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Unpacking what it's like to be great at something with Dirk Nowitzki: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki about his storied career, his secrets to success and more.

Seven-foot-tall Dirk Nowitzki is one of the greatest NBA players in history. Throughout his illustrious and landmark career, he’s redefined the sport through his signature moves, unique mindset and approach. His extraordinary story is the subject of a book published in March of 2022, “The Great Nowitzki: Basketball and The Meaning of Life,” a culmination of seven years of writing by award-winning novelist and sportswriter Thomas Pletzinger. Basketball is Chris’ favorite sport, so it really was a special treat to have the Dallas Mavericks superstar on WITHpod. Nowitzki joins to talk about the role of mentorship, going from the German suburbs to being one of the Top 75 Greatest Players of All-time, the mental toll and expectations of stardom, staying grounded and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Dirk Nowitzki: You can only take it to the next level if you were mentally and physically on your skills and your mindset. And what came easy to me was I always wanted to work hard and always wanted to be the first one in and the last one out. I always wanted to more lead by example than stand up and hold 45-minute speeches. That was just not my personality. So I think I kind of, over the years, found my way of how I wanted to lead the team, and hopefully, the team took that much about my personality and worked hard.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me your host, Chris Hayes.

If you follow my Twitter handle, which no problem if you don't, but should you follow me there, chrislhayes on, you will note that I talked about basketball a lot because I love basketball. I truly, truly love basketball. It is my favorite sport. I started playing when I was a kid. I played through high school. I still play pickup basketball now, once a week, I watch a lot of basketball. I just think it's a beautiful sport. I love it in the way, I don't know, I absolutely love it.

Now, you might be listening to this and think yourself, “Well, I don't really like basketball or I'm not really a sports fan,” and I hear that. But I'm going to use a few minutes here to pitch to you why today's conversation is fascinating, even if you don't know anything or have any interest in basketball.

As I have gotten older, my relationship to the sport of basketball and all sports has really changed from when you're really young and you're dreaming about one day being like a professional athlete, and you're out in the park shooting shots, and like counting down in your head and imagining this situation with you hitting a game, winning shot. And then the kind of like incredible, like a body shaking love, devotion and heartbreak of rooting for a team when you're a kid, and like, it means so much to you. And your team wins or loses, and it just like completely destroys your mood.

And then you get older and if you're playing high school sports, you're very competitive, and a huge part of your ego and self-worth is how you're doing, are you starting, are you getting playing time, how good are you. And then as you get older, I have found now in my case, when I say middle age, but I think it's actually really true, in my middle age, that my relationship to basketball, particularly in sports, is sort of like my relationship to watching anyone who's really amazing at something do it. Like, cooking shows are sort of incredible for that reason.

There's a whole genre of like TikTok and YouTube videos of people who are building a house in the woods by themselves, or watching Yo-Yo Ma play the cello, like, people that are really good at a thing, watching how they do it, understanding and learning what their technique is, how they got to be very good at that thing, what it requires in terms of preparation and skill to be very good at that thing.

And so, sometimes my kids will ask me while we're watching a basketball game between two teams, neither that I root for, and they'll just say, “Well, who are you rooting for?” I'll say, “Well, neither.” And they're like, “Why are you watching them.” I'm like, “Well, I like watching them do what they do.” “And what do you want to happen?” “Well, I want them to play well.” I want to watch this like watching ballet or something, right? I'm just watching it to watch the sort of beautiful execution of this set of movements.

And so, this is a prologue to say that when someone I know who's a book editor, actually my book editor, a great guy named Tom Mayer, who edited my book “A Colony in a Nation” at Norton said, “We're publishing a book about Dirk Nowitzki, the great MBA center, who's from Germany. It's called “The Great Nowitzki: Basketball and the Meaning of Life.” It's actually by a German writer named Thomas Pletzinger. But he's going to come after the all-star game and do some publicity. Would you like to talk to Dirk Nowitzki?” I was like, “I would absolutely love to talk to Dirk Nowitzki.”

Now, Dirk Nowitzki was just named one of the 75 greatest players of all time. He's an NBA champion. He's the first player in NBA history to play 21 games for a franchise. He's a legend. He transformed, as you’ll learn in this conversation, the role of center. He's 7 feet tall, but he can play with the kind of agility and outside shooting of a much, much smaller player, like a guard.

He's also just a super interesting dude, and throughout his career, has always been very frank and honest about both the kind of mental toll of expectations and stardom, but also the way that he processed it. At one point, he very famously, after a disappointing season, like, went out backpacking by himself around the world, I think. And he's got this really interesting mentor figure, who he's going to talk about in the conversation.

And a lot of the time I got to speak with Dirk was speaking about just what is it like to be better at a thing than all but maybe 20 other people in the world at something. Like whatever it is, it could be solving Rubik's Cubes, it could be cooking, it could be jumping, it could be learning languages, it could be hammering nails, I mean, whatever it is, right, to be that good at a thing and what it takes to be that good at a thing, and I found it a really, really enjoyable conversation. And I think even for those of you who are not big basketball, sports fans, you'll get a lot out of it as well. So it was my great pleasure to have Dirk Nowitzki on “Why is This Happening?”

So the book is really fascinating, by the way.

Dirk Nowitzki: Thank you.

Chris Hayes: And your trajectory is fascinating. I want to maybe just start with your realization about your own self as an athlete. Because I think, basically, lots of kids play sports, they play different sports. When I was 7 years old, 8 years old, 9 years old, I wanted to be an NBA player, and then 10, 11. And most of us, 99.999%, we come to the point in your life where you realize, well, that's not going to happen for me, right?

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes.

Chris Hayes: But the tiny, tiny percentage, like yourself, have a moment of the opposite realization. And I'm always curious what that moment is because I've experienced the other one, which is being like a 5’4 junior varsity 10th man, and being like, I think it's probably not going to work out for me.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes.

Chris Hayes: But you had the opposite realization, I'm curious what that was like. Do you remember a specific moment?

Dirk Nowitzki: Well, I was always not the most confident child, so I was never really sure if I was good enough to take the next step. I always wanted to, and I was a huge fan and a draft of the NBA, but I was never really sure that I can take that next step. So I didn't really realize whether I can make it in this league, it was not till my first or second year when I was already there and things were going better, and I got used to the playing style. And that's when I realized, hey, I had a couple of good games. If you work hard and you really work on your skills, you can actually make it in this league.

Before that, to me, it was just a dream. And when I was drafted, it was like super surreal. My first couple of games are super surreal, playing against my idols, with Barkley and Pippen, and it was a crazy ride there in my first year. So I started really realizing, at the end of my first year, I had some good games and like, “You know what, this is great for my confidence.” I got some good games, and it showed me that I can make it in this league.

Chris Hayes: As a child in Germany, you started playing tennis, but how did you find your way to basketball?

Dirk Nowitzki: So my mom and my sister played basketball. So I was always around the sport, but I never really played it. The system in Europe is a little different. We join clubs and you play in the club system. So I joined the club when I was about 12 or 13, and I just fell in love with the sport.

I played tennis and handball before because my father was a decent handball player. So I kind of played three sports at the same time with tennis, and handball, and basketball, and then it was just too much. School was suffering a little bit, as you can imagine, with three sports at the same time, and I was like 12, 13, 14. And so I had to quit something, and I quit handball first and I let a basketball and tennis run at the same time for another couple of years.

And when I was 15, I said, “Hey, I'm all in on basketball. I love it.” I'm tall and it kind of came easy to me. Even though I didn't really have a lot of skills, but I had a decent touch and decent hand-eye coordination from the other sports. And it was just a fascinating sport to me and then I kind of stuck with that. When I was 15, I said, “Okay, I'm just doing basketball.” So obviously, looking back now, as though, it was a great decision. But at that time, it was a risky one.

Chris Hayes: Yes. I mean, when you think back, I mean, you're playing team handball. Well, we refer to it as team handball --

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes.

Chris Hayes: -- tennis and basketball. It's very funny to think of like making the decision to be like, “I'm going all-in on team handball, the international. So I'm going to dominate team handball.”

Dirk Nowitzki: In Europe, it's a big sport. Actually --

Chris Hayes: No, I know.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. In Germany --

Chris Hayes: I have to say the dollars and fame that have flowed from your decision.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes, agreed. Even though in Europe, it's a big sport, and Germany has the best league in the world. So it's a fun sport. It's just, obviously, not what basketball is, and especially in the world status, but it's a fun sport really. Like, I still follow it. And same with tennis, still a huge fan and I've traveled to Grand Slams every now and then when I have time. But basketball, something there captured me, the creativity, you can learn something new every practice every day. And I don't know, that sport captured me, and I love it from day one.

Chris Hayes: So you're 15 years old and how tall are you at that point?

Dirk Nowitzki: Well, I was always tall. I was tall and then all the teachers in fourth grade, I mean, I was super long and super skinny. So at 15, 16, I'm guessing I was already 6’6, 6’7, for sure.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Dirk Nowitzki: I was a tall and lanky kid, bone sticking out everywhere, in shoulder and the ribs. I mean, I was super skinny. I don't think I could do one pushup at age 15. I was so skinny. And that's why I like basketball, I like being around taller people and it kind of helped my self-esteem and my confidence about myself, and not always people make fun of how tall I am.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Dirk Nowitzki: So I like being around taller guys in basketball. I think that was another part of why I chose basketball.

Chris Hayes: It's funny, I never thought of that psychological aspect of it. But I guess if you're like really in the upper, upper echelon of tall, it really is, as a teenager, must be hard and awkward and kind of weird. You really stand out.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes, it was hard. Of course, kids made fun of me. I mean, kids, as you know, are ruthless, calling me Skeletor because my bones are sticking out everywhere. It wasn't an easy time. At that time, whatever, early ‘90s, there was not a lot of snow gear I can buy. I was running around with the same pair of jeans and shoes for a whole year. And it was hard and challenging at times, and that's why I think that basketball was just natural for me. And I was around guys that were tall and you didn't get ask, “How's the air up there?” every five seconds. So I think that was also a big part for me, psychologically, why I chose basketball.

Chris Hayes: It's around this age, if I'm not mistaken, that you meet your mentor, trainer, kind of guru, life coach, I don't know the right way to describe him, his first name is Holger. And I think people that have followed your career, like I have, NBA fans know about him, because he was really a big presence particularly in those amazing Mav’s finals runs you guys made and ultimately winning that championship. There was a lot of talk about him. Who is he and how did you meet him?

Dirk Nowitzki: So he was a very good player in Germany before. He was the captain of the ‘72 Olympic team in Munich at that time. And so he was a very good basketball player, and I met him kind of by luck. I had a youth game in a gym somewhere on the road, and I guess he was still active at that time there, in his 40s. And he had a game after me, and so he watched a little bit of the second half and he saw this long, lanky kid running around there, had good instincts, but really had no skill level. So he came up to me after the game, and I said, “Hey, who's working with you? Who’s your coach?”

And I had no idea who he was, of course. I mean, basketball wasn't a big thing, and I wasn't even born in ‘72 when he played the Olympics, so I had no idea who he was. And so we kind of kept loosely in touch. My mom knew who he was because, obviously, she played. And then he offered to practice with me for the next season. And then I said, I mean, I got nothing to lose, right, “So why not?”

And then he lived about an hour away, about a hundred kilometers away from where I'm from. So almost every day, after school, he would drive down because I didn't have a driver's license at that time and I was still in high school. So he would drive an hour to practice with me, and then drive back home. And so he did that for a couple of years.

And at the beginning, we were doing maybe once or twice a week after practice, and so then we do it more and more, and just developed a good relationship. At the beginning, I thought he’s a different character. He's got all these weird sayings and weird training methods. But I could really see right away this, hey, this guy is full of knowledge and he teaches different things that usually coaches don't teach. So I was intrigued. And we started to have a great relationship.

I saw I was getting better and better from week to week almost, and so I kind of stuck with it. And we developed a great relationship. We traveled the world together. He was my mentor throughout my whole career. We're still great friends and helps me out whenever he can. So I was super lucky to get to know him when I was about 15,16. And that's why at that time, I thanked him and said without him, I would have probably never made it that far. Maybe I would have quit basketball, who knows, right? But he was there for me every step of the way, and he was a very important figure in my life.

Chris Hayes: When you say trained in ways that others didn't, or had different ways, a strange or different approach, unique approach, tell me about what that was. What stood out to you?

Dirk Nowitzki: Well, he never like went through weightlifting. He said, “You’re way too skinny. You’re still growing. You don't want to ruin your joints.” We always did other stuff, a lot of body weight exercises, whether I was walking around in handstand, whether it was taking me rowing. He said, “Rowing is great for your joints and it's good for your muscles. You get stronger, but you're not pumping iron in the weight room. That's bad for your knees.”

So he will always try to find ways to learn new things for the body. We do other sports. Fencing, it's good for the footwork. So he made me a fencing outfit, and I'm running around fencing against some people. And so, I think he always tried to think outside the box and push me in other directions, and whether it's outside the court, give me books for Christmas and New Year's, and just always trying to push me in other areas, not only in basketball. And that’s why I would say he's more of a life mentor, more than just basketball.

Chris Hayes: Yes. I want to talk a little bit about the mental aspect of this, because it's so key to your trajectory in your career. But, first, so for people that are listening to this, just so you know, this podcast covers a range of topics. It's not generally a sports or basketball podcast.

Dirk Nowitzki: Okay.

Chris Hayes: So there are some people listening who don't really know much about basketball.

Dirk Nowitzki: Okay. That’s fine.

Chris Hayes: So I just want to say that you're 7 feet tall, right? 7, somewhere around there?

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes, 7 feet.

Chris Hayes: Yes, 7 feet tall, and I think you really represent a kind of new model of player when you came into the league, and subsequently, there have been more players. So there are players in the league now, some from America, some from Eastern Europe, Joel Embiid from Africa, that are very tall and very skilled. They can do things that, traditionally, shorter players, like guards would do, dribble really well, face the basket, jab, pump fake, shoot from range.

When you came into the league, this was pretty novel. I mean, you really were kind of a unicorn at that time. And part of that, I think, comes from the training that you got from Holger, right? I mean, he was really skills-focused, despite the fact you were as tall as you were. Talk a little bit about just like how you develop those skills. Obviously, not everyone can do it. But you managed to create this skill set that was pretty unprecedented for someone your size.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. So it was always Holger's vision to have a tall guy that could also move, that know how to move on several positions, not only play the center or the power forward spot, but can move in numerous positions on the court and still be effective. And the shot is something we always try to work on and perfect it. And he saw me, I was a really skinny kid. And I think his vision was you’re never going to be like this monster rebounder and physically opposing, so you got to find your own niche. How can you be interesting to the t folks in the NBA? How can you get your own path?

And so I think his vision was always more play like a Toni Kukoc type, with the face at the basket, handle the ball, bring up the ball. And so that was always something we worked on. And then when I came to the league, it was hard. I mean, I was super skinny. I was the most physical guy and I had really trouble that first year or two to really adjust to the strength of the other guys in the league.

And then along the way, I think the rules changed and the game changed a little bit more on a free-flowing offense and a lot of shooting, and so that plays kind of right in my hands. So it was a perfect time for me to be a part of the league, or the league changed, the basketball changed, and it kind of played right into my hands of more freedom of movement and not as much physical.

Chris Hayes: So here's a question I think about a lot, I'd love to hear your thoughts on, which is the degree to which shooting as a skill, jump shooting whether in the mid-range or from deep, from three point, the degree to which it's talent or just discipline in practice. Basically, can you take an 18-year-old or 16-year-old, who's athletic, and just say, “We're going to train eight hours a day for a year and you're going to come out of it a really damn good shooter,” or is there something deep and innate in someone that makes them a great shooter?

Dirk Nowitzki: I think you can practice it. Now, I'm not sure if you can make anybody into Steph Curry.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Dirk Nowitzki: I don't think you can do that. But you can make a kid, obviously, who needs talent and needs a good little touch, who needs a little hand-eye coordination, I think you could teach a kid, really anybody who has talent to be a good shooter. There’s a lot of technique. There's a lot of things that flow into it. And that's why, to me, Holger was so fascinating because he teaches stuff that I've never seen in my 20, 25 years around basketball, that anybody else teaches, with the fingers and the breathing, and the footwork during the shot and it just --

Chris Hayes: Well, tell me like what about the fingers?

Dirk Nowitzki: If a lot of your listeners are not basketball freaks, this might be --

Chris Hayes: I don't care about them. I don't care about them. I am.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. This might be little specific.

Chris Hayes: I don't care.

Dirk Nowitzki: Okay.

Chris Hayes: I'm curious.

Dirk Nowitzki: So it's where to look at the front of the rim with your eyes. It's what your fingers should look like when you shoot. And so these two fingers are the last two fingers to touch the ball. Your footwork should be shoulder width, not too close together, so you have decent balance in the air. And I mean, you're supposed to breathe in, so you’re not breathing or holding your breath and you get stuck during the shot. So there's a million little nuances that he teaches during shooting that I've never heard anybody else talk about.

Chris Hayes: How much would you train that? I mean, how much were you shooting?

Dirk Nowitzki: Every day. At the beginning, we started just a little bit. Obviously, like I said, I was still in high school. So in the evenings was the only time I was able to practice a little bit with him. But then once I finished high school, then I basically went all in when I was about 18. And then I had a driver's license, so I would drive to him every day. Every morning, I drive up an hour. I'll practice with him for like an hour, two hours, then drive back home, and then either go back again to the gym at night, or do a little cardio session myself or something.

But every day, it's something that comes from repetition. It's got to be second nature. All the little details that you have to have in your head, it's got to be a second nature to you when I shoot. So it's a lot of repetition, yes, ever since I was basically 15, 16 years old.

Chris Hayes: I watch a lot of basketball training videos, just because again like I'm a real obsessive fan, and I watch people do shooting drills and stuff. And it always looks I was never very good shooter at all, I'm still not at pickup games. And when you've got someone there training with you, or you've got a machine that's like it goes to the net, it's firing it back at you, there's always something kind of beautiful and meditative about it when someone is good, that there's just this like rhythm.

If you watch a video of Steph doing his warmup and he's in this rhythm, and it's like just going through and the motion is the same every time. And I wonder, do you find that an enjoyable mental space to be in, or was it a chore to do that, to do an hour or two hours or three hours of shooting?

Dirk Nowitzki: No, I enjoyed it. Obviously, it's what I loved there in my 20s. I mean, I probably didn't even take two weeks off in the whole year. I mean, I played year around almost, whether it was in summer, I played for the national team. I played summer league with the Mavericks after my first two years. So I went from one thing to the next. And I played around the clock, basically, in my early 20s. And it didn't feel like I have to go to work after I go to practice.

I love working on my game. I love shooting. So it was a no brainer for me. And I was fortunate, of course, to find a job that was my hobby, that I love doing. And so, it was not work for me. Once I got to my 30s and sometimes in the summer, I had a little trouble motivating myself all the time to stay in shape in the summers. But in my 20s, I didn't see it as work at all. It was pleasure.

Chris Hayes: So how old are you when you're drafted?

Dirk Nowitzki: I was just 20. And then my first year was a lockout year ’98, ‘99. So once I got drafted, right away, they started locking the players out, and so I didn't have a contract at the time. So I was still able to live in Europe to play for my home team until all the way till January. They didn't barely have any Internet back then, so I got a call and said the season was saved and I'm like, “Oh, no.”

I was hoping they would cancel the whole season, so I didn't have to go. Obviously, I was nervous. And when I saw that the season was saved, I was like, “Oh my god, now it's time to go over there.” So then I packed within two days, I had the show up in Dallas, and my first season was on the way from like February to May. We had like 50 games in like two and a half months. It was insane.

And it was a super hard year for me, all the traveling, getting used to the new place. We didn't have a full training camp. We only had like 10 days of training camp. It was a little bit of a disaster. Looking back at it, it was important for me to get used to everything, but going through was really hard year for me.

Chris Hayes: Yes. I'm curious about the culture shock. I mean, you're just a 20-year-old, you've never lived in the States before, right?

Dirk Nowitzki: I've never lived on my own away from my parents.

Chris Hayes: Right. You're a kid. I mean, you're of legal age, you're 20 years old. So you're moving halfway across the world, across an ocean, new culture, high pressure situation. And also, I'm curious if you would compare this. I mean, there's something universal about basketball, right? I've played basketball, like pickup in other countries and it's always kind of comforting to play pickup game. And I played a pickup game in China, or in Turkey, or in Italy, and then like you always feel comfortable, but there's also something different.

I wonder, American basketball is very psychological warfare. Like, there's a lot of trash talk, intimidation getting inside your head, whether that was the culture of basketball you had before, and so this wasn't new, or was it new and was it a big difference?

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes, it was always new for me. First of all, my English wasn't great. I mean, it had high school English, school English. But going to the locker room or on the court, I mean, I didn't understand that much. It was hard.

Chris Hayes: That must have been really hard and really disorienting.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. And so there was a language barrier there. And then the style of basketball, which is completely different, the guys were stronger, faster. The skill level was on a much different level. So it was hard for me to really get used to it and I always found it very hard for me to play my best. If off the floor, I don't feel a 100% comfortable. And in my first year, I didn't have an apartment. I had a rental car, just couple of months in the lockout year.

So I felt like really, by my second year, when that started, I felt more settled. I had a whole training camp. I had an apartment and a car. And then, slowly, I was starting to feel more integrated into society. I understood a little bit better English. And so, I felt like my second year, I've slowly arrived. But the culture shock was definitely there. I mean, we didn't know the Internet back then. I didn't know what to expect in Dallas. I figured some people were still riding their horses. That's all I remember when I was maybe watching the series Dallas with my parents.

And so, that's what I thought there is. There’s still horses and cowboys. And I got there and I see these massive houses and skyscrapers everywhere, and I was, for sure, culture shocked. And my parents were so far away, so I was very homesick I would say the first year or two, and I had to get over that and find new friends. And I have great teammates with Steve Nash and Michael Finley, still so great friends online today. They really took care of me and took me off the floor. We developed a great relationship. They took me out of the hotels and not just sit around and think of Germany all the time.

Chris Hayes: So those friendships must have been key, right? I mean, a certain point you go from being a kind of quiet foreign kid who can't speak English very well to having some real friendships, which must have been a pretty big transformation just in day-to-day experience of life here.

Dirk Nowitzki: It was huge. Just getting me out of my apartment, going to dinners every night, taking me to movies, just hanging out, or at night, me and Steve used to go back to the gym every off day. We'd go back at night. We’d play horse. We’d play one on one. We’d play shooting games. And I think that was huge for me. He came to Dallas from Phoenix. At that time, he was in league already two years. So we kind of came to Dallas at the same time.

He didn't know anybody. I didn't know anybody. We just formed this great relationship and friendship. And so, we basically did everything together in our six years there in Dallas together. So I was super fortunate and lucky that he was there, and we developed this friendship. And he took me out all the time and I got to meet some of his friends and family, and they took me in as one of theirs.

Chris Hayes: Obviously, there's culture shock. You're in a new place. You don't speak the language. There's also like a very specific culture in the NBA and particularly in the context of America, it is a predominantly African American league. It's people coming from largely and predominantly African American neighborhoods and places around the country.

The locker room is a very like integrated part of America, which is not the case in a lot of places, like the Dallas suburbs, for instance. I mean, this is one of these places in America, which is a very diverse place, where people of different races, but it's a predominantly black space. And I wonder just what your experience of how you sort of thought about it and learned to kind of like navigate it and think about race, as someone coming to this completely from a different place in different context.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. Honestly, I saw everybody the same, that we're the Dallas Mavericks and we're in this locker room together. We're all friends and we're family, and we're trying to win and we're trying to get better. I never really looked at myself as being different or have to represent Germany or this and that. I was just trying to make it and establish myself, and have new friendships and relationship, and make it in a new country, and be open minded and have as many friends and meet new people.

And so, race was never on my mind. I was just one of the fellas and we're in a family and a tight-knit group in the locker room, and we're trying to win games for the Dallas Mavericks and that's how I looked at that.

Chris Hayes: Where is Holger during this period? Is he in Germany or is he --

Dirk Nowitzki: So Holger stayed behind in Germany, but he was still super important for me. I mean, one phone call and he would show up two or three days later. I mean, that's the relationship we had. I struggled a little bit. I couldn't shoot or I miss few shots one night, I'd call him over, “It's tough year, I can’t make a shot. Can you come over?” And he'll be there two or three days later. And that's the kind of guy he was, a mentor. He always showed up when I needed him. And so he was big for me.

I remember my first two years, I was probably on the phone with him almost every day, “This and this, during the game, such and such happen, what do you think, or what should I do?”

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Dirk Nowitzki: And so he --

Chris Hayes: Almost game taped, like going back through.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. He was coaching me from afar, basically, and giving me feedback from the games. And so he was very important, especially early in my career. Obviously, later, I've all experience and I could figure things up on myself more. But at the beginning, he was very vital.

Chris Hayes: So there's kind of three components that I think of when you're talking about athletes at the level that you are and were, right? There's a natural physical gift, right? You're 7 feet tall. You're fairly athletic. You have a natural hand-eye coordination, those things. Then there's the skills, shooting, passing, dribbling, things you train yourself on, understanding and learning the game, defensive positioning.

And then I'm always struck when I listen to interviews with athletes of a world-class caliber, like yourself, the big thing that separates the people that are really, really good and the people who are amazing is a mental aspect, this sort of discipline, determination, calm, finding some inner confidence. Tell me a little bit about that mental journey of cultivating the part of your psyche that allowed you to kind of go to the next level.

Dirk Nowitzki: Well, at the beginning, I was just happy to be there. I was happy to make it and be a part. And then Michael Finley and Steve Nash, I mentioned, they were kind of the team leaders and I could kind of fly under the radar behind them. And then Steve left, went to Phoenix, and Mike Finley left for San Antonio. And then all of a sudden, I was the guy now all of a sudden everybody looked to and it was hard for me. I was not a natural-born leader, super confident, jump on my back, I got this.

I think I had to work for it. And we were one of the first teams that actually had a psych doc on staff, and he was very important to me. And I always say when I speak to younger players now, find yourself somebody you can talk to, can help you out with stuff when you go through a tough time, somebody to talk to, somebody to run something by. I think he was big for me, just working on little things, find your routine, and just be more confident, have a little bit more presence.

It was always hard for me to stand up in front of a team and hold big speeches. First of all, it's not my language. And second of all, it's not my personality. So I have to find my own way. There's not one way to do it for everybody. You have to find your own way, what's your style of leadership? And so, I think I had to grow. I have to grow a lot in that area of how you get the team on the same page, how do you talk to your teammates. And so that was always a challenge for me. I found that part harder than actually playing the game.

But I came a long way and I worked hard at it. And so, it's part of your journey. You can only take it to the next level if you were mentally and physically on your skills and your mindset. And what came easy to me was I always wanted to work hard and always want to be the first one in and the last one out. I always wanted to more lead by example than stand up and hold 45-minute speeches. That was just not my personality. So I think I kind of, over the years, found my way of how I wanted to lead the team, and hopefully, the team took that much about my personality and worked hard.

Chris Hayes: One thing that always strikes me, I think Michael Jordan said this about he missed thousands of shots in his life and in his career. And it just comes with the territory of being at the level that you're at, that you you're going to fail a lot, like you're going to miss shots, turning the ball over in key sequences. You're going to blow a defensive assignment. Teams are going to sometimes come in and just kick your ass, like blow you out of the gym, even as the best player in the world or even playing on the best team in the Western Conference. And I wonder just how you acclimate to that, what mental space you get in to sort of be able to allow yourself to move on from that.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. That's a great question. That took a while too. I took losing very hard. I remember when we lost in the first round after my MVP year. So we won 67 games that year. We're basically the favorites and this was ’07.

Chris Hayes: Is that the Baron Davis Golden State Warriors Team?

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. You know too much. But --

Chris Hayes: That was really something.

Dirk Nowitzki: We had an unbelievable season, we're the heavy favorite,s and we run into Baron Davis, the Golden State Warriors. We have to win out to make the playoffs. I think they were like on a 9-10 game winning streak to get in and we run into that buzzsaw of, well coach of Don Nelson, who was our coach before. So he knew all of our weaknesses and he had a perfect team for them. They were hot. And so we lost in the first round.

We're the first seed at that time to lose in the best of 7 series. So I was embarrassed,, and I felt like I let the franchise down, the fan base. I didn't want to leave my house for weeks. I took that really hard. I wanted to just get away and go home and just be with my family. And that's actually the year the NBA called and said, “There might be a chance you're the MVP. You can't leave yet.” And I'm like, “I don't even want it. I just want to get away. I'm so embarrassed.” And so I actually had to stick around another week or 10 days. And --

Chris Hayes: That's right. I remember they announced it after the loss.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. Because usually it's somewhere in the second round is when the MVP is found --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Dirk Nowitzki: -- because it happened before that the MVP actually lost in the first round. Man, that was a tough time. But I think after a couple of weeks, the initial frustration and disappointment, I think you get over, with the support of your team. And then once a couple of weeks passed by, you have that hunger again, “You know what, this is going to push me. This is going to motivate me. Now, I got to work even harder to become a better player for the next season. And what do I have to add? How do they exploit my weaknesses? Can I get a little better and pulsing up or get better at taking care of mismatches?

And so I think all these disappointments, the final 6, when we lost to Miami, the ’07 loss to Golden State, I think all of these losses pushed me and motivated me to work harder every year and eventually, obviously, make it to the top in 2011. But I always say all these disappointments were really important in my career, even though it was brutal going through it, I'll tell you that. I took losing very hard.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: How much did the game change during your time in it? I mean, the people would talk about it all the time, these two big things of change, right? The very physical low scoring game of the sort of Bulls-Knicks era.

Dirk Nowitzki: The ‘90s, yes, for sure.

Chris Hayes: The Pistons, Bulls, Knicks, those really bruising battles.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Two things happened; the league gets rid of illegal defense, so you can play zone, right? I mean, they have an illegal defense, but it allows more cheating and less one on one. And they start calling hand checking a lot more, which gives the guards a lot more leeway.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes.

Chris Hayes: So you get this opened-up game, basically, higher scoring, more passing, how much did that change the league? And how much did the game change again just over the course of your career? Because it seems to me, as a fan, it's even more different now. I mean, it's strikingly different even from when you were playing at your peak now.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. I mean, that was definitely the start of it all, when the NBA wanted a little more freedom of movement, called more fouls, put the zone in. And that shifted the sport a little bit more back into 5 on 5 basketball.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Dirk Nowitzki: I mean, cutting the movement, pick and roll became vital again. And we went away from just isolating one guy on one wing and he could just dribble the ball 10 times and then somehow shoot the ball. There was just not a lot of movement going on. And so, that play kind of right in my hands because that's how I grew up playing, movement game, passing game. And so, that was the first time it really changed.

And then it just evolved really from year to year. The big were getting better. Everybody was shooting. Now, the 5s are bringing the ball up, putting the guys in their places and in offenses. And then I would say when Steph changed the game, it all went from where he shoots in his range. And now, you have all these guards pulling up from, I don't know, 40 feet. I mean, it's been amazing to watch, just the skill level of everybody coming in and out.

Basically, now, you have to be able to shoot. If you can't shoot, you better have some skill. You're a lot threat, or you have to have some sort of skill level to kind of help the shooters and spread the floor out there. So it's been amazing to watch where the skill level is gone. The last 20 years, the ball hanging from the guards in the shooting range. I think that's something that I could never envision in the early 2000s. So it's been amazing to watch.

Chris Hayes: I'm only struck now watching the game; A, the primacy of the pick and roll. I think you were kind of inflection point because your ability to handle the ball to pick and pop, to shoot as a big man really changed how that pick and roll operated. And then starting early, with you and Nash, that pick and roll was really beautiful to watch. And it gave you so many options because it was like a 7-foot guy who could set a solid screen and then play like a guard, depending on what the defense did.

Now, there's a bunch of players who are doing that now. I mean, that's even become like a part of the league, that kind of thing. But I'm always struck by how complex the defensive schemes are. I mean, as the skill levels get better, the precision that defensive players have to have of where they are, at what moment, how they're shading players seems to me like it's gotten more intense. Because if you're two inches off the mark, then some guy is going to hit a shot from 35 feet on you, where that’s used to not be a concern.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. I mean it's super hard now to guard some of these best players. First of all, you have to basically play with your hands out and they're so good at creating contact and it's a driving kick league now. So you play initial pick and roll then that guard drives or whatever, and then you have all these shooters around the spot up and it's just super hard to guard the pick-and-roll situation. You have a clever guard, and obviously, big who can roll to the lob or even pop. It's almost impossible to guard.

So I think what you do on defenses, you have to mix it up. Some guys put a little zone in. Some guys trap the pick and roll. Some guys go under. Sometimes it switched a lot nowadays, smaller lineups, everybody switches.

Chris Hayes: Lots of switching, yes.

Dirk Nowitzki: Who keeps the guard, or you try to keep the guard in front of you and not have all this chain reaction created by the guard, getting in the lane.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Dirk Nowitzki: So honestly, with great players and with a tough pick-and-roll combination, you just try to mix it up. You can never give somebody the same look all the time. And so, every timeout, you have to pay attention, “Coach switched the coverage again. Okay, now, we're trying this, or now, we'll push them into the baseline. We rotate early to the shooter.” I mean, there's obviously plenty of ways to cover the pick and roll, but you cannot do one steady dose of something against, I guess, a great duel on the pick and roll.

Chris Hayes: Who is the best player you played against?

Dirk Nowitzki: I would say Kobe in his prime. But, I mean, I played against Shaq in his prime. I played against Tim Duncan, who was unguardable on the block, with all his moves. Kobe, though, had that combination of skill level athleticism and the killer instinct. I always tell the story, we played with Kobe in LA one time and he had 63, I'm going to say, two or three quarters. And we as the Mavericks had 62. He outscored the whole team by himself. Just that combination, he was unbelievable. He didn't play the fourth quarter because they were already up 20 at that point, and I was like, “He could have easily had 80 or 90 on us today if he wanted to.”

And then a couple of weeks later, against Serrano where he actually had to play the whole game, he scored 81. So he was on a tare there that I've never seen before. And of course, I miss Jordan in his prime. I played against Jordan when he came back with the Wizards. But the complete package for me was Kobe.

Chris Hayes: Was there a player, not who is the best player, but a player that just had your number or that you really didn't like playing against?

Dirk Nowitzki: I mean, there was a couple of tough defenders on my position. I felt like when I was getting my prime in early 2000s, I mean, on the power four position, if you look around the West, every night, somebody came for you, whether it was Zach Randolph, whether it was KG in Minnesota, whether it was Rasheed Wallace in Portland, Elton brand in LA. I mean, it was just everywhere you went on my position. You had to bring it every night.

So there were some great and fun matchups with Kevin Martin, or Shawn Marion when he was with his Phoenix. We had some great battles with Kevin Garnett, of course, in Minnesota, and later on, when he was in Boston. So there were some great players that came at me and had some great battles with. All of these players really pushed me to become better.

Chris Hayes: When you watch sports, you don't get to that level without being pretty competitive. I mean, you just have to have a certain amount of drive to get there. So you've got a lot of people that are both very competitive and in a very high stakes environment in which there's a lot of money, fame, fortune and honor on the line status, public cheering or jeering. How do you regulate your emotions?

Like, you'll see things get chippy sometimes, hard foul here or there, and yet you know these people are professionals. You know they're competitive, but you know that your adrenaline gets up, you're in fight or flight mode. Like, how much emotional regulation is part of the kind of psychological process of being a player at that level?

Dirk Nowitzki: I'm pretty laidback off the floor. Nothing really gets me to rattle too much. But on the court, sometimes I do get emotional. I was yelling at the rest probably, in my career, way too much. At times, you get into some fans on the road. You get into with some of the players. But that's also the fun of, obviously, sports. Being emotional and emotions is part of the game and you do want to control it as best as you can.

There was an easy shot miss or whatever you come down the mix, it sounded like, “Okay, calm down, what can you do better?” or are you lost it on the referee, I mean, “Okay, now, maybe you didn't see it right. Calm down. Maybe get up” So next time, there's a call, where you go up to him and talk to him in peace and quiet, without all the yelling.

And I think you mature, experience helps. And you still have to find a way to calm yourself down. It might be a timeout, or you’re so rattled before and you come into timeout, you sit, you take a couple of deep breaths. So one of the coaches is talking to you and that calms you down. So I think you have to find your own routine, how to handle your emotions out there because you don't want to let the emotions get the best of you. It's good to have emotions. And again, I almost feel like with some of the referees, we've taken the emotions out too much. So we still want to show emotions, and it's part of the game, but you don't want to let it take over.

Chris Hayes: You played 21 years, if I'm not mistaken, for the same team. It's a record in the NBA. And so, you went through the arc of being a skinny kid from Germany who never lived by himself to being a supreme veteran, right, a decorated guy who had been in the league for 21 years. I mean, when you were on the other side of that equation, right, when you were the mentor, like how much were you a person giving people advice about navigating the league and all the things that you had to kind of figure out when you got here?

Dirk Nowitzki: So I played with Luka, who obviously now is the man in Dallas, Luka Doncic. And my last year was his first year and I understood kind of what he went through, what it takes to come over from Europe, and the English is not great, and you're shy and you don't really want to say much.

And so, I'm glad I was there for him in my last year. And he knew he could ask me anything and I'm trying to help him out. I wanted him to succeed. He’s super special. And he’s got a huge heart. And so, I've been trying to mentor him even now when I'm not in the league anymore. He knows he can call me anytime. We have a lot of friendship going. It went so quick from the German young guy and I'm just trying to make it, and then you stay busy. You play in the NBA, then you play in international bonus summer. Next thing you know, I was like 30 years old. I'm like, “Where did this decade go?”

Chris Hayes: Right?

Dirk Nowitzki: And then next thing you know, you're one of the older guys on the team. So it goes by so fast. And yes, just always with my teammates, I try to approach. I wanted them to feel welcome. I wanted them to know that I don't see myself as a bigger part of the system. I wanted to be one of the guys and I wanted to make everybody feel welcome. And I wanted everybody to know that they can come up to me and we joke a lot. I joked a ton in the locker room and I just wanted to be one of the guys and one of the fellas, and just have fun with my teammates. But they knew, obviously, if there was a question where we needed to talk about something, that they can come up to me at any time.

Chris Hayes: I want to just talk about Luka for a second because he's such a fun and special player. I mean, again, for the people that don't follow basketball, he's probably, I'd say, one of the top five players in the league at this point. Also, a big man, but just psychotically skilled.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Here's my mystery about Luka. We watch him, he gets players on his hip.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Almost better than anyone I've seen, and yet it looks like a magic trick. Like, there are certain players in the league who are so quick. You understand why they're getting people on their hip. He almost moves like he's moving in his own space and pace. Everyone is out of sync with his motion all the time. It's like there's something he's doing at a pace level that I always just find amazing to watch.

Dirk Nowitzki: Well, I think there are a few things. First of all, he is super fast in changing directions. He's not the fastest guy up and down, but from left right, he's got to be one of the fastest guy. So guys feel like they're almost always out of position because he goes one way, then cut him off, and then he's pretty quick going the other way. And then once he has you on the shoulder, on the hip, he's so strong.

Chris Hayes: He's so big. Yes.

Dirk Nowitzki: His legs are like tree trunks. And once he has you there, there's really nothing you can do. Then when you do find a way now to cut him off again, he still has a turnaround the other shoulder, a fade away. So I feel like everything that defense does, he has an answer. His ball-handling is sick also, so he can still cross you. He can go behind the back, between the legs. I mean, everything that defense does, I feel like his skill level is good enough and his athleticism is good enough to have an answer for it.

And then when you do trap him off, some pick-and-roll situations, he's a big guy who jumps in the air. He's got all the passing skills, and he makes you pay that way. So, to me, I'm shocked that he's such a complete package at such a young age. Usually, the basketball IQ or reading the pick-and-roll situation is something that comes with experience and you get better at.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Dirk Nowitzki: This kid has just turned 23, and the way he reads the game, the way he gets his teammates involved, the way he knows, “Okay, now, I need to impose my will. Now, I need to get everybody else touches.” He reads the game like a 30-year-old and that's what's most impressive to me. And his skill level has been a pleasure to watch and get to know a little better. And he's going to be fun for the Mav’s fans for a long time.

Chris Hayes: There's another player I wanted, just to get your thoughts on because people have compared one move, Nikola Jokic, who was the MVP of the league last year, also an incredibly skilled big man. Again, these are not basketball fans who are listening necessarily. You had this very signature move, with your back to the basket that kind of fade away and you shot with the ball very high above your head, almost like Larry Bird, like super, super high.

And because you're 7 feet, it was just very hard for a defender to really challenge. And you would turn over one shoulder and there'd be one foot that would kind of hack you, it's like off one foot.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes.

Chris Hayes: And it was very, very, very signature. I mean, you would play on a playground and a kid would do that move and say, “Dirk. This is Dirk.” Like, it was like very iconic. Jokic does it, but often off the other foot, am I right that it's the other foot, right?

Dirk Nowitzki: I have seen that. He jumps at the right --

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Dirk Nowitzki: -- which I found super hard. I tried it --

Chris Hayes: It’s so weird because --

Dirk Nowitzki: It's so weird.

Chris Hayes: -- it's very unnatural.

Dirk Nowitzki: It's very unnatural. I agree with you. And I've tried it a little bit, for me, it was just super hard. It was always easier to come off the left and I could get my shoulder around, pointing my elbow towards the basket. Yes, I don't know how he does it. But that's part of the fun of the game and the evolution of the game.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Dirk Nowitzki: There's always somebody that come along, that does things better than you, or break your records, and it's fun. I'm happy for these young guys that come over and have an impact on this league and/or change the league, or franchise players. And so, it's fun for me to watch where this next generation of Luka and Jokic, where they end up, or Giannis, where they take the game. And I'm loving and it's fun to watch.

Chris Hayes: One more thing just to stay with this, on that signature Dirk turnaround, how intentional was that?

Dirk Nowitzki: So --

Chris Hayes: Like as a thing you were making.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes. In my 20s, I never really used to shoot that shot much. I kind of just started developing as I got a little older. I lost a step, the grinding or driving, getting hacked and fouled. So I wanted to create a shot that I can use my length and I can still get a decent shot up.

So I didn't start shooting, and more and more, as I gotten into my 30s, as I've gotten a little slower and a little smarter, and I wanted to just find a way to shoot over smaller defenders and without really grinding a lot, so I decided it was good to kind of bump them off a little bit and just lean back. And I was 7-foot tall so I felt like I can shoot that shot over anybody. And then I started shooting more and more in some of these playoff runs, and then people started to talk about it more and more the flamingo shot and whatsoever. I just enjoyed it, and like I said, then I started to practice it a little more. But at the beginning, I tried to create a way, without all the pounding, to get a decent shot off.

Chris Hayes: All right. So final question for you, because you've been very generous with your time and I'll let you go. I know you're doing other stuff around this book, which is really fascinating, by the way. But how old are you now, Dirk?

Dirk Nowitzki: I'm 43. So you and I are exactly the same age. We're looking good for our age. We're looking good.

Chris Hayes: I think we both are. I think you're right. I've been very lucky in my life, I get to do things I really love, like this. I kind of talk for a living and like that's a nice thing. The nice thing about talking and writing, your body doesn't wear out, you get to do it, right? No one comes to me and says, “That's it. You can't talk anymore.” But as a professional athlete, you retire, and then you've got a whole life ahead of you.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes.

Chris Hayes: I mean, how do you think about that? What are the things you want to do? How are you thinking about your life now?

Dirk Nowitzki: It's been great. Honestly, I got to say it's my third season out now. So I've been retired two and a half years, almost three years. It's been fun. We have three little kids. We travel a lot. We have family all over the world. My family is still in Germany, and my wife is half Swedish and half Kenyan. So we have family in Sweden, in Kenya, in Germany.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Dirk Nowitzki: So I want my kids to see or hear different languages, see different cultures. So that's been fun. And that's what I dreamed off, to have more time in my kid's life.

Chris Hayes: That's cool.

Dirk Nowitzki: I think, eventually, I'm going to stick around basketball because it just gave me so much, and it's really one thing that I'm born for and I have a passion for. But as of now, honestly, it's so much fun to be with our little kids and see them every day. And so, I think later on, I'm going to have more time to get back into basketball, whatever role that may be. I mean, obviously, the Mavericks is what makes sense to me and I love them. And we'll have that conversation when the time is right.

But I think, for now, I enjoy the family too much and the traveling and seeing different things, and getting to do stuff that I wasn't able to do during my career. So that's the phase that I'm at. I'm sort of in --

Chris Hayes: That's great.

Dirk Nowitzki: -- in between phase of figuring out what I really want to do and spend a lot of family time.

Chris Hayes: How old are your kids?

Dirk Nowitzki: They're 8, 6, and 5, so that's --

Chris Hayes: Yes. So mine are 10, 8 and 4, so similar.

Dirk Nowitzki: Yes, similar.

Chris Hayes: A similar cluster. Yes, it's pretty great.

Dirk Nowitzki: It's fun.

Chris Hayes: Are they super tall?

Dirk Nowitzki: They're tall. They're tall and they're all into sports already. The boys play some soccer and some tennis.

Chris Hayes: Cool.

Dirk Nowitzki: And our oldest daughter, she did love gymnastics and a little tennis. So we're already driving around every afternoon. There's some activities to drive to. So it's a lot happening already, but I really enjoy it. And now is the time I want to be there for them, of course. And once they get older and they're teenagers, they probably don't want to see me every day, anyways.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Dirk Nowitzki: But now, it's a really fun phase and I enjoy being home.

Chris Hayes: Yes, it is.

Dirk Nowitzki: They enjoy my company. So it's been fun.

Chris Hayes: Dirk Nowitzki, in his native Germany, and Dirk Nowitzki in his current Dallas NBA legend and NBA Ambassador, member of the Top 75 Greatest Players of All Time. He was at NBA All Star Weekend at that great reunion of all those players. They're first time of getting together.

And he's a subject of a new book “The Great Nowitzki: Basketball and the Meaning of Life,” which is by Thomas Pletzinger and is out soon. Dirk, really, I've been a fan for so long. This was such a delight. Thank you very much.

Dirk Nowitzki: I appreciate it. I was surprised you know this much of our basketball. That was amazing. I really enjoyed our conversations, so thanks for having me on it.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Dirk. And a shout-out to Tom Mayer at Norton, who made it happen. Tweet us with the hashtag WITHpod, email Before I do this tag, I'll once again going to say that if you'd like the music here, that music was written by my good dear friend Eddie Cooper and his band Tempers has a new album out that you should check out. If you Google Tempers Music, you can find it.

“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to