DÜLMEN, Germany – One of the very, very few places to watch NBA basketball in the German city of Dülmen – or any neighboring city – is a bar called Wohlfühln, owned by a pair of German guys who care too much about American basketball. Last night, they were more busy than usual.
I'm originally from the U.S. but ended but up here, in the western state of North Rhine-Westfalia, because of my girlfriend's friend's wedding. I've been burned more than once by shoddy online streams, so I figured it was best to watch the game at a bar. There weren't a lot of options, so Wohlfühln it was. (My girlfriend mercifully accepted my invitation to act as translator.)
Their basketball-watching parties are usually more like private showings, desolate gatherings comprised wholly of friends and other oddballs. But by virtue of Dirk Nowitzki's presence, Game 6 of the NBA Finals was the biggest basketball event in the history of Germany. As such, last night's game – this morning's game, really – was the closest thing basketball has ever had to mass appeal in Germany.
For one night, Wohlfühln, which is about 240 miles from Nowitzki's hometown of Würzburg, could have been mistaken for a typical American sports bar. Flat screens glowed from all corners, Mike Breen's voice wafted through the speakers. Nowitzki jerseys dotted the crowd, and guys talked lustfully about the Heat cheerleaders. It was, for Wohlfühln, pandemonium.
"I don't think a lot people really care about basketball," says the owner, a 30-something guy named Oliver. "Basketball is not very famous in Germany. But because of Dirk, people care."
Or at least it seemed that way. During a Heat run, someone shouted, "Fuck you, Miami!" When the Mavericks scored the joint erupted — even if Dirk wasn't the scorer. And at the bar a pair of St. Pauli Girl-blonds wearing Nowitzki jerseys sipped oversized German beers.
Oliver, who bounced around all night wearing a Nowitzki's Mavs jersey plus long baggy shorts and high-tops, has shown every NBA playoff game this year. There have been an average of about 10 viewers. The six-hour time difference between the U.S. and Germany doesn't help – Game 6 tipped off at 2 a.m here – but more than that is the country's longstanding disinterest in basketball, which is at best a second-tier sport, probably about as popular as handball. And just like the rest of Europe, all other sports take a backseat to soccer. But Dirk brought everyone out tonight.
"Of course this is a big deal because Nowitzki is the first German in the NBA," says a patron named Benjamin. (This at best a half-truth – Shawn Bradley and Detlef Schrempf are a few of the Germans who preceded Nowitzki, even if no one in Germany noticed.) "With Dirk in the Finals basketball is more important than it has been. We've had other sports get popular for short periods – poker, tennis. But this is even more popular because of Dirk."
Yesterday morning's Finals game revealed why Germans have been slow to embrace this sport: they keep comparing it to soccer. Accustomed to commercial-free broadcasts, every ad was met with groans, prompting one patron to say, "There is more ‘whoa' in my glass of beer than in this game," which may or may not be German sarcasm. And toward the end of the night, as Miami lobbed brick after brick at the basket, the guys at my table debated whether or not it is more difficult to make a shot in basketball or get a goal in soccer.
But the crowd were raucous for the entirety of the fourth quarter, and there was earnest jubilation in the waning moments (and some confusion when Nowitzki scurried off to the locker room before the final horn had stopped ringing).
If basketball ever overtakes handball here, Dirk's 2011 championship will be why. "When Dirk will be champion," Oliver told me at halftime, "basketball will be big in Germany."
As the sun rose during the ride home from the bar, the German radio broadcast told listeners that, indeed, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks had won the NBA Finals. But only after they reported Sunday's Formula 1 results. Progress.