In the spring of 1998, after watching Dirk Nowitzki score 33 points and grab 14 rebounds against the best American high school players in the Hoop Summit all-star game at the Final Four, I wrote an extensive story for the Oakland Tribune on the young German star who was being wooed by Cal coach Ben Braun.
Nowitzki’s eye-opening performance at San Antonio called into doubt the notion he would even attend college. NBA scouts — including Donnie Nelson, who smartly found himself a spot on the coaching staff of the international team — now knew all about the 6-foot-11 prospect.
Bob Gibbons, one of the nation’s top basketball recruiting names in those days, suggested Nowitzki could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
“If I were an NBA team, I’d take him ahead of Antawn Jamison, and he was the college player of the year,” Gibbons said.
Remember, early in 1998 no one had any idea Nowitzki would become a game-changing NBA star, the sixth-leading scorer in league history.
Just a few months before the Hoop Summit game, he was virtually an unknown to all but a few people in the U.S.
But Braun and his staff knew about Nowitzki. They had been recruiting him for a couple years and Nowitzki and his mentor/coach Holger Geschwindner even made an unofficial campus visit over the Christmas holiday. (He also checked out Stanford on that trip).
Cal appeared to have a real shot at Dirk. Kentucky got involved in the recruiting process late, but Dean Walle, an editor at the time for Basket magazine in Germany, believed the Bears were the frontrunner. “He’s not going to Kansas or Kentucky,” Walle told me.
The Hoop Summit game changed everything. I covered the game and Nowitzki was so good that his international team coach, Allesandro Gamba of Italy, told reporters, “If he doesn’t turn the ball over, he’s a white Michael Jordan.”
That prompted a chuckle out of Nowitzki.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Michael Jordan is still God to me.”
Nowitzki gave no hint that day in late March what his plans were. The fact is, he probably didn't know yet. Word was Geschwinder was worried Dirk wasn’t emotionally mature enough to enter the NBA at that point and wanted him to spend a year in college.
But others had begun to see things differently.
Ed Gregory, director of scouting for the Warriors at the time, told me Nowitzki would be “up there in the top 10 guys” if he entered the draft. Gregory recalled watching Shawn Kemp as a high school player and said of Nowitzki, “This guy’s not only talented, he’s skilled. This kid’s more like (Kevin) Garnett was.”
The best U.S. high school players — including Al Harrington, Rashard Lewis and Quentin Richardson — were no match for Nowitzki at the Hoop Summit, despite roughing him up to the point they knocked him down a couple times.
“It’s a bit more physical here, but that’s cool,” Dirk said afterward. “I enjoyed it.”
Nowitzki never made it to Cal . . . or college basketball. The Milwaukee Bucks picked him at No. 9 then made a draft-night swap with the Dallas Mavericks — the team coached by Donnie Nelson’s father, Don — in exchange for Robert Traylor.
The No. 1 pick that year was Pacific center Michael Olowokandi, a native of England, who averaged 8.3 points over a 10-year NBA career. Jamison went No. 4.
From that day through his farewell game on Wednesday night, Nowitzki scored 31,560 points to rank just one slot below his teen-age hoops god Jordan on the all-time NBA list. He is the highest-scoring foreign player in league history, having posted 5,000 more points than Hakeem Olajuwon.
They didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty-one years later, Cal fans know what they missed.