At Mumbai’s National Sports Club of India, National Basketball Association’s top dignitaries, celebrities and many prominent figures assembled as India hosted its first-ever NBA game.
Throwing their weight behind the NBA’s attempt to popularise the sport in another new country, former basketball greats and legends too graced the event on Friday.
Towering above all those figures was Detlef Schrempf, the 6’10 feet former star hailing from Germany.
Schrempf, who went on to be a three-time NBA All-Star, was the first German player to reach the NBA Finals and came close to winning the championship with Seattle SuperSonics, falling at the last hurdle.
His height made him an ideal power forward but the German earned a reputation for scoring three-pointers, a skill considered rare for tall players at the time.
Scroll.in caught up with the legend in Mumbai on Friday where he spoke about the growing say of foreigners in the NBA, the diminishing difference between players from a different continents and compatriot Dirk Nowitzki, considered to be one of the best foreign NBA players of all time.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
You are here for the NBA India Games. What’s your take on Indian basketball? Indians aren’t naturally very tall, so if there is, where do you see the potential in Indians to make it big in basketball?
To be honest, I haven’t seen much Indian basketball because India hasn’t played much internationally. I went to the academy here the other night and I think India has some tall kids who are athletic. I think there is potential. They are a ton of people here. Probably we don’t see enough but they are tall and athletic people.
There is a pool of talent somewhere, we just got to tap into it and give them an avenue to have a chance to play. It is very important to have access to a basketball and a court to develop.
They need to have maybe not top-class basketball street but a hoop on the street where they can play. India may be a few years away but there are people that can learn how to play basketball at the best level.
In many countries, especially in the US, sports is a way for a lot of kids to escape where they are from and work their way up to something and provide for their families, provide for themselves and have a career and be socially more acceptable. I think the same is the case for Indian kids.
There are players from various nationalities and continents in the NBA. Can you identify the fundamental difference in the make-up of an American player compared to a European player and an African or Asian player?
The difference now is not as big as it used to be. When I first came into the league, the European players were maybe more fundamentally oriented. They shot well, they passed well but weren’t as athletic. That surely has changed.
The African continent has not had that much impact on basketball apart from the last ten years. They are a bit opposite. They are very athletic but don’t have as strong fundamentals because they don’t really have the concept of basketball. But that’s changed. Now you can’t tell where players are from based on their play because it’s become a global game and coaches from all countries are everywhere.
However, I still think that European players are fundamentally better because they have more time to practice. In the US, it’s restricted to school basketball where you can only teach these kids a few hours a week. So, there is a bit of discrepancy there.
You were one of the first few foreigners to play the NBA and went on to become one of the best overseas stars. How was the experience for you at the time you joined the league?
It was a lot different. Actually, when I came, another German came with me. He didn’t stick around very long. Basically the first year, I did not have much success. I was the first of four-five international players. So, it was different. It was looked upon as a global game and not the United States against the rest. So, it took a couple of years to adjust as players accepted that basketball was going to go global.
What have the foreign players added to the NBA in these past few years?
They have added a lot. If you look at the past few years, the number of players that have won the championships, won the MVP prize, made the All-Star game. Some of the best players in the NBA are from other countries. It’s a global game and it has helped by marketing the game internationally.
Dirk Nowitzki is considered one of the best foreign players in the NBA. Like you, he too hailed from Germany. How much of an impact has he made on German basketball?
It is a lot. But I wish it was more. Germany is a football country and it is really hard to break that because it is simply the most popular sport there.
Basketball has always been kind of back there. It hasn’t changed much even today but we have more talented guys playing than 20-30 years ago. Germany is a pretty tall nation and few of the tall guys feel maybe I should give this a try. I feel there are more opportunities for them now than thirty years ago.
Nowitzki and you are known to break the trend that tall players don’t score or attempt three-pointers. Can you tell us a bit about your ability to find the basket from a distance?
You always got to keep learning. As a player, you have to improve and add something to your game. Other players that come into the league are good and are trying to take your job. So, for me, it was just a progression of developing and becoming a better player.
I used to work on my post-game, work on my left hand, try shooting a three-pointer and becoming a better free-curve shooter. It’s just part of the game. The way I was taught basketball was that everyone has got to learn how to play all positions and be able to dribble and shoot. Just because you are tall, you are not going to stick it in the basket from a short distance. That’s how I was taught basketball.
Nowitzki was one of the few players that stuck to one team in his NBA career. Why do we don’t see players remain in one team as he did for 21 years at Dallas Mavericks?
In the past, we saw a lot of guys stick with one team or be there for long periods of time. They may be used to change at the end of their careers to win a championship. That doesn’t happen anymore. Loyalty on both sides is maybe a bit different because it’s such a big business. I like to see what Dirk did but it’s rare.
The Fiba World Cup took place recently. Why is it that most top American players don’t play in the World Cup?
It’s a long year. I played the Olympics twice and the second time I was thirty. You play eighty-two games, play another ten games in pre-season so you play around a hundred games. The summer time is usually the time to recover especially if you have injuries. So, I can understand if these guys take time off, especially when you get older if you talk of guys that do not play for their country.
Maybe in the US, it doesn’t mean as much as it would in any other country. Maybe not the World Cup, but the Olympics does.
I also understand that when you are thirty and you have kids at home, you are away the whole year and don’t get time to spend with your family.
The NBA season is coming up. What are you expecting from it?
Another season of exciting basketball. What else do we all want?