Tell Me When It's Over is an interview series in which we ask former athletes about the moment they knew their playing days were over. Today: Uwe Blab, the 7-foot German import who manned the pivot for the Indiana Hoosiers in the early 1980s.
On March 24, 1984, two days before his 22nd birthday, Blab went 5 for 7 from the floor and scored 16 points to help his Indiana Hoosiers knock out top-seeded North Carolina, a team that featured no less than nine McDonald's All-Americans (Buzz Peterson, Michael Jordan, Joe Wolf, Matt Doherty, Brad Daugherty, Kenny Smith, Dave Popson, Curtis Hunter, and Sam Perkins), in the Sweet 16.
Blab—whose brother, Olaf, played collegiately at Illinois—was the No. 17 overall selection in the 1985 draft. He played five seasons in the NBA with Dallas, Golden State, and San Antonio, and he played on two German Olympic teams. Blab finished his professional basketball career in Berlin.
In January, 2010, Uwe Blab's 19-year-old Chris died after hitting his head during an altercation at a San Marcos, Texas, apartment complex. A basketball court will be built at Blue Hole Regional Park in his honor.
Blab turns 50 today and works outside of Austin, Texas, as a computer software developer.
* * *
I had no basketball dreams.
When I was 13 years old, we had a movie night at the school, and they showed this movie, and in this movie they had these kids. There was this sport where these people threw a basketball into this rim. And the movie was called, I think, Flubber or Flubbie or something like that [Editor's note: The Absent-Minded Professor, starring Fred MacMurray], where they put that stuff on the bottom of your feet and you can jump real high. And I was like, What the heck sport is that?
I don't know why I remember this particular movie, but it just gives you an idea of how much I knew about basketball.
I was officially introduced to basketball when my sister, who's also very tall—she's three years older— started playing basketball around that time. And she introduced me to basketball, because I was so tall. Actually two years later. Bottom line is I started playing ball when I was 15, and it was strictly because of my size.
I played basketball, like I said, very sparingly. When I was 17 I was playing for a club in Munich and my then soon-to-become American father and his son, who played on a team that was traveling in Europe playing some basketball, they played against my team. I wasn't able to play. I was injured. We go to a bar afterwards. That's what you do in Germany, you know. That's why you play basketball: You go and drink beers. And so we go and they joined us. I mean, not that they drank beer, but there's good food there, that kind of stuff. It's not a bar, really. It's a pub, like in England. And so my American father comes up to me and asks me would I like to come to America and be there for a year, and I immediately knew: Yes, that's the way to go. My parents did, too. Keep in mind: no basketball in mind whatsoever at this point.
I knew nothing. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? What kind of name is that?
* * *
I wanted to go to a college with a good education, so I went to visit Duke. That was Krzyzewski's second year there. You know, they're just coming out of the woodwork, basically. I loved Duke. And I actually committed to Duke. My American father, though, was a big Illinois fan and a big basketball fan. He really wanted me closer, and he was highly concerned about Krzyzewski. You know, no credentials. I mean, what is that school Duke down there? So he asked me to reconsider and look at some other colleges. I looked at one more college, because it was close by, and that was Indiana. And I knew nothing. I did not know Bobby Knight from, you know … I knew nothing. I went to visit. I liked them just as much as Duke, and said, "All right. Let's go to Indiana."
The only regret I have in regard to basketball is that my heart wasn't into it. Put it this way: After my second year in the pros—I was with the Mavericks—we got a new coach. And that's always a great opportunity for players. I was a bench player. And there was another center, Bill Wennington, who was also a bench player. And in the pros, well, in sports—no; what am I saying?—in life, the only way to move forward is to work your butt off. So that summer I worked my butt off. And the next year, I was the backup center and Bill Wennington was not.
The following year, the summer of '88, I got married, and I spent quite some time with my wife over in Europe. We got married here, then we went to Greece for a honeymoon, then we went to Germany because my parents couldn't come to America for the wedding. And, you know, you can imagine, my workout habit was not very good during that time. And if there's anything I regret, it's that. Not necessarily because I could've extended my career, but I could've accomplished more in the NBA.
You know, life has given me pretty much nothing but lucky strokes, with some serious exceptions. And this one was just not quite as lucky as it could have been, meaning my wife and I could've decided to get married in, you know, '89 versus '88. And it would've made a big difference because that year, that summer was the summer before my last contract year with the Mavericks. And that year then, in '88-'89, I did not play much for the Mavericks, and they released me afterwards. I played for another team after that, but if I could've stayed with the Mavericks in this backup role, I think that would've been a bigger accomplishment than what I did achieve in the NBA.
It's a beautiful life. You go to all these different towns. You get to travel. I played on two German Olympic teams. Traveled the world with them. Was hanging out with great guys. Basketball players are great guys to hang out with. It is exceptionally good money. I mean [laughs], who would say no to that? Obviously I don't and I never did and I never would have, but ultimately, when it comes right down to it, basketball never felt 100 percent right to me. My heart was never 100 percent in it. Which is what limited my career.
Keep this in mind: Even though I said basketball wasn't my ultimate dream, I have incredible memories with basketball. And it was an incredibly awesome life. And I'm so blessed to have been able to do it.
* * *
For me, I made all my decisions on sheer instinct, and I knew immediately they were right. Like when I met my wife.
The night I met my wife, in a bar, I was in Dallas. I'd just gotten drafted. I was there for maybe two or three weeks already, had an apartment, was getting ready for training camp. And it was in a bar—it was 11 o'clock at night when I met her. Two o'clock, you know, we went to breakfast or something, then I went to my apartment, but I wrote my mother that I met the woman that I would marry tonight.
I was playing for Berlin my final year. I was playing with my brother. My brother was on the team. He was the backup center. We had a great time. What an incredible year. We were always roommates. I mean, of course, we also beat up each other in practice [laughs], and we had appropriate fights over it, but you understand my point.
Anyway, the team was a very, very good team, but we lost in the first round of the playoffs. That game itself wasn't so much it. It was pretty much—it had been brewing. I just didn't know it. But I remember standing in the shower with my brother, and I actually, when I looked at him, I actually cried a little bit. Because I told him, "That is the last basketball game I will ever play."
I was done.
That summer the German team had recruited me incredibly heavily to play for them, because the European championships were in Germany. At the same time, the Berlin team was recruiting me very heavily to come back to them—my contract had expired—and so we were talking money. And I remember being at my buddy's house. I was over in Dallas at my friend's house. The negotiations were always over the phone, and we talked, money and all that kind of stuff. And my buddy is a really good friend of mine so he knew everything, and I could talk numbers with him, so I told him, "All right, I'm going to give Berlin a number that they will not accept, and I'm going to stick to it."
You may wonder, Why didn't I just tell them, "I'm done"? I don't know why I just didn't tell them, "I'm done." That's a good question. That would be a good question. It's a question that just occurred to me. The bottom line is, I remember I gave them that number, and then six hours later they called me back and they made a counter offer, and they got pretty close to my number, and I hung up the phone and I told my buddy, "Goddamn, I think they're going to frickin' accept. What am I going to do?"
If I tell you I want 10 bucks for something, and you come back and say, "All right, give it to me. Here's the 10 bucks," it's not my personality to then say: "All right. You can't have it. Sorry, I was kidding."
For me, playing in Europe was actually a lot of fun. It wasn't the ultimate accomplishment, and, like I said, I regret not making the most of my NBA career during the summer of '88, but that's about the only regret. Because playing in Europe actually was really good for me. I was a European player, so I was not counted as one of the foreigners—they have a limit of foreigners on the team—and I was a major player, meaning I was not a role player. That's a totally different experience. Obviously when I was in high school and in college, I was a major player, not a role player. In the NBA, given my skills, I think, at the most, I would've always been a role player.
* * *
You know, I've been really fortunate in life. I was always interested in computers. I mean, when I played for the Mavericks, I was working for Texas Instruments at the same time as a COBOL programmer. That's what I wanted to do. That's what I enjoyed. So, you know, that's lucky.
Additionally what I was lucky about is, I had money. Here I am, I have two children, a wife, and essentially no job, because I just quit basketball. But, at the same time, I've got money. So I took the year off. I came over to America. We traveled America, my wife and I, and figured out where we wanted to live. You know, it had to be a high-tech town, for computers, but at the same time a good family town. And so, we just took our time and picked a place. How fortunate can anybody be to be in that position?
Like I said, with some exceptions, I have been very fortunate.
Last year Rob Trucks interviewed current and former D-I basketball coaches Jay Wright, Mike Adras, Charles E. Ramsey, Murry Bartow, and Kevin Stallings as part of his oral history of 49-year-olds. His other work for Deadspin includes interviews with former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk and the late Dave Duerson, and an oral history of Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton's time in Tuscaloosa. You may e-mail him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @tusktusktusk.
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Top photos courtesy Sports Illustrated (left) and the Indianapolis Star (right).