Nowitzki: ''U19 World Cup is a great measuring stick against the best in the world''
DEBRECEN (Hungary) - Dirk Nowitzki starred at two FIBA Basketball World Cups for Germany and knows what it is like facing the best in the world. The former superstar is attending the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2023 and sees the competition as a great way for the young players to measure themselves against others across the globe.
Nowitzki now serves as Chairman of FIBA's Players Commission as well as a member of the FIBA Central Board. He is attending the U19 World Cup for the first time and took time to talk to FIBA about what benefits players have from playing at the competition; his roles within FIBA; his thoughts on Germany's chances at this summer's World Cup in Philippines, Japan and Indonesia; who might win the MVP of the flagship event; and his favorite World Cup memories.
FIBA: We are at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2023 with the best players from around the world. How important is the world stage and these youth World Cups for young players and their development?
Nowitzki: It's a very important age for your development in your craft. It's important to see how good you are. In your mind, you might be the boss in your hometown and your club, but where do you actually measure in the world on a global stage? So I think these competitions are fantastic.
I played with junior programs and U21 back in the day. It's a great measuring stick playing against the best in the world. You can see what your level is and what you need to work on moving forward. What are other countries good at. I just think this is a great tournament and we've been seeing some great games.
United States were beaten in the Semi-Finals and we have two European superpowers in the Final with France and Spain. What are your thoughts about the Final and what does it say about European basketball that it is represented by two teams in the Final?
First, I thought the (Semi-Final between France and USA) was fantastic. The level was great. The level was intense. There was shot-making, playmaking. There were bigs blocking shots. I think that game had everything a great game needs. It was exciting all the way to the end. I was a little surprised that USA lost. But France is a tough team. They have length, they have shooting, they have playmaking. That was a great game.
But overall, basketball has gotten more global over the last two decades for sure that I have been involved and playing. At the beginning there were one or two foreign players in the NBA on every team. And now some of them have half of the team. There are MVPs, franchise players. It's been fun to watch how the game has expanded. It's gone global. It's gotten better over the past 20 something years. It shows already in the youth level how good these guys are. They train right from the beginning. Everybody has academies and the coaches are well trained. The game has evolved so much and it's been fun to watch.
Who have been some of the players who have impressed you at this tournament?
From France, (Alexandre) Sarr was athletic and has high potential. I liked (Melvin) Ajinca, who I actually played against his cousin Alexis Ajinca. They were really really solid. Spain of course was impressive. They had a lot of guard play. Jordi Rodriguez shoots it at ease. And then Izan Almansa was really solid. Good length, good hands. Can finish inside. That was fun.
USA had some younger guards who were really impressive. I like (Dylan) Harper, whose father is Ron Harper. I know him because I was a big Chicago Bulls fan. I like him a lot. I like Tre Johnson. Super young but you can tell he can shoot and play off the dribble. They had some very interesting guards.
Even Japan’s two bigs (Akira Jacobs and Yuto Kawashima) were interesting and can play. I thought the level overall has been pretty good.
For 2009, FIBA made a change to host the U19 World Cup from every four years to every two years. You missed a chance to play in this competition. How much would you have liked to have played in the U19 World Cup?
That would have been cool because our 1978 generation in Germany was actually a really good team. A couple of them (Sven Schultze, Mithat Demirel, Robert Maras) played with me on the senior national team. A couple had great club careers. We had a good year there with good players and lots of them are still good friends of mine. So it would have been fun to play a youth World Cup with that team. We were pretty close. But I am happy that that event is now every two years.
In 2019, you were appointed Chairman of the FIBA Players Commission. What has your role been in terms of working with the players?
I retired in 2019 and I decided to be the Ambassador for the 2019 World Cup in China because FIBA has really given me a lot since I was a junior player and I was travelling through Europe and competing. I was 13-14 and travelling through Europe and some of my classmates had never left my hometown and here I am travelling and playing for my country. So I felt that FIBA has given a lot over my career. I felt that being an Ambassador there was a no-brainer for me at the World Cup. And while was there (FIBA Secretary General) Andreas (Zagklis) met with me and asked if I wanted to be involved. It's all about the future generations - the youth - if I wanted to be involved with FIBA and the Players Commission. I didn't think about it long. I thought it was great.
The Players Commission was still pretty new. It was the second cycle, and it was fun being involved. Of course we are trying to give former players voices so we can give our input on a lot of things. But the Players Commission is about the current players, about the youth, about educating our youth. We have programs in place and mentorship programs. So everything is designed to not only help our youth on the court to make good decisions and get better but also off the court. Stuff that helped us and things we can bring to FIBA. What worked for us, what didn't work for us.
We are 15 ex-players on the commission and we meet a couple times a year and we talk about certain issues that come up. It's been fun to be involved in that and bring our experience in to hopefully educate some of these younger players so they don't have to make the same mistakes that we once did.
What is it like for you to be on the other side? You were on the court and you would see all these things going on off the court with FIBA staff, and now you are part of that going-on off the court?
It's still a little surreal. I used to think when I was player, oh there is another FIBA official, let me run the other way (laughs). And now here I am part of this. But it's been fun. Being part of educating and helping and bringing players views to FIBA. It's been great for me working with Andreas (Zagklis) and all these guys. I've learned a lot in the last four years. Hopefully we can keep this relationship going.
You are also a member of the FIBA Central Board as the players voice. How important is that for you and how has your approach changed over the last four years in that role?
That's been even more interesting, learning how the FIBA the governing body works. And it's definitely good that some players are on there and I can give my view. When I am on the Central Board, I don't represent myself. I am representing every player that is playing currently and has ever played. I like giving my point of view and representing all of our athletes that play. That's been a fun role.
It's been a challenging cycle. I signed on and then after a few months Covid hit. It's been interesting to be part of the decision making. Once we brought the sport back, how does it work with the hygiene and the rules. I have read so many format things. It's been challenging but also super interesting. FIBA has shown some great leadership on how to get through that tough phase and in the end to bring the sport back in a safe manner. It's been four years full of challenges but I think we tackled them really, really well. Now it's about, as always, growing the sport.
This summer is the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023. You were at the draw. You played against a lot of tough players, maybe talk about the toughness of that ball you couldn't open during the draw?
(Laughs) Actually I had problems with the (2022) EuroBasket draw a couple years ago in Berlin. I don't know what it is, if I am twisting it the wrong way. But yeah, that wasn't ideal. Maybe the only positive from this is that I will not be asked to do another draw.
But it's been fun. The World Cup is our flagship event. I have played in a few and it's always been fun, and the competition is always at the highest level. I am looking forward to another great World Cup. I was in China and that was a great success. So many fans came out and we are looking forward to a great event this summer.
Germany finished third at EuroBasket last summer and have released their 18-man roster and it is pretty stacked. Albeit, they have a tough group with hosts Japan, Australia and Finland - thanks also to you at the draw. How far do you think Germany can go?
Yeah, Germany got on me about the EuroBasket draw with that unbelievable group (Slovenia, France, Lithuania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Hungary) and look at us, we made it to the bronze medal, which was great. I think I did okay.
We have one of the best teams on paper that Germany has ever had and probably right now in the World Cup. That is amazing. But it also brings challenges. Can everybody get along together? Can they share the ball? In 2019, most of them were there but it did not go well. Everybody is four years older and more mature and hopefully we can make a nice run.
But the group is tough. Australia is always tough and compete at the highest level. We play against Japan in the opening game at home. That place will be rocking. This is a group full of challenges but I think the roster is made up to take those hits and hopefully have a great World Cup.
Who are your top favorites right now for the podium of the World Cup?
It depends on who USA is bringing. I don't think their official roster is out yet. They should have a very, very good squad. We'll have to wait and see there. The rest is the same ole, same ole guys as usual. Depends if some of the NBA players play: Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and (Nikola) Jokic were some of the favorites last year at EuroBasket. Spain came out of nowhere as really solid. Whoever they bring will be really good. Australia is a darkhorse. They are very, very solid. Depending on who Canada brings. They've got 15 NBA players if they want. If they bring their full roster they can be really scary. They've got length, shooting, athleticism and playmakers. So we have to wait and see how rosters come together. As always, stuff is wide open.
You were MVP and top scorer of the 2002 World Cup. Any insights on who might win those awards in 2023?
That's one of the great things about basketball: It's hard to tell. I think everybody last year at EuroBasket thought Giannis or Jokic were the two favorites and then out of nowhere here comes Spain and their great team play and Willy (Hernangomez) won the MVP. Nobody I'm sure had Willy as MVP. It's super hard to say.
Hopefully Luka (Doncic) will play and he will have a shot as top scorer. He does a lot for Slovenia. I watched him last year at EuroBasket and he's got the ball in his hands a lot. He's making decisions, he's scoring, he's passing. If Slovenia have a great tournament then he's a contender for both of those. But there are just so many great players.
Last question … you played at two World Cups, in 2002 and 2006. What are some of your favorite World Cup memories?
I gotta say, that 2002 run was fun. I don't think anybody had us on the radar. We just kept fighting and playing together. That was a fun tournament. I gotta say, the Argentina loss in the Semi-Finals still haunts me to this day. We were up a couple points with a couple minutes left. That was just the start of that Argentina powerhouse. We really didn't know them at the time. (Manu) Ginobili was just going to the NBA that summer and all these other guys we really didn't have on the radar. That was just the start of their golden generation. And we had a great shot at beating them. That haunts me a lot.
I think of that game, and of course I think about the bronze medal game. Germany beat New Zealand and win the bronze medal of a World Cup. That was an unbelievable experience for us. That whole tournament - also being in one city. Everybody except USA was in the same hotel. Just a great experience at the time. 2006 was fun. We didn't play as well. We finished top eight, which is still good - top eight in the world. But we were hoping for more. But 2002 was a fun ride for sure.