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How Dirk Nowitzki Can -- and Will -- Save the Soul of America

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LEBRON JAMES
AP

The fun of watching Dirk Nowitzki, a guard trapped in a seven-foot-body, play basketball with such joyous intensity, such versatility and command, transcends all categories. Watching him drop yet another crazy fadeaway jumper right in the center of the net, I could care less if he's German or American, blond or bald, white or black or purple. It's just fun to see a unique talent coming up big when the pressure is on.

But if Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks win this year's NBA Finals, as I fully expect them to do, it will be a huge step forward for U.S. sports and U.S. attitudes about the rest of the world, as I know from my own personal experiences of Europeans in basketball.

Call it racism or bigotry, or simple ignorance, but Europeans coming into the NBA have faced blatant discrimination. I'm not just talking about the old saw of the Euros being "soft," which is long discredited, but of a deeper bias that was dehumanizing and bad for the game.

As a little background, I actually went so far as to fly -- on my own -- from California to Massachusetts in 1993 to be on hand at the Basketball Hall of Fame when the seven-foot Uljana Semjonova, a Latvian who led the Soviets to two Olympic gold medals, became the first woman from outside the U.S. to be enshrined in the hall. My job at the time was covering the San Jose Sharks as a San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter, but this trip was my idea of fun.

The previous summer, I flew from California to Berlin and took a train to Lithuania to hang with Sarunas Marciulions, one of the first great European players to make a mark in the NBA. I spent several days in Vilnius hanging out with Sarunas and Donnie Nelson, son of the legendary coach, and watching the Lithuanians practice for the upcoming Olympics in the coolest jerseys ever -- their famous Grateful Dead Lithuanian numbers.

The Lithuanians went on to win bronze in those Olympics, a great achievement for athletes who came of age enmeshed in the Soviet system and could not compete for their country. As Sarunas once explained to me about growing up in that system, "Nellie's a dictatorship kind of coach," Marciulionis said. "Some guys can play with him, some guys can't. All of my life I had coaches who were like that. In the Soviet Union you can't talk to your coach, you listen."

So even playing for a tough coach like Don Nelson in Golden State, Sarunas felt liberated -- but the officials had never seen anything like him. He was as strong as anyone ever to play the game, but also supple, and he would drive to the hoop on his famous "Baltic Breakaway" moves, as sportswriter George Shirk dubbed them, and get called for offensive fouls just on general, vague principle. No way was Sarunas committing a foul. The officials just didn't know what they were seeing.

"Because he was very athletic and strong and it was really hard to stop him," the other of the first two great Europeans in the league, Vlade Divac, told me when I visited him in Belgrade two years ago for an article for Slam Magazine.

"I remember him holding the ball and nobody could strip it from him. His strength was amazing. ... Sarunas had a tough time with the referees. "

I do not often claim to be friends with pro athletes, but Sarunas and I were friends. I know from my talks with him how bewildered and stung he was that the officials did not give him more respect.

Donnie Nelson, who is now Mavs GM and still talks about his role as assistant coach of that '92 Lithuanian Olympic team as being one of the highlights of his career, went on "to acquire the teenage Nowitzki in a 1998 draft-night swap of first-round picks with Milwaukee," as the Times put it -- and so what we are seeing in these finals is a culmination of what he began.

Divac was the great trail blazer. There had been Europeans in the league over the years, of course, but he was an impact player and he charmed the hell out of both the press and the officials. He also wrapped up his career with the following remarkable distinction: He is only one of six players in the history of the league to amass 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan.

Let us not forget the bias Europeans often faced. George Kingston, the first coach of the expansion San Jose Sharks, talked openly of not wanting to start the Latvian Arturs Irbe regularly as goaltender because he did not trust Europeans. That was 1992. Irbe went on to lead the Sharks to their first taste of success in the Stanley Cup playoffs -- and to this day remains a fan favorite. It was often the same in the NBA.

"I do feel very proud of being one of the first who actually broke the ice and opened the door for everybody else," Vlade told me. "But you're right. A good friend of mine who was for me one of the best European players also went to the NBA and because the coach didn't trust Europeans, he just didn't play. So he came back. He was a very talented player, one of the best."

Here's a clear sign of progress: During the NBA finals so far, we have seen some of the most shameless play-acting in search of a whistle I can recall seeing in a finals. I was there in Boston Garden as a reporter when Magic Johnson beat the Celtics in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA finals with a "junior sky hook" -- or "junior junior junior sky hook," as he told me at the time -- and there was no flopping like this in that game. Only this time the culprits play-acting like Italian soccer players have been the Heat.

Hey, it's part of the game: Smart players adapt and if something works, make it part of their game. If you want to win, you go out of your way to get a call. "Playing any sport, any game, professionally or not, you like to win and everything is possible," Vlade told me in Belgrade. "You have referees and they're going to draw the line of how far you can go, but you can do whatever you want."

To me this year's finals between the Heat and the Mavs will go down as a great one: The games have been intense and entertaining, often riveting for whole stretches at a time. The Heat have to be considered the more talented team by any measure and they can beat you with great passing, not just a thunderous tomahawk jam.

Still, even if I did not live in Berlin, even if I as a German-American who speaks German did not feel some affinity for Dirk, I would be rooting for him and the Mavs. I watched Game 5 with my friends Will, 14, and his younger brother Nick. Will plays tons of basketball, on several teams, and I know he wins MVP awards at whatever level he plays. I can see him learning from Dirk as he watches: "I like that he plays with his head up," Will told me. "He plays smart and makes good passes."

Will can also learn from the amazing Miami players, but there is one thing about the Heat style that I do not find worth emulating: They feed on a brand of swagger and chest-thumping bravado that they cannot sustain when events turn against them. Instead, they grow surly and whiny, as if the natural order of the universe is that they win everything, always, and any falling short is unfair.

Sorry, but as an American living in Germany all too used to being reminded of how the world perceives the U.S. and its loud, look-at-me style, this is an attitude I know too well: The obsession with "We're No. 1!" instead of "We just gave it everything we had!"

If Dirk can come up with one more monster fourth quarter, and I'm confident he will, it will be good for the NBA -- and great for U.S. culture, one more step in the direction of taking our best traditions, like hoop and ball, and moving them forward in fascinating new ways that make for a better spectacle and more fun.

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