Meet the German Coach Who Helped Turn Dirk Nowitzki Into an Average Student

Dirk Nowitzki played tennis, handball and basketball and had some problems in school. His former coach Klaus Perneker tutored him through the chemistry performance class and still has some anecdotes to tell.
January 18, 2017, 4:58pm
Foto: Imago

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Germany.

When most people think of Dirk Nowitzki's German coach, the name Holger Geschwindner comes to mind. He was Nowitzki's primary individual coach and mentor. However, Nowitzki's coach at his last team in Germany—s. Oliver Baskets Würzburg—was Klaus Perneker, who now teaches chemistry and biology in high school. Perneker is currently teaching at Röntgen-Gymnasiumin Würzburg, where he, as a student-teacher, got to know Novitzki—and where he tutored him in chemistry as well as basketball. We wanted to know what the young Dirk Nowitzki was like as a student.

VICE Sports: How did you get to know Dirk Nowitzki?
Klaus Perneker: This is a funny story. I was then a trainee at the Röntgen-Gymnasium in the fields of biology and chemistry. As a trainee, there were hours of internships, which are done in the first weeks. I was then sitting in on a tenth grade class in which Dirk sat. He asked a question in my first lesson. This was a funny image, because the teacher was a maximum of 5'6" and there was Dirk, 6'8", at the blackboard. The question was not important, but it looked pretty funny.

How was Nowitzki generally in school?
He was a classic teenager. But to his defense one must say that he played a variety of sports. He suffered because his life was not so structured. He played tennis, handball and basketball.

"@si_vault: I may have posted this before but if not, here's Dirk Nowitzki, 12, playing tennis in Wuerzburg, Germany:" — Josh Robertson (@jrobertson53) April 5, 2012

When did you notice a change?

There was a noticeable difference when he meet Holger Geschwindner and received the personal structure from him. Previously, he was more of a below-average student and had serious problems in several subjects in the eleventh grade. I helped him in chemistry and also brought him through the chemistry performance course at the advanced level. In mathematics he was helped by Holger, who was also a great mentor.

So was his Abitur [a German high school final exam needed for university] a credit to you and Holger?

In the end I would say that the professional attitude he brought to the Abitur helped him. His concentration and the hard work is something he got from school.

Dirk Nowitzki at his parents' house in Wurzburg, Germany. (1996)
— Rare NBA Photos (@rareNBAphotos) July 4, 2016

When did you notice that Dirk was an exceptional sportsman?

In addition to the normal equipment, we added some rowing equipment to the weight room. Then we went with the Munich sailing and rowing club to Lake Tegernsee. We all sat in the row boats, and you know, if you have ever tried rowing, you always land in the water your first time out. That was no different with us. The only exception was Dirk, who sat with his wide frame in the boat and rowed as if he had done it his entire life. An important thing about the trip: At that time we were very careful that our players were not spoiled. That's why we really lived in the rowing club's rooms. We slept on wooden bunk beds. Luxury was not an issue, it was about becoming better sportsmen.

Do you think the trips contributed to his mentality as a team player?

I believe that it helped to internalize down-to-earth teamwork. There were other basketball players there: Robert Garrett, Desmond Green, really the whole national team at the time. The time with the guys was a beautiful life experience that no one can take away.

Klaus Perneker 1999 in Würzburg

How did the three of you get together, Dirk, Holger, and you? You weren't just helpful in sports but also in school.
I had known the Holger for a long time. This is also a funny story. In the vicinity of Bamberg, there is a quattroball tournament where you can play the four big ball sports. We both played in the "Barney Geröllheimer" team, which consisted almost exclusively of first- and second-league basketball players, and Holger was always our special guest, who also mastered all four sports and was a model for us. With Dirk, I was first the co- and then the team-trainer, while Holger was more of the individual trainer. For me it was a lifetime event to be able to work with the two of them, whether in sports or just as a person. I think we complemented one another really well.

To close the circle: Do you know how Dirk and Holger got to know each other?
Holger saw Dirk play as a youth in Schweinfurt, and afterword he got on the court and worked with him. That he was then able to develop Dirk, a story that is now famous, was, in my opinion, down to the merits of Holger Geschwindner. On the one hand, because of the structure he gave to Dirk, and on the other hand because he should Dirk how to realize his potential. But that one day he was voted the best player in the world, that was unexpected—although he was already extraordinary when he played for Würzburg.

Did the whole story really start with the Nike Hoop Summit?
Even before that, when other BBL and NBA coaches called to find out whether Dirk really was so good. We had, for example, a tournament in the Netherlands where scouts were watching from the Philadelphia 76ers. We played against the U22 national team of the Netherlands, and Dirk scored the Würzburg Select Team's first 28 points by himself. The opponents always knew what was coming but could not prevent it. The viewers were naturally amazed. We won the tournament, and afterward Dirk Nowitzki was already a real name. The Hoop Summit helped, of course, but you knew beforehand that he could do things that others could not manage. He was never the great athlete, but always had the feeling and the coordination for the sport.

There was much written about the circumstances of the second Summit. Among other things, that Dirk had abandoned Würzburg after relegation.
Yes, I did not know until afterwards, but quite seriously: from my point of view it was a single gift that Dirk had not gone two or three years earlier. He already had offers from Alba Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen on the table, in which he would have earned twenty-fold or more [than what he earned in Würzburg]. For this reason, he had full backing from everyone in the team and from the coaching staff, even if this is shown differently in hindsight. I can't criticize him for it.

That Nowitzki is a loyal player has not changed to this day. He could have left Dallas, too, for a lucrative deal.

That's why it felt good in my heart when the Mavericks won the championship against Miami. The Heat players provoked him before the finals. Because of the loyalty, Dallas's victory was possible. He is still grounded today.

How did you experience the playoffs from Germany?
We did a great job at school. During the playoffs I offered to follow the games live in the computer rooms. Then we all wore white shirts the next day if they won and black if they lost. In the end, we were so many that we watched in the Röntgen-Gymnasium cafeteria.

And when did you see him the last time?
We both are quite busy, but we met the last time about two years ago in a Greek restaurant. We had a lot to talk about. We value each other totally and although our paths don't cross professionally, the contact has never been lost. But I also know that in Dirk I always have a person who would help me out at any time.