- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

Fans inGermany cheer for Dallas star

WURZBURG, Germany — Seventeen pairs of hands grabbed 17 heads.

Seventeen voices screamed, “Nein!”

Dirk Nowitzki had just missed the free throw that would have tied Game 3 of the NBA Finals with 3.4 seconds left, and no Dallas Mavericks supporter in Texas could have reacted with greater anguish than the 17 basketball fans in the Chelsea American Diner and Sports Bar.

Most had stayed up through Tuesday night and long into Wednesday morning to catch the 3 a.m. tipoff live from Miami. Now it was past 6 a.m., and the sun had come up an hour ago, and those coffees and Coca-Colas they sipped for the caffeine had kept them up for what? To watch their hometown hero, the pride of Wurzburg, clang the ball off the rim?

These weren’t American expatriates but members of the few, the proud, the German basketball fandom. This is a country consumed by World Cup fever, with soccer balls proudly displayed in every kind of business — from hairdressers to banks. Only basketball insiders seem to know the NBA Finals are taking place, and only those with access to the pay channel Premiere, a $38-a-month investment, can watch the games.

“It’s a pity that now is the World Cup and nobody really recognizes that Dirk Nowitzki is in the NBA Finals. He’s probably the MVP … we hope,” said Nico Dunkel, a 23-year-old biology student who sometimes follows NBA games on NBA.com.

“In Germany, it’s impossible to watch basketball,” said Damian Beldycki, a student who has played the sport for a decade and used to pull for Anfernee Hardaway. “Last year it was on free TV, but only the Finals.”

Nowitzki grew up in this university and tourist town of 130,000 people, a place small enough that everybody seems to have some connection to everybody else. Gregor Lange, who organizes recreational basketball teams, met Nowitzki at a friend’s bachelor’s party.

“Everybody loves him, especially in Wurzburg,” said Lange, a high school math and physical education teacher. “In school, if you’ve got a signature of Dirk Nowitzki, they love it.”

“He’s the most important guy Wurzburg ever had,” high school economics teacher Rudi Prommer said, passing over such notables as physicist Werner Heisenberg, developer of the uncertainty principle, and Wilhelm Rontgen, who discovered X-rays here in 1895.

There’s no uncertainty about where Nowitzki learned the game. He switched from tennis to basketball at Rontgen Gymnasium, the German equivalent of a high school, and moved on to play for the local pro team. That team played at S. Oliver Arena, a building you might see at a high school in the United States. Ten rows of seats on each side of the floor start from one story above court level. Financial problems forced the team to drop out of Germany’s top division not long after Nowitzki left.

A few hundred yards from the arena, another sports club, TG Wurzburg, features basketball courts, tennis courts and a bar Nowitzki’s father is said to visit twice a week. There’s a Dirk Nowitzki action figure sitting on the bar and five Dirk Nowitzki calendars on the wall, turned to the Junes of various years gone by.

Different people give different answers on where Nowitzki stands among German sports heroes. He’s not Boris Becker, no Steffi Graf and certainly no Michael Schumacher , seven-time champion of Formula One racing. Pictures of German soccer captain Michael Ballack stare at passersby from store windows. Nowitzki? Everyone knows who he is, but few actually see what he does.

“In Germany, football is game No. 1, and basketball is not that high,” said Patrick Hamacher, who is studying to work in the insurance business.

So it’s up to the cognoscenti to appreciate Nowitzki, and they have to stay up late to do it. As the last few England soccer fans straggled home from the bars, German basketball players, and one or two non-players, gathered at the Chelsea.

Photos of Walter Payton, Pedro Guerrero and Darryl Strawberry lined the walls, but it’s clearly just for show. A chalkboard outside proclaimed the sports viewable within: Bundesliga (Germany’s top soccer league), Champions League (a competition for the world’s top soccer club teams), Formula One, basketball and boxing, in that order.

Inside, the projection TV showed the NBA TV picture, with on-screen statistics popping up in English but a German announcer providing the play-by-play. The fans chatted in German, but English words kept bursting from the conversation. “Foul!” they yelled when Nowitzki got hacked. “And one!” Beldycki hollered when Erick Dampier got bumped on a dunk. “Yes,” a few spectators said when Nowitzki’s layup put Dallas up 79-71.

The first woman stepped into the bar at 5 a.m. Monika Frey, 24, has been playing basketball for 10 years and likes to watch the NBA. But she’s impatient with the TV timeouts that seem to last forever on this commercial-free broadcast. She had thought about coming to watch the whole game, but a friend told her it would take three hours.

“In Germany,” Frey said, “they take two hours.”

The game ended at 6:08 a.m. Bakeries were starting to open. Street cars had begun to circulate. By 6:11 a.m., the Chelsea was empty, the lights off, the door closed.

Outside, Beldycki and friends quickly shed their disappointment and looked to the future.

“Back Thursday?” a reporter asked.

“For sure,” Beldycki said.

• Distributed by New York Times News Service.

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