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A new book by German novelist Thomas Pletzinger offers an insider’s view of NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki, giving fans more access to the Hall of Famer than ever before.
In the spring of 2012, a German writer named Thomas Pletzinger flew to the United States to write a piece on one of his nation’s most prominent exports: NBA player Dirk Nowitzki. That one piece grew into something much more. Pletzinger ingratiated himself to Nowitzki and began traveling alongside him. The written result of that time spent alongside Nowitzki has recently been translated into English and released as The Great Nowitzki. It is the fullest portrait of Dirk Nowitzki yet, but the Hall of Famer’s guardedness makes that a relative achievement.
Pletzinger is not a sports writer; he is a novelist and translator and this allows him to, at his best, bring a unique perspective to his work, eschewing the traditional bromides and attitudes that litter so many books about sports. Because of this, The Great Nowitzki reads like no other basketball book with more attention being paid to the prose and atmosphere. He also employs the present tense throughout, giving the book a sense of immediacy.
There are some truly gorgeous sections of writing where Pletzinger’s eye for details and his novelist’s voice combine to create something beautiful. The section that details Dirk and the Mavericks winning the 2011 championship is truly special, capturing the glory of victory in a uniquely elegiac way. And the end of the book, which shows Dirk preparing for his final game, captures many of those same feelings, showing the rewards and sadness of such an intense, singular journey.
Since Pletzinger relies so heavily on his unique, extended access to Nowitzki, this means there are large gaps in the narrative, depending on whether or not he was with him at the time. This does not make the book worse necessarily, but it does make it more of a portrait than a comprehensive look at Nowitzki. Rather than being a cohesive narrative, it is a series of discrete moments. This means that the book, at times, reads more like an extended series of magazine profiles than a cohesive project. Readers will witness Dirk going to hyperbaric therapy and visiting the Thomas Mann House with Holger on Super Bowl Sunday and while I’m not sure that these moments necessarily add up to much, I will concede that they nevertheless make for an interesting peek behind the proverbial curtain.
Dirk Nowitzki was a unique NBA player, a product of his incredible unique experiences
Pletzinger is clear near the beginning of the book that it is not a biography. He writes, “This book is my quest to find the significance of Dirk Nowitzki, his singularity, his precision, his accuracy. His meaning to the world, to the game, and to me. This book is not a biography. This book is my attempt to make sense of Dirk Nowitzki.” But does he succeed?
There does seem to be a thoughtful private man behind Dirk’s guarded public persona yet we only catch occasional glimpses of him. Dirk comes across as someone reluctant to reveal too much of himself. Pletzinger is fully aware of the inherent struggle to dive deeper, writing that “[Dirk] came off as cautious whenever he talked about himself. He retreated to formulaic sentences and stories, well-trodden realms of language.” Pletzinger speaks of Nowitzki’s “untouchable and unattainable core” along with his “well-chosen and rehearsed words.” And though Pletzinger is able to get Dirk to let his guard down at times, one may walk away still wondering just who Nowitzki really is, what really drives him. “We all think we know who Dirk is,” he writes, but I’m not sure this book has the depth to disabuse anyone of their preconceived ideas of the man.
Despite Nowitzki being the book’s focus, he does not emerge as its most interesting character. Rather, it is his coach, mentor, and friend Holger Geschwindner who is both the most mysterious and fascinating figure in The Great Nowitzki. Geschwindner is an enigma, one described as a “bon vivant who had studied physics and was interested in feng shui and philosophy… a physical specimen who loved philosophy,” a man who was once the best basketball player in Germany in the years before he shifted to shaping his successor. The book focuses more on Holger’s principles and ideas than his methods, making him seem more like a strange sort of philosopher than anything else.
Readers will get small looks at his sessions with Dirk and will witness Dirk walking on his hands and wearing a lead vest while shooting. He and Holger try to learn holistically, blending “strength, stamina, speed, tactics” into one coherent system. Pletzinger writes, “The only rules he adheres to are the laws of nature, physics, mathematical formulas, and the official rules of basketball.” Whether this makes Holger sound like a genius or a pretentious fool depends largely on one’s perspective, though one cannot dispute the results.
Altogether, The Great Nowitzki is a unique look at an all-time great that any NBA fan will enjoy. Additionally, with Pletzinger’s exploratory, atmospheric prose style setting it apart from the majority of modern sports writing, it may be of interest to those who would not usually be interested in such a book. It may not make full sense of Nowitzki, but Dirk does make pleasant company. At one point Pletzinger writes, “Nowitzki’s world is a black box, a closed system with its own language and way of thinking.” This black box is not one that he is able to crack open, but it is nevertheless often fascinating to watch at work.