The NBA's Savior?

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Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (L) drives to the basket against Phoenix Suns forward Tim Thomas in Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference Finals series in Phoenix, Arizona, June 3, 2006.

Let's take a moment to thank the city of Wurzburg, Germany, for improving the lives of so many people around the world. No, this Bavarian hamlet of 130,000 isn't home to BMW, or host of a World Cup soccer match over the next month. But in 1895, a University of Wurzburg physicist named Wilhelm Roentgen discovered a form of electromagnetic radiation called the X ray, helping millions upon millions of sickened, frustrated patients cure what ails them. And over a century later, the city produced a blond, shaggy, 7-foot jump shooter named Dirk Nowitzki, helping countless sickened, frustrated NBA fans find a cure for a game that was fading.

The NBA finals, which tipped off Thursday night with a 90-80 Dallas Mavericks victory over the Miami Heat, have at last regained some glitter. Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs, winners of three out of the last seven NBA titles, is one of the most seasoned, sound players of all time. But let's face it — with his robotic efficiency and off-court drone, he put us to sleep. The Detroit Pistons, 2004 champs and last year's runners-up, played rough, unselfish basketball, but they are more admired than beloved. And then there were those Los Angeles Lakers, three-peat winners from 2000-2002. First, they won too much — nobody likes a ball hog. Then, the whole Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant soap opera wore us out. Shaq says Kobe is selfish. Kobe says Shaq is fat. Let's watch Gilmore Girls instead.

This year's finals feature two fresh teams, each making their first trip to the championship round. Nowitzki's Mavericks won 60 regular season games, and the Heat has O'Neal, vying for one more title, armed with the anti-Kobe, nice-guy superstar Dwyane Wade at his side. And coach Pat Riley, the slick-haired Machiavelli who earlier this season pushed aside the widely respected Stan Van Gundy to chase one more coaching title, on the sideline. Plus, the 2006 finals are riding a strong post-season wave. Both television ratings and scoring are up, and these playoffs have seen nine nail-biting overtime games, the most in post-season history. Dallas-Miami should be a viewer's delight.

No one is more captivating than German import Nowitzki, 27. In one possession, he's likely to dribble down the court and stroke a long three-pointer (remember, he's 7 feet tall; those guys shouldn't shoot from far away). In the next, he'll fly by a smaller defender for a dunk (7-footers shouldn't be quick). His breakout post-season — Nowitzki is averaging 28.4 points and almost 12 rebounds per game, and scored 50 in a key Game 5 win against the Suns in the Western Conference finals — has earned him comparisons to a legend. "The guy he reminds you of is Larry Bird," says Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, who won a title in 1995 with the Houston Rockets. "He can do it all, and he has shown that he can turn it on when it really counts." His shot was subpar in Game 1 — Nowitski scored just 16 points — But he hit two key three pointers in the third quarter to help give Dallas a lead it would never relinquish.

Nowitzki may be the most unlikely star ever to lead his team to an NBA title. In Wurzburg, no hoops hotbed, he should have followed his father into team handball, the sport in which Jorg Nowitzki played for the West German national team. Or toiled in his family's housepainting business. But a member of West Germany's 1972 Olympic basketball team, Holger Geschwindner, discovered the gangly teen in Wurzburg and groomed his raw talent into the first-round draft pick of the Mavericks in 1998.

His first year in the pros was a disaster — the hometown crowd booed him lustily, and his sorry defense earned the nickname "Irk" (no D). He fit the prevailing stereotype of European players — very skilled shooters and passers who shy away from contact. Translation: softer than a Bavarian pretzel. "I was strictly a jump shooter," Nowitzki admits. "When [opponents] took that away, my game was pretty much over." Dallas almost lost him. "He was a choirboy," says Donnie Nelson, president of basketball operations for the Mavericks. "We were afraid that he was struggling so much, he was actually considering going back to Germany." After a summer sweating with Geschwindner back home, Nowitzki nearly doubled his rebounding output the next year, and grew into a perennial All-Star.

Though he's by no means an enforcer, Nowitzki has finally shed the "soft" label, buying into coach Avery Johnson's plan that he both bang down low and bomb threes. And if he leads Dallas to a title, Nowitzki will stamp the European revolution of America's game. The first wave of Euros from the early '90s — Vlade Divac of Serbia, Toni Kukoc and Drazen Petrovic from Croatia — had to earn the begrudging respect of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and the basketball establishment. The next wave — Nowitzki, Peja Stojakovic of Serbia, Pau Gasol of Spain — could play, but still faced the question of whether they could carry a team deep into the playoffs. Nowitzki proves they can. On behalf of American hoops fans: Vielen Dank, Dirk. Many thanks.