Suddenly, a league that's been desperately scouring the U.S. for its identity without Michael Jordan (Ohio high school junior LeBron James was on the cover of the aforementioned sports weekly a few months ago as the next Mike) may have found it in a bevy of European imports that are changing the way the NBA game is played. And so for fulfilling the promise of globalization, Nowitzki is TIME.com's Person of the Week.
Sure, it's only basketball, but even Pat Buchanan would have traded for this guy. Seven feet tall but agile as a guard and armed with a silky shooting touch from all areas of the floor, Nowitzki made his first All-Star team this season at 23, has seemingly eradicated the last traces of basketball prejudice against European imports that they were too soft to play the NBA's hard-knocks style, that they'd fade away at crunch time, that a lanky finesse players from places like Wurtzburg, Germany were never going to make an impact over the American game.
It's not only Nowitzki. The Mavericks, perennial losers in recent years, have turned success story with a veritable UN of hoopsters assembled by deep-pocketed new owner Mark Cuban. Point guard Steve Nash, acquired in 1998 along with Nowitzki, is a Canadian citizen born in South Africa, center Wang Zhizhi known as the Slinging Beijingian is Chinese, and rounding out the roster is Eduardo Najera, from Mexico, and Tariq Abdul-Wahad from France.
And it's not only the Mavericks. Since the early '90s, when standouts like Drazen Petrovic and Sarunas Marciulionis showed that foreigners who weren't named Olajuwon could still play ball with the big boys, the NBA has eagerly gone global. In the next round of the playoffs the Mavericks will square off against the Yugoslavian stars of the Sacramento Kings, Predrag Stojakovic and Vlade Divac. Elsewhere, one of the league's most promising wunderkinds is the San Antonio Spurs'19-year-old Tony Parker, hailing from Belgium.
Dallas owner Cuban (alas, he's not) explained his international tastes to Sports Illustrated thusly: "Having players that are national heroes adds quite a bit to the team," he said. "Having a whole country counting on you to represent them and win is a whole lot more pressure than an NBA playoff game."
Then there's the simple matter of winning the NBA has learned, like Major League Baseball did decades ago, that there's no place too distant to scout for talent. Wednesday a phalanx of NBA executives, desperate to find someone anyone to match up with Shaquille O'Neal, gathered at a small gymnasium in Chicago to evaluate another young 7-footer with surprising agility and a soft touch 7' 5" Chinese national treasure Yao Ming, whose long-anticipated journey to the NBA has been complicated by, among other things, the China-U.S. spy-plane standoff in 2001. (Thus does globalization overcome borders.)
Nowitzki's performance this year has vaulted him past the late Petrovic as the NBA's best-ever European import. But the Bavarian Bomber is fast becoming one of the NBA's best players, period. Maybe even a little like Mike.