s there when it matters. He makes shots from all over the court; he runs and runs and unpacks one tool after another.”

Sound familiar?

Nowitzki was never groomed to be a superstar; he wasn’t coddled by AAU coaches or Nike bagmen, and he rarely expected special privileges. His humility is baked in. He’s not crazy about shooting commercials; Pletzinger shows us how that particular sausage is made (very slowly, with multiple takes). He likes fans, but not when they ambush him in public. One of the funniest moments in the book comes when a man finds Dirk in the middle of dinner at a steak house and asks for an autograph for his daughter. Before long they’re shooting family photos; asked what the experience is like for her, the daughter tells the truth: “I hate basketball.” Pletzinger is an astute fly on the wall, and he spent enough time in Nowitzki’s orbit to accumulate observations that a more distant or passive observer simply couldn’t get.

If that’s not your thing, he’s also good with the more granular ticktock that describes an individual game, series, or season. This includes early games, like the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit in San Antonio—where an unknown, nineteen-year-old Nowitzki lit up a team of American high school stars for 33 points (and arrived on the NBA radar)—and the last home game of Nowitzki’s career, in 2019. Along the way, Pletzinger chronicles the ravages of a body that survived 21 years in the NBA, the injuries and the wear and tear as well as the regimented, recuperative steps Geschwindner cooked up for Nowitzki over the years.

But you probably know much of this. Let’s get back to jazz. “A basketball team is like a jazz band with five people,” Geschwindner says in the book. “Everyone can do something different, everyone’s waiting for their solo within the structure of the team. And it’s crucial for the five to harmonize and attune to the same thing.” Think the great Miles Davis quintets, with Miles as the point guard.

The Great Nowitzki is an unconventional sports book about unconventional thinking and an unconventional star. It’s the book Nowitzki deserves, even if he’s probably too self-effacing to admit it.